Sermon given at Matins on the Baptism of Christ 2014

12 January 2014 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret's

There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.

This time last year I had the great privilege of travelling for the first time to the State of Israel. As part of a study tour with the Council for Christians and Jews, the national inter-faith body, it was a wonderful opportunity to visit sites sacred to both Christians and Jews, and to spend time meeting Israelis and Palestinians in a variety of settings.

Almost to the day last year, we were driving out of Jerusalem, from the hilltops around the city, and then down into the Jordan valley with Amman someway off to the East. Route 90 takes you directly north up the valley in the direction of Galilee, passing Jericho on your left … slightly surreal Sunday School images turn like a kaleidoscope in your mind.

And then the tour guide becomes quite agitated, arms flailing, pointing to what looks to be some bushes by the road-side. ‘There it is! There it is!’

Well, what is it? The River Jordan: the river – referred to as the source of fertility in Genesis, the line of demarcation between the "two tribes and the half tribe" settled to the east and the "nine tribes and the half tribe of Manasseh" that, led by Joshua, settled to the west the river crossed by the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground where God healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters, and where famously the axe head of one of the "children of the prophets" floated.

And rousing verses of on ‘Jordan’s bank, the Baptist cried’ or ‘When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside’ come to mind.

But it wasn’t at all as I had imagined it. Peering out of the window, even in the wintertime when the water was at its height, there was little more than a trickle hidden in the undergrowth making its way southwards to the Dead Sea. The years of water being diverted by Israelis and Jordanians had taken their toll.

It was hard to imagine anyone having difficulty crossing it, and harder still to stretch one’s mind to think that it would be possible to be baptised fully immersed.

But that, of course, is exactly what we are marking today: the Baptism of Christ by John in the River Jordan. Christians the world over are marking this seminal event in the life of Jesus, that turning point towards public ministry, his response to the call of God upon his life.

In this series of sermon in January, I am exploring the idea of Christian vocation, the way in which we are – each and every one of us – called by God to follow him. In last week’s address which you will find on the Abbey website, I began with the call of the people of Israel – called to be ‘a people, a nation and a land’. I looked at how this call to nationhood challenges modern preconceptions of vocation as a personal and private matter, something we do behind closed doors.

In this second sermon, on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, I am turning to look at how we might consider the call of Christ.

In the western Church, the Baptism of Christ and the associated miracle of the dove descending is considered to be part of the revelation of Christ to the gentiles, the opening shots of Jesus’ public ministry. It forms part of the pattern of this Epiphanytide – the arrival of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ, the turning of water into wine at the Wedding in Cana. This is an evangelistic expansion, to put it one way, part of the tide of the gospel, emphasising that Christ came not only for the Jews but also for Gentiles.

However, in the eastern Orthodox church – who celebrated the Incarnation just this Tuesday and will wait for twelve days until marking the Baptism of Christ – the pattern is different. Here the Baptism is regarded first and foremost as ‘theophany’, the revelation of the divine nature of Christ rather than ‘epiphany’, his being shown to the Gentiles. The close parallel is made between the Baptism of Christ and his Crucifixion: the waters are blessed – sometimes with the believers breaking the ice to get in – to recall dying to the old life and rising to the new, pointing us to recall the passage of the Children of Israel through the Red Sea in our first reading from Exodus 14.

The description of the Baptism in Matthew 3, ‘this is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased’ echo closely the same words uttered by God at the Transfiguration. God is revealed in the son-ship of Christ.

But can we say that Jesus had a vocation? That he was called into this public ministry, that he had some choice in the revelation of his divinity?

To ask this sort of question is to fall into the same trap I discussed last week – namely a very narrow and individualistic sense of vocation. ‘I am called’, ‘my ministry’, ‘my vocation’.

Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that Jesus submitted to baptism in the first place. Nearly always conceived of as the ritual cleansing from sin, such an act would have been easily misunderstood. Did Jesus really need to be cleansed? That’s clearly not the point.

More to the point is the anointing, the descent of the Holy Spirit as an act of testimony on the part of the Father, as our second reading from 1 John puts it:

There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.

The point isn’t that Jesus needed to be cleansed from sin, but rather he needed to accept the anointing of God the Father – the Hebrew is ‘Messiah’, the Greek is ‘Christ’.

And in doing so, his vocation was not to repent himself, but to reveal who he truly was – ‘This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased’.

So if the key message from my first address on vocation was that it should not be narrowly individualistic, the central point of this sermon is that a key element in acknowledging our own calling might be to allow God to reveal who we truly are. Sons and Daughters of God.

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