Baptism as an act of defiance. (Matthew 3: 13-17)

 

I was baptized as an infant – not an unusual practice in the ‘60’s.

I was brought to the congregation by my parents,

Who were marginally members

of the congregation of my father’s childhood.

Vows were made, water was added,

and I was ‘welcomed into the family of God;

Pretty standard stuff.

Baptism for the church (as we know it) has always been the sacrament of welcome.

It is the mark of belonging;

a rite of passage,

that marks a change in our relationship with God

and the people of God.

But for Jesus, it was different

The practice of Baptism is not unique to John –

it has been part of Jewish rituals of purification –

but John is suggesting that his Baptism (all baptism)

is a life changing event.

It marks the start of something, that’s for sure,

But it is not a sign of welcome or membership –

it is the sign of setting apart.

John offers Baptism as an act of defiance.

John’s voice might have been ignored –

all kinds of teachers attracted all manner of crowds in those days.

John might have been dismissed

as just another strange voice from the edge of the desert,

but he dared to address the few

who thought they knew what righteousness was;

the Pharisees and Sadducees who studied and interpreted the Scriptures.

John had the nerve to suggest that they should get their act together – that they too need to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

John played a dangerous game,

and Jesus comes from Galilee to be baptized –

ready to take his place in the game.

This is not baptism as we know it –

no frilly, family photo-op with everyone in their finest;

John holds court on the muddy bank of a minor river

on the edge of the Judean wilderness.

Pilgrims have travelled, and gathered, and listened,

and been convinced of their need to repent.

It is a noisy, smelly, dirty scene described by Matthew’s gospel.

There is tension and challenge in the air,

but there is also the promise of hope

that is sometimes heard in a prophetic voice.

And with these seekers, to this dangerous, dusty place,

comes Jesus of Nazareth.

You may well ask why?

Why does Jesus, of all people, need to attend to this particular ritual?

John asks that very question, and Jesus answer is…evasive;

“let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way

to fulfill all righteousness.”

And whatever meaning we attach to Jesus’ statement,

we are sure of Jesus determination to be baptized –

to offer himself as a man changed by this encounter in the water –

to be ready for the “…kingdom come near.”

Our modern notions of baptism are, as I have suggested,

not nearly so radical.

Oh, we will scratch our heads and offer our arguments

for and against Baptism for certain people,

or in this way or that,

but this Sacrament of the church has (unfortunately)

become the least sacred of our rituals.

Radical it is not!

So on the day that we recognize Jesus Baptism

as another in the countless ways he experienced humanity,

we are forced to see the radical roots of this act of faith.

Our baptism liturgy reminds us that we are linked to Christ in Baptism – joined to the body of Christ (that is, the Church),

which confirms the defiant nature of this ritual;

for in joining ourselves to the faithful –

by recognizing the nearness of the kingdom of God,

we are asked to see ourselves re-created, repentant,

and renewed, as God’s beloved.

Matthew’s gospel offers an astonishing conclusion

to the tale of Jesus baptism.

As he emerges from the water,

the Spirit is seen descending on his,

and a voice is heard,

proclaiming blessing and delight in Jesus as “beloved Son” –

signs to the gathered crowd

that underline John’s claims about the nearness of the kingdom.

While I have never heard voices,

nor seen the Spirit descend like a dove,

I am always moved by the liturgy,

and the act of Baptizing,

to recognize that we are part of a larger story

than the one we tell about ourselves.

We are asked (in Baptism) to devote ourselves

to the pursuit of justice, mercy and love

in the name of Christ, after the pattern of God.

We are urged to teach one another the way of Christ;

to live in the knowledge of God;

to engage in Christ’s mission to the world.

To do this is to defy the “normal” order of things –

to work in community rather than fierce independence;

to share burdens and joys, to encourage the down-trodden,

to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

We don’t often think about these things in terms of our Baptism,

but Jesus deference to John

suggests that there is something more than tradition and ritual

at work in this simple Sacrament.

There is a power present in our Baptism that cannot be controlled.  This power shows itself in the persistence of the Church of Jesus Christ,

in spite of centuries of persecution, outrage,

ignorance and misdirection.

This power sustains the unsustainable,

gives strength to exhausted servants –

this power brings the dead to life.

It is to this power that we have been joined in Baptism.

The power of God in Jesus Christ sustains our faith,

and it will change our lives, if we let it.

Are you ready to defy the status quo?

Are you prepared to say yes to the kingdom of God?

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