St. John’s Upper Norwood The Baptism of the Lord Year B 2021.
Last Sunday we kept the feast of the Epiphany –the revealing, the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles, to the wider world. And this is not just a one day wonder, which tucks up Christmas for another year-; a single day when we can have some rather romanticised thoughts about kings and camels, and then pack away the baubles and tinsel, and despair at the rather sad and bare appearance of the living room. In large parts of the Western church all thoughts of Christmastide will end today on this first Sunday after the Epiphany feast with today’s celebration of Jesus baptism by John in the Jordan. Tomorrow our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers will see their altars and priests decked no longer in white but in green, and it will be “ordinary” time. But when the Church of England decided to revise and enrich its worship with Common Worship, it decided to do things differently, and to stretch out this season, and to deepen our exploration of the events that begin to reveal to the world who Jesus really is. The new preface of the Eucharistic prayer for this season. which the priest sings over the gifts about to become Christ present with us, reminds us of three events which reveal Jesus as God’s saving plan for all humanity, and not only for humanity but for creation itself.
Wise men have searched and found the Messiah King. John Baptist sees the Spirit rest on God’s anointed Son, and hears the voice of the Father disclosing his true identity. Jesus first miracle, changes water into wine at the wedding feast, and in St. John’s words, “this manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” He is Lord of creation, and if we share in his self-giving love and creativity we will unlock with him the true potential of creation. One well known hymn sums up what the preface, and an ancient verse sung to introduce the song of Mary at evening prayer on the feast point us to.
Manifest at Jordan’s stream, Prophet, Priest, and King supreme;
and at Cana wedding-guest, in thy Godhead manifest.
Our revised liturgy deliberately builds up our reflection on those three marks of Jesus identity, as Prophet, Priest and King. And so our joyful celebration, begun at Christmas, now continues right through until Candlemass, in early February, when Jesus is recognized by Simeon and Anna when he is brought into the Temple my Mary and Joseph. He is recognised not only as the glory given to Israel but as “the light to enlighten the Gentiles“. He is that uncreated glory that the first lesson today announces, bringing forth a universe that reflects his own beauty. As this season closes we will hear the prophecy of old Simeon about this child. A sword will pierce Mary’s heart, and we will begin to prepare ourselves to enter into the mystery of Jesus’ struggles and sufferings for us in Lent and Passiontide.
Last week we thought about how Jesus comes for all peoples- not just for his own people- but here for us, all of us; identifying himself above all with those on the margins, sharing their poverty. Today, as we begin to work through the Gospel of mark on the Sundays of this year, his Gospel opens with the baptism of Jesus at Jordan River, the revealing of a Saviour who in John Baptist’s words will, “baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John expected that Messiah would come with fire as well as spirit, to wield the winnowing fork of Judgement. This judgement fire will reveal the sad reality of the mess humanity has got itself into. T.S. Eliot in his poem ‘The coming of the Magi,’ spells out the personal shadows that this Messiah will lay bare in us. The old star-gazer, back at home, reflects on what the arrival of the light of Christ means for him. ‘This birth is hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death, we are no longer at ease here in the old dispensation,’
Jesus unsettles us, asks us where we are going, what are we making of our lives. But he also offers us a way forward, with him; sharing with us his own glorious humanity. In the words of St John of the Cross, and the mystics, we shall “ become God by participation.”
This amazing possibility for us begins when the Spirit and the Father reveal that here is the anointed One, the embodiment of prophecy, kingship and priesthood, here for us.
The infant church began to realise that our own baptism into Christ, which Paul affirms in the community in Ephesus in today’s New Testament reading, means that we too are anointed ones, clothed with Christ’s Spirit; and this confers on us the same characteristics and responsibilities, matched by the same potential and ability, as gifted people. St. John Chrysostom says that we too “abundantly possess not one, but all three of these dignities.”( 2 Corinth. Homily 3,4.) sharing in Christ’s royal, revolutionary priesthood.
Our hope for change and renewal rests on our baptismal identity. Alexander Schmemann, one of the great American Orthodox writers, (In ‘Of Water and the Spirit’) assures us that when we answer the call to follow Christ we will need to make our own journey through the places of testing, growth, and healing. This journeying through times of trial will be the crucible for our self development, but we will also discover that love will blossom, and our share in this royal and visionary priesthood will flourish. Schmemann sees the vocation of Kingship as being worked out in our positivity, which will enable us to be present for others out of “joy, acceptance and affirmation, and not from fear, rejection and negation.” The call is to have a positive regard for all others. He sees the Priestly charism as one of generosity, an antidote for the attitude we see in Adam in Genesis, who in Schmemann words is a ’consumer’, taking out, and not giving back. To ‘Priest’ the world is to offer ourselves, be there for others, open to God and neighbour. Finally to be Prophetic, as individuals, and as a community, will, he suggests, mean that we are discerning, reflective people, exploring the will of God for our present time.
Today’s Gospel reaches its climax when the Father’s voice is heard, revealing that here is his own beloved Son. But this voice is for our benefit, not his own, because, as us the creed is about to remind us, all of this was for us, for us, and for our salvation, The revelation of God’s love at the river is only so that we might come in from the cold and the dark. In the fourth Gospel we hear John the Baptist using the image of a sacrificial Lamb to describe Jesus. Jesus comes to restore our relationship with God and the rest of creation. We share in that work of restoration, as St Peter tells us. We become a royal priesthood, a holy nation- ‘sharers in the divine nature’ We shall be changed.
One of the central themes of Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s writings and studies was that the glory of God is being shared with us by Jesus. For him this is the centre point of all Anglican theology. For him the baptismal calling is to live out the meaning of the Christ in our daily lives in a difficult world, ready to empty and give of ourselves, as the Son of God did. He writes,
“God, who took human flesh in the stable, is the God from whose store of love humanity’s gifts of love are drawn. The stable is a symbol of Christ’s poverty. He did without many of the things that people crave for. None did he criticize more severely than those who hankered after more and more possessions, and who were preoccupied with money. The worth of a person’s life, he insisted, does not consist of possessions, for piling things up does not increase worth. People matter more than things, as people have an eternal destiny. Those who do not fuss about their standard of living and their luxuries are freer to love one another, to serve one another and to enjoy one another.. Christ became poor, and he chose the way of simplicity; and if we follow him he promises us riches of his own, riches of happiness and brotherhood to share with one another and with him. Christ gave himself to us to enable us to give ourselves to one another.”