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Thoughts on the Baptism of Jesus

Sunday January 8th recalls the Baptism of Jesus ( although many churches might be referring back to the Epiphany remembered on January 6th)

I shall base my sermon on it tomorrow as the church community at Little Paxton worship for the first time in Little Paxton School at 9.15am , the church now closed for major re-ordering. The magnificent new bells, however, will still be ringing out from 8.45am onwards.



The Baptism of Jesus


I am sure that all of us will have photographs which have been taken at an infant’s baptism – very likely it will be a posed shot with the Vicar holding the baby and the parents and godparents standing around the font after the event.

I wonder, though, if you may have a photograph taken actually at the moment of baptism?

I am ambivalent about pictures being taken at the point of baptism  as it can detract from the great significance of the moment although  such a photograph could be quite revealing.

The expression on the child’s face, and the faces of family and friends gathered around. Surprise, happiness, laughter, concern, indifference – all sorts of emotions would be picked up. People’s expressions, posture and body language would indicate, in some way, what they were thinking about and experiencing at that most special and precious moment of grace.

Imagine a photograph taken at the baptism of Jesus – of course we don’t have one – but who would you imagine in the scene and what do you imagine is happening?

We don’t have a photograph but we do have a written account. We have 3 in fact written by the evangelists Matthew, Mark & Luke.

I will just mention at this point John’s account of Jesus’ baptism. In truth he fails to mention the baptism at all. But he is deeply concerned with the signs which point towards Jesus as the divine one, so he reports the words of John the Baptist :

“ I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven and it remained upon him….he who sent me to baptize with water said to me “ The man on whom you see the spirit descend and remain is the one who is going to baptize with the Holy Spirit” .

But, strangely, no mention at all of John the Baptists part in baptizing Jesus.

The reason may have been that baptism was seen as a Jewish ritual for the washing away of sin – and as early Christians believed Jesus to be without sin, why would he have needed to be baptised? To avoid answering that difficult question, John may have left the actual moment of Jesus’ baptism out of his account, replacing it with John The Baptist’s words about the Holy Spirit anointing Jesus.

That mentioned, let us focus on the accounts of Matthew, Mark and  Luke  – and based on these written accounts we have many paintings which depict each particular artist’s imagination of the scene.

One very famous painting by Piero della Francesca dating from around 1445 forms part of an altar piece panel at the Priory of St. John the Baptist in Umbria, Italy.

An art critic describes the piece of work as possessing a “majestic stillness”. You know sometimes how something happens and for a brief moment it is as if time has stopped because a particular event or experience somehow has such great significance.

As you look at it you are drawn into the fact that something of tremendous importance is taking place here. As I look at it I  notice that the painting seems to be in two halves with Christ in the centre. Jesus stands with his hands together in an attitude of prayer. John the Baptist stands on his right with his arm lifted above Jesus’ head in the action of pouring the water of baptism. In the background we can see the pool of water and people gathered around watching.

There is even one person getting undressed preparing for his own baptism – his clothing over his head and completely oblivious to what is going on. This manifestation of the glory of God is taking place right in front of his nose yet he seems intent on his own business.  How true this to the reality of life – so often we fail to recognise the action of God  and are too preoccupied with our own thoughts and concerns.

This is, if you like, the earthly part of the scene

But on the left of Jesus we see three figures – if you look closely you will notice that they are not human but in fact angels – inhabitants of the heavenly realm but very much part of this profound spiritual act. They are sheltering (as is Jesus) under a huge tree –  reminding us of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden – symbolizing  the precious gift of life lived with God and  offered by Him to Adam and Eve which was rejected by their disobedience.

Yet  in the picture there is the hope of atonement, of human beings becoming “at one” again with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus which will all be acted out in the next three years of Jesus’ public ministry: His baptism, his anointing by the Holy Spirit,  signals the beginning of that ministry.

The sign of this anointing of the Holy Spirit is the hovering of a dove with outspread wings above the head of Jesus. Here, in the person of Jesus Christ is the meeting of earth and heaven the two halves of the picture are seamlessly woven into one.

I am reminded here of the Transfiguration which we will consider in few weeks time on the Sunday before Lent. On the mountain top, Peter, James and John are immersed in an intense spiritual experience seeing Jesus in a completely new and glorious way – his clothes dazzling white and in conversation with Moses and Elijah.

The Baptism of Jesus too is such a timeless spiritual moment.

Within the majestic stillness of this painting there seems to be something missing. Where is the voice of God? How do you paint the sound of a voice? Well, of course, you can’t!

But the voice of God is recorded in the gospels:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”

Here is the moment of truth. The stillness of the painting draws our attention to ponder upon the wonder of God’s glory being revealed in Christ – but the voice disturbs us from the comfort of dwelling for too long upon this moment of grace.

The voice acknowledges the truth of Christ’s anointing but it is also a commissioning for ministry – now get on with it!

In all of the 3 accounts we are not told that anyone else hears the “theophany” (voice) at the Baptism of Jesus – these words are personal to him – they mark the beginning of his ministry.

At the Transfiguration, however, we are told that the voice of God is heard by the disciples:

This is my beloved Son – listen to him!

In this event, it is his disciples who are being commissioned. Once again the voice marked the end of the timeless moment for these disciples who wanted to make tents and stay on the mountain to bask in the glory of Christ. The glimpse of glory was to be sufficient – it was time to move on. Time to return to the every day plains of life and grapple with the tough issues of life and death, of love and hate  and  joy and sorrow.

I wonder if you have experienced timeless moments of spiritual depth  in your own lives ? They may not happen very often and we may not recognize their significance when they do happen. Sometimes we only recognize their importance many years after the event. But they are experiences which are can shape our personal faith and mould us into the people God would have us be.

I’m still processing an experience I had on Friday night.  I was present at a Taize service in Hatley St George Church near to Gamlingay. There were only a handful of us there in a medieval church lit by candles flickering in the drafts of air. When we came to a period of silence, the sound of owls scurrying amongst the clouds outside pervaded the stillness. This strangely melodic screeching was unsought and to me evocative of the way God comes to us when we least expect it. We were only together for 30 minutes or so. The experience of the profound quietness has lingered on somewhere deep in my memory. It is something about God saying be prepared for the unexpected. Listen out for my voice.

Today you might like to reflect on moments in your life that have informed your understanding of Gods movement in your life and who you are called to be in his grace.

Moments which have given you a new impetus to try something new and adventurous in his name. Or even to stop, slow down and let God speak to you.

As we start out on a new year give let us give thanks for precious moments of anointing and strengthening through the power of the Holy Spirit.

May we recognize these moments as great gifts, moments when God touches our lives, affirms us and sends us out to be his hands and feet on earth.

May God give us all the wisdom, courage and energy to think broadly about how we use our time in the best possible way whilst we meet here at school and as we prepare to return to church in the summer months.

Prayer:

Blessed are you, Lord our God,

You have created the heavens and earth.

Blessed are you, Jesus Christ,

You came among us and were baptized of John.

Blessed are you, holy and life-giving Spirit,

You descend as the dove and you fill us with life.

Blessed are you, Holy Three.

In you we live and move and have our being. Amen.

January 6, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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