9 January 2022 – Swee Ann Koh

9 January 2022 – Swee Ann Koh

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:5-17, 21-22

Introduction

I love the yearly rhythm of our Church seasons, but I’ll admit that I find the transition from Christmas to Epiphany a bit jarring. One minute, we’re gazing at a wrapped-up baby in a manger.  Next, we’re whizzing past a baby, a collection of gift-bearing Magi, a young family fleeing to Egypt, a twelve-year-old boy in a temple, and a mother, pondering all these things in her heart. 

And then? And then we find we’re standing in a long line of people by the banks of the Jordan River. Ahead of us, waist-deep in the water, John the Baptist shouts a no-nonsense call to repentance. Behind us, at the very end of the long line, stands that once-upon-a-time baby — all grown up. 

Thirty years have gone by, and the promised child is about to come into his promise.

Let us pray…

After living in total obscurity his entire life, in his late twenties Jesus left his family in Nazareth and burst onto the public scene by joining the movement of his eccentric cousin John. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus submitted himself to John as a disciple to a mentor, and that perhaps John was part of the apocalyptic Jewish sect of Essenes who opposed the temple in Jerusalem.

By any measure, John the Baptizer was a prophet of radical dissent; his attackers said he had a demon. (Luke 7:33). Whereas his father was a priest in the Jerusalem temple, John fled the comforts and corruptions of the city for the loneliness of the desert, where he dressed in animal skins and ate insects and wild honey. Living on the periphery of society, both literally and figuratively, he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which is to say that he announced a message of both indictment and invitation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

We discover that later, Jesus used these exact words to announce his own public ministry. (Mark 1:15).

The Gospels record that people flocked to John. John’s preaching in the Judean desert and baptizing in the Jordan river confounded the religious and political powers of his day — imperial Rome, which later murdered him when John rebuked Herod for sleeping with his brother’s wife (Matthew 14:1–12), and the temple establishment in Jerusalem, which claimed a gate-keeper monopoly on mediating God’s forgiveness to people.

John wasn’t afraid and he didn’t mince his words. He castigated the religious authorities as a “brood of vipers” (in one translation, “snake bastards”). The religious experts, said Jesus, spurned John’s call to baptismal repentance, and in so doing “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (Luke 7:30). Instead of cooperation, accommodation, or resignation, John challenged these religious and political powers with his anti-establishment message of “protest and renewal.” John spoke truth to power! By joining John the Baptizer’s fringe movement, Jesus did likewise.

With some important stylistic differences, all four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’s baptism by John: “When all the people were being baptized,Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased'” (Luke 3:21–22; Mark 1:9–11; Matthew 3:13–17; John 1:29–34). No wonder that after this radical rupture with his family and with conventional society by identifying with the desert troublemaker, eventually Jesus’s own family tried to apprehend him, and his entire hometown village of Nazareth tried to kill him as a deranged crackpot (cf. Mark 3:21, Luke 4:29, John 7:5).

There are many questions asked about the Baptism of Jesus.

According to Christian historian John Dominic Crossan, Jesus’s baptism was an “acute embarrassment” for the early Church, because it didn’t fit the triumphalist Messianic image the Church hoped to portray. 

Why would the Son of God place himself under the instruction of a rabble-rouser like John the Baptist? 

Why would a supposedly sinless Messiah need a baptism of repentance? 

Did Jesus really wish to align himself with the folks who streamed into the wilderness to listen to John? 

Weren’t those the folks John called “a brood of vipers?” 

Weren’t they desperate, broken, tainted, and sinful?  

Why would God choose such an odd moment in the Messiah’s life — such a mundane and perhaps even sordid moment — to part the clouds and call Jesus “the Beloved?”

Many questions.

The earliest witnesses of the baptism must have asked this question because in Matthew’s Gospel John the Baptizer tried to deter Jesus: “Why do you come to me? I need to be baptized by you!”

Even a hundred years later Jesus’s baptism by John made some Christians uneasy, as evidenced by the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews (c. 80–150 AD) in which Jesus

denies any need to repent, and seems to get baptized to please his mother:

“The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, ‘John the Baptist baptizes for the forgiveness of sins; let us go and be baptized by him.’ But he said to them, ‘In what way have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, perhaps, what I have just said is a sin of ignorance.’” Others have suggested that Jesus set an example for us, that just as he was baptized, we too should be baptized. 

Jesus’s baptism inaugurated his public ministry by identifying with what Luke describes as “all the people.” He allied himself with the faults and failures, pains and problems, of all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan river.

By splashing into the waters with them he took his place beside us and among us.

Not long into his public mission the self-righteous religious leaders ridiculed Jesus as

a “friend of gluttons and sinners.” With his baptism Jesus openly and decisively declared that he stands shoulder to shoulder with me in my fears and anxieties.

He intentionally takes sides with people in their neediness, and declares that God is biased in their favour: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way,

just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15–16, NIV).

God’s abundant mercy, Jesus declared, was available directly and immediately to every person; it was not the private preserve doled out by the temple establishment. 

Jesus’s baptismal compassion for and solidarity with broken people was vividly confirmed by divine affirmation and empowerment.

Still wet with water after his cousin had plunged him beneath the Jordan river,

Jesus heard a voice and saw a vision — the declaration of God the Father that Jesus was his beloved son. This declaration is a combination of two Old Testament passages: “You are my son” from Psalm 2:7, and “with you I am well pleased” from Isaiah 42:1), and the descent of God the Spirit in the form of a dove.

The vision and the voice punctuated the baptismal event. They signalled the meaning, the message and the mission of Jesus as he went public after thirty years of invisibility — that by the power of the Spirit he embodied God’s coming kingdom

that welcomes people without exception or condition. 

For me to embrace Christ’s baptism story is to embrace the core truth that we are all united, interdependent, connected, one.  Our personal “goodness” notwithstanding,

our baptisms bind us to all of humanity — not in theory, but in the flesh — such that you and I are kin, responsible for each other in ways we fail so often to honour. 

We are called into radical solidarity, not radical separateness.  There is one baptism,

one common hope for all of us. We are called into a beloved community. In baptism, we are unbound to touch, embrace, and love all that is broken within and around us, precisely because we are always and already God’s Beloved.  We are God’s chosen.  God’s children.  God’s own.

For me baptism is all about stepping in, all about finding the holy in the course of my ordinary, mundane life within the Beloved Community of God.  

Let’s be clear, we’re beloved not because we’ve done anything to earn it, but because God’s very nature, inclination, and desire is to love — and to birth that same kind of love in us.

And so those who are baptized in Jesus’ name are also called upon to love and to keep the commandments given us by him. Those commandments are two: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.

John also reminds readers that by virtue of our baptism, we are begotten by God;

that is, we are God’s beloved children. What the voice from heaven said to Jesus at his baptism by John – “You are my beloved Son” – God also says to each of us: “You are my Son, my Daughter.” Endowed with grace and dignity, we are also holy places where the Spirit of God has come to dwell and to remain.

On this second Sunday of 2022, we find Covid 19 is still spreading all over Australia and the world. Will 2022 be the same as 2020 and 2021? What can we truly and actively do amidst the uncertainty ahead of us?

However, the year 2022 will pan out for you and for those you love, remember, remember who we are and whose we are: You are, we are, God’s beloved.

We are the Beloved community of God. And the Beloved Community is not some vague compassion – or abstract concept, or theology, or words that allow us to keep our distance. Rather we are called to build a way of life, where every person is recognised by us as the “beloved”.

This is made concrete in seeking the fulfillment of those “others”, making concrete commitments to those in the “other” neighbourhood or who live on the “other” street, or on the “other” border. At times it means meeting on the crossbeam of Christ’s cross. Remember. You are God’s beloved. We are God’s beloved.