Baptism of our Lord Yr A
When we listen to the readings on a Sunday how do we find meaning in them? It is quite possible of course to allow them to flow by and make very little difference to us at all. Or we might be so puzzled by them that we struggle to make sense of them at all.
We believe that Holy Scripture is not like any other human writing, that it is inspired of the Holy Spirit, and through the action of the Spirit within us, when we hear the words read from Scripture we can hear God's word to us. In other words, the words of Scripture can affect us at a deeper level than words from any other source, for through them God reveals Himself to us.
Now this is not to say we need to take a purely literal interpretation of everything we hear from Scripture, but that we should be open to God's special activity as we listen to these holy words – that by the Holy Spirit, God can give meaning to the words we listen to, that is pertinent to our own journey of faith. And what one person hears might be quite different to another.
When we approach Holy Scripture in this way, open to the Holy Spirit working in us, and ready to listen it can be that we find the “word” that God wants us to pay attention to quite easily. It might come as a challenge and we feel convicted by it and know that this is something we have to address. It might be that we hear something that immediately releases some anxiety we have been holding on to. Or it might be that we hear a teaching that suddenly becomes clear when before it had seemed obscure (the penny has dropped). So sometimes it can happen in a quite straight forward way as long as we are open to it happening.
But often we do need to work a bit harder for that to happen. And this is when it can be helpful to hear a sermon, where the Scriptures are broken open a little to help us reflect a little more deeper or help to hear what is actually being said, and not what we have decided straight away it is saying. As always our own ego will get in the way unless we reign it in.
1. So let us listen to the gospel today of the Baptism of our Lord by John in the Jordan. And its very basic level it is an account of a moment in our Lord's earthly life and comes from those who witnessed it. It was written down in the form we have it perhaps twenty or more years after Christ ascended into heaven, but came from eye-witness accounts written down in that intervening period. This is the first level of interpretation – the literal level. We take it for what it is. This is what happened.
2. The next level of interpretation could be thought of as its moral meaning – that is to discern in the passage a meaning that is to do with right behaviour, doing the right thing. And in this passage we might for example think about the fact that God made man, came to John alongside everyone else. He didn't make a special entrance/approach to John but queued up with everyone else. In other word at the moral level we might gain inspiration to greater humility on our part. If God incarnate in Jesus Christ humbles Himself in this way, shouldn't I also be humble? That almost overwhelming aspect of God's nature as being both Almighty (omnipotent) and humble/self-emptying – can be a great inspiration to our own conduct, where the greater our power/gifts/wealth the greater the temptation to be full of ego or pride, and not be humble at all.
3. The next level of interpretation is usually referred to as the mystical interpretation of Scripture, and essentially this is when the familiar earthly existence touches the heavenly. When human life glimpses for a moment something much greater and beyond us. And the meaning of the passage comes to us in a much less obvious way. And this can be the most tricky level to interpret from a passage we listen to. But in the passage we hear today there is less difficulty because it is an obvious example of where the earthly touches the heavenly indeed Matthew says that “the heavens opened”. How we are to imagine that is impossible to say. We just do not know what heavens opening looked like. And Matthew also mentions two further phenomena: the descent of the Holy Spirit and the Voice of the Father. The moment is what we call an Epiphany. In that mysterious experience Jesus was revealed to be someone other than a Jewish Rabbi. At the moment when Jesus humbly puts Himself into the position of sinful man, this Epiphany occurs. In this action of baptism something amazing is being disclosed to us. The Epiphany is what we might call now a Trinitarian Epiphany: for Jesus' relationship to God the Father, and the Holy Spirit is revealed. This mysterious descending of the Holy Spirit which alights on Jesus ; and also the Father's voice saying “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In this Epiphany at the Jordan we come closest to understanding who God is, that is, Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But not only that. We also see in this Epiphany the mission of Jesus. For this Epiphany occurs not at an arbitrary moment but at a very meaningful moment. It is at the moment when Jesus, who is without sin, identifies Himself with sinful human beings. For those that come to John for baptism, do so confessing their sins. Jesus had no sin, and John knew that. But Jesus identifies Himself very humbly with the whole human race in our sinfulness – in our worst and most pitiable aspect. But that is the very place where God comes to us, and reveals Himself. Christ's mission was not to condemn us in our sin, but to meet us at the point where we confess our sins. To identify with us and to lead us from sin to life in the Trinity.
Today's gospel reading can have such rich meaning for us if we are willing to ponder and reflect with ears open to hear what God wants us to hear – approaching it with the humility Christ shows us at the Jordan.
At the beginning of this year, let us open ourselves afresh to God, trusting that He does not come to condemn us, but to meet us where we are, to deal with our sinful state and to lead us into the fullness of life in the Holy Trinity, where now our humanity in Christ forever dwells. Amen.
IH 11th January 2014