Epiphany 2 • 15 Jan 2017

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-17
John 1:29-42

Rev. Chris Udy

You’d have to admit
that if John the Baptist
was in business or politics today
he wouldn’t survive very long.
This man doesn’t understand
the importance of an expense account.
He doesn’t know how important it is
to be seen with the right people,
and in the right places.
When it came to exposing rorts and entitlements
John even criticised the king,
and completely lost his head.
John makes no concessions to appearances.
Instead of dressing in designer labels
and drinking an appropriate modification of café latte,
John wears camel hair and eats insects.
When he launches his first recruitment campaign
he threatens and abuses his would-be followers:
he calls them the children of snakes,
and promises them hellfire and destruction.
When people want to join his party,
he tells them to give away their food and clothing,
and dumps them in some muddy hole
along the Jordan river.
And then - after making it as difficult as possible
to sign up with him,
John does nothing
to maintain his supporters’ loyalty -
in fact, when an alternate provider comes along,
John urges people to leave him
and go with the competition.

John’s an awkward and unattractive man.
He’s abrasive, impulsive, uncultured and tactless -
but every year we spend at least two Sundays
reading about him,
and every time we baptise,
we continue the tradition John began.

It’s helpful to remember
that there are only 3 passages in the Gospels
where Jesus and baptism are associated.
The first is at his own baptism,
which we read about last week.
The next is part of a conversation
between Jesus
and the sons of Zebedee, James and John.
As we mentioned a few weeks ago,
James and John had asked
for special status in the Kingdom,
and as part of his reply,
Jesus said
“Can you drink the cup that I drink,
or be baptised
with the baptism I’m baptised with?”
And the third passage
is from the end of Matthew’s gospel,
where Jesus gives the disciples
the Great Commission:
“Go and make disciples of all nations,
baptising them in the name of the Father
and of the Son, and of the Holy spirit.

When we look at those 3 passages together
it’s clear that while baptism
is essentially significant to Jesus,
and that he sees his life and death
as a kind of baptism,
and that he wants his followers and disciples
to be baptised because it is so significant,
the baptism Jesus is encouraging
is John’s baptism,
and it’s John’s meaning and John’s symbolism
that Christians have been exploring
and fighting over ever since.

So it’s worth taking a close look
at what John was doing -
even at the risk of going over some old ground.

John was a radical preacher -
that means he wanted to take things back -
to get down to the roots -
to find the heart and core of the life of faith.
He was sure that life and faith for many people
had become too complicated and complex –
too compromised and sophisticated,
and in their compromises and complications
they’d broken trust with each other and with God.
In fact, according to John,
by cheating, lying, and defrauding each other,
ignoring God’s call to justice and righteousness
the people of Israel
had lost their most fundamental
and most significant connection.
They were no longer children of Abraham:
they could no longer claim
to be inheritors of the covenant
between Abraham and God.
The way they treated each other
revealed that they were really just like gentiles -
aliens, and strangers to God.
They had no place in the family of faith,
and if they wanted to be numbered
among God’s people,
they would have to do
what all aliens and strangers were required to do
it they wanted to be belong -
they would have to be initiated and received
as new members of Abraham’s family.

For a long time,
people who had wanted to join the nation of Israel -
people who had wanted to be Jewish -
were initiated into a ceremonial journey,
the cycle of fasts and feasts
that follow the journey of God’s people
on the way to the promised land:
Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles,
Yom Kippur, Chanukah …
For those who wanted to join the nation of Israel
that symbolic journey came to its fulfilment
beside a river.
After they’d escaped through the Red Sea
from slavery in Egypt,
then wandered in the desert for 2 generations -
when they finally came into the promised land
by crossing over the river Jordan.
When they stepped out of the Jordan river
onto the land beyond,
they were no longer aliens and strangers -
they were home -
they had joined the family of Abraham,
and they inherited the promises
of the covenant God had made with Abraham.

So - when Gentiles wanted to become Jews
they were taken to a river -
preferably the Jordan river -
and baptised -
and when they stepped from the river
they were no longer aliens and strangers,
they were home -
they were part of the family.

John told his listeners
that they could no longer call themselves
Children of Abraham -
he told them they could no longer rely
on their genetic inheritance,
their tribal allegiances,
or their political and religious traditions -
they were aliens and strangers to God -
and if they wanted to belong among God’s people
they would need to be baptised and begin again.

When Jesus was baptised
he was responding
to John’s invitation and encouragement.
He was doing what hundreds, maybe thousands
of other people were doing
in response to John’s teaching.

But when Jesus was baptised
something extra happened.

As we heard in our lectionary readings last week,
when Jesus was coming out of the water,
as he was about to step into the promised land
and claim the promises of Abraham’s family,
something very significant happened.

He heard a voice,
and he saw something come down on him like a bird -
and in that voice and that vision
he understood
that he was not only part of Abraham’s family,
he was part of the family of God.
The voice he heard said
“This is my Son,
my much-loved Son -
with whom I am well pleased.” -
and the vision of the Holy Spirit
was his call to service and witness -
it was his authority to speak a word from God.

That’s the baptism Jesus experienced -
that’s the baptism
he wanted his disciples and followers to share,
and it’s the baptism
we celebrate for every person
who’s welcomed into the community of faith.

In our baptism
the community of faith recognised and affirmed
that we belong among them.
We are not aliens or strangers to God,
we have a place among his folk.
We are God’s children -
much-loved daughters and sons,
and God is delighted in us.
We are also commissioned -
called to hear God’s word and to proclaim his praise.

Our baptism builds
on the foundation of John’s baptism,
it unites us with Jesus in his baptism,
and it commissions us
as part of God’s work of healing.

This is an essential understanding –
it goes to the heart and core of who we are -
and that might be why
baptism has always - even with John -
generated enormous contention and heat.

From the beginning
Christians had robust debates
about what baptism did and didn’t achieve or signify.
Today we’re still caught up
in the contention between the baby sprinklers
and the adult immerses,
between the ecumenical traditionalists
who say there’s only one baptism,
and once done, it’s unrepeatable,
and the exclusive fundamentalists
who say it doesn’t count until they do it;
and between the symbolic liberals
who say it’s really just a ceremony
that describes a deeper reality -
and the High-Church sacramentalists
who say that baptism is literally and effectively
the way into heaven - and the only way into heaven.
All those discussions are still going on -
and they probably will until we’re all called home,
but for today it’s good to recognise
the contribution of John the Baptist
to our understanding of what baptism means.

John never became a disciple of Jesus.
He was never a Christian -
we don’t even know if he was even baptised himself –
although it looks like he spent
a long time in the water.
We do know that a few months later,
when he was in prison,
just before he was beheaded
for criticising the King,
and as he was wondering
about what might happen next,
John sent some disciples to Jesus
asking whether Jesus would continue and fulfil
the work John had begun;
and we also know
that many, maybe even most,
of the early followers of Jesus
had been disciples of John
and had been baptised by him.

In today’s Gospel reading
we heard about John’s testimony to Jesus -
his witness to Jesus as the Son of God.
We heard that John pointed Jesus out to Andrew
as the Lamb of God -
and that Andrew left John to follow Jesus,
taking his brother Peter with him.

It can’t have been easy for John
to see his influence and leadership
change and diminish.
It can’t have been easy for him
to hear the way Jesus described the Kingdom of God,
or to see that Jesus was a very different messiah
from the model John had imagined.

But as far as we know,
John never challenged
or criticised what Jesus went on to do or say.
He lived with his own disappointments and doubts
and he died without any proof or certainty
that his concerns were groundless.
As far as we know,
and as long as he lived,
John encouraged people to follow Jesus
as the one who would lead his people
to the fulfilment of God’s promises,
and he never withdrew his support or endorsement.

We might not see ourselves
as disciples John the Baptist,
or take his life as the template for ours -
but together we do celebrate Baptism as he did,
and we claim God’s love and blessing
for each person we receive - as he did.
So we also need to honour his example
for what happens next,
and as we see people grow into their own faith,
and as they begin to bring
their own understanding and leadership
and gifts and witness to God’s purpose,
we also need to encourage them,
give them our trust support -
even when, perhaps, they make decisions
and take directions we don’t understand.

John the Baptist may not have ended his life’s work
surrounded by signs of achievement
or mourned by crowds of disciples,
but every baptised Christian
shares his heritage and owes him gratitude.
May we also be as affirming and supportive
to those we bless and welcome in God’s name
as John was to all those
that he baptised. Amen