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Weekly Bible Notes and Worship Resources

Baptism of Jesus, Sunday after Epiphany Year A, Colour = White


Baptism window Veurne cathedral BelgiumIntroduction

It seems a strange thing for Jesus to be baptised by John. John the messenger, the one sent to prepare they way for Jesus, surely he should be the one getting baptised by Jesus? We are not alone in thinking this, John himself told Jesus that it should be the other way around. We find this throughout the ministry of Jesus, he turns the tables on what we expect. We see things in terms of human values of privilege and authority, Jesus shows a way of humility and service.

When Jesus stands in the water with everybody else he shows us a small piece of what God is alike. God stands with us in our humanity and all that it means. God comes to us in human form to show his companionship with us, rather that any intention to demand subservience. This is a visual working out of what it meant when we were told at Christmas that Jesus would be called 'Immanuel', which means 'God with Us.' I wonder whether that is how you see God, 'With Us'? God is not against us, but alongside us and this is good news for each one of us

Opening Verse of Scripture  Psalm 29

The LORD is enthroned as King forever.
The LORD gives strength to his people;
the LORD blesses his people with peace.
 

Collect Prayer for the Day — Before we read we pray

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. CW

Heavenly Father, at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son: may we recognize him as our Lord and know ourselves to be your beloved children; through Jesus Christ our Saviour. CW

First Bible Reading   Isaiah Chapter 42:1-9

Thus says the Lord: Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. NRSV  

Second Reading Acts 10:34 - 43

Peter began to speak to those assembled in the house of Cornelius. ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ NRSV 

Gospel Reading  Matthew Chapter 3:13-17

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ NRSV

Post Communion Prayer

Lord of all time and eternity, you opened the heavens and revealed yourself as Father in the baptism of Jesus your beloved Son: by the power of your Spirit complete the heavenly work of our rebirth through the waters of the new creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. CW

Commentary

God with us

On this Sunday each year, the Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus comes to the River Jordan to be baptised. 

There is often debate among theological scholars about whether things in the Bible actually happened exactly as they are reported. Nevertheless even the most skeptical of scholars believe that the episode today in which Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist must have taken place. It is hard to imagine the early church making up the story of Jesus’ baptism; it was too much of an embarrassment to them. 

John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, confession, and forgiveness of sins. From some of the first earliest documents written by Christians we know they believed in the sinlessness of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15). These two facts seem to contradict each other. If Jesus was sinless there would have been no need for him to submit to a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. John recognised this point himself and tried to persuade Jesus not to bother. There is a significant contrast between Jesus’ willingness to be baptised when he did not need to be and the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ refusal to repent when they needed to.

This strikes right at the heart of what the whole ministry of Jesus is about. On the 4th. Sunday of Advent we heard about the dream Joseph had. In it he was told the true identity of the child Mary was carrying. The child would be called, "Emmanuel, God with us." Now we begin to find out exactly what that means. God is with us and he goes the whole way. God is not like an absent military General who gives orders from a bomb proof bunker. He marches alongside the troops and shares the same dangers and trials. God does not address sinners from a safe distance, he gets his hands dirty and joins our sinful and world. In Jesus God was not sending another messenger, this time he is coming alongside us himself!
 

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the baptism is that Jesus shows the attitude of God towards us sinners. If God was human he would stand at the side of the river and criticise the miserable lot who turned up. Jesus shows just how different God is from us. Instead of condemning the sinners, Jesus jumps into the water with them. Right at the beginning of his ministry Jesus is showing what his attitude is going to be. It is not one of self righteousness and criticism, but rather of forgiveness and acceptance. Jesus is not ‘God above us’ or ‘God better than us’ Jesus is instead Emmanuel ‘God with us.’ Jesus stands alongside us in human life, he is flesh like our flesh and with baptism in the cleansing waters, he associates himself totally with humankind.
 

And so Jesus came on that day and entered the water. In Matthew's account of the baptism, Jesus enters the water and the heavens open, then the Spirit of God descends like a dove and a voice from heaven speaks words over Jesus "This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased." 
The appearance of the symbolic dove has occasioned much speculation. Since Tertullian it has often been connected with Noah’s dove: the former dove announced deliverance from the flood, the latter dove deliverance from sins (cf. 1 Pet 3:20–1).
 

The words from heaven are very similar to the ones we hear in the passage from the prophet Isaiah, "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him." The words are given not just for Jesus, but for all who were there. It was a message from God to them. As the presence of Jesus puts the stamp of approval on what John is doing, so now the presence of the Spirit shows the approval of God on what Jesus is doing. Moreover, soon the Spirit will descend not just on Jesus, but on all who follow into baptismal waters.
 

We might see this humble submission as a foreshadowing of the “baptism” of his bloody death upon the cross. Jesus’ baptism is his submission entirely to his Father’s will. Out of love he consented to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins. Now it is for us to enter into that same acceptance of the will of God for us. In Romans Chapter 6:4 The Apostle Paul tells us ‘We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Jesus is still Emmanuel, God with us. He gives us his Spirit so that we are not left alone throughout our lives. Now we must follow his example, as we ask the Holy Spirit to forge this same attitude of humility and obedience in our hearts. Perhaps as we do a part of heaven will heaven will open for us as well. Charles Royden

Meditation

Jesus asks John to baptize him "to fulfill all righteousness." The word righteousness is not easily understood, and sometimes we are put off by connotations of ‘self-righteousness.’ It might be used of people who think a bit too much of themselves! However I have heard the word used recently in some American films where it is given a new meaning. When somebody is said to be ‘righteous’ it means that they can be trusted and are faithful to their friends.

We need to remember that the righteousness of God is a good thing, it is not judgemental and superior.
We don’t have to make ourselves right with God; we don’t have to spend our lifetime "paying God back" for our sins and making amends for our past; we don’t have to grovel to get God on our side; we don’t have to say endless prayers to convince some angry god to yield to our urgent needs. The voice affirming Jesus as God’s "beloved son" was God’s stamp of approval on Jesus. Henceforth, what he proclaimed in words and actions about God’s love for us could be trusted. His message is that we don’t have to make God love us. God already does. We don’t have to push and shove to move God to our side. God is already standing with us. Jesus is proof-positive of where God is in our lives. Jesus, Matthew tells us, is Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus’ life and death assure us that we don’t have to earn God’s righteousness, God has given it to us.
 

Hymns

  1. When morning gilds the skies (Tune Laudes Domini)
  2. This is the day
  3. Christ when for us you were baptised (Tune Saint Magnus)
  4. When Jesus came to Jordan (Tune Cruger)
  5. Thou whose almighty word (Tune Moscow) 

 

Prayers for Sunday and the week ahead

representation of prayer as seed growing

Prayer is a plant, the seed of which is sown in the heart of every Christian.
If it is well cultivated and nourished it will produce fruit, but if it is neglected, it will wither and die."

Breathe on me, Spirit of God, awaken me to this moment of daylight’s height, that points to the light of your son that is with me. Breathe on me Spirit of God, as I spread my hands before you, holding in them the lost, the desperate and the dying, holding those you have given me to love in my praying, holding in them my joys, my hopes and my sorrows. Let the eyes of Christ be fixed on me and on those for whom I pray. As I rest for this brief moment, breathe, Spirit of Refreshment, on all of me that I may be drawn ever deeper into walking with the Son of Pilgrimage by whose love I move and pray and delight in God. Amen (Anon)

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; though Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
 

May God the Father, and the eternal High Priest Jesus Christ, build us up in faith and truth and love, and grant us our portion among the saints with all those who believe on our Lord Jesus Christ. We pray for all saints, for kings and rulers, for the enemies of the cross of Christ, and for ourselves we pray that our fruit may abound and we be made perfect in Christ Jesus our Lord. Polycarp.

Glorious God, give me grace to amend my life and to have an eye to mine end without grudge of death, which to them that die in thee, good Lord, is the fate of a wealthy life.
Give me, good Lord, a full faith, a firm hope and a fervent charity, a love to thee incomparable above the love to myself.
Give me, good Lord, a longing to be with thee, not for the avoiding of the calamities of this world, nor so much for the attaining of the joys of heaven, as for the very love of thee
Thomas Moore, from a prayer written a few days before his execution

Jesus, by your wounded feet direct our path. Jesus, by your nailed hands move us to deeds of love. Jesus, by your pierced side purify our desires. Jesus, by your crown of thorns annihilate our pride. Jesus by your broken heart, knit ours to yours. Amen. Richard Crawshaw, 1613-49
 

Jesus. In his baptism in the Jordan, all the waters of the world were made new, creation itself was cleansed, even as you have cleansed us of sin and joined us to Christ as one body. As the heavens were opened, so open to us the gates of your mercy. As the Spirit descended upon him, so keep your Holy Spirit within us. As Jesus heard your voice above the waters, so may we listen to your word and keep it. Let your favour rest upon us, whom you have called to be your daughters and sons in Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

Lord, you know all that lies before us, both of duty and temptation. Keep us, we pray, from all things hurtful to the body and the soul. Strengthen within us all that is praiseworthy and true, and grant that nothing may come between us and your holy presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen John Hunter, 1849-1917

Holy Spirit of God, let us not seek you in the distant land, for you are here among us. Let us welcome you in the heart which is your dwelling place and let us rejoice in the glory of your presence, the only fountain of goodness and love. Amen. Amy Carmichael, 1868-1951


Additional Resources

Baptism

Christians can get quite excited about baptism and what is means, often falling out with one another. I remember once having quite a few people come to me who wanted their babies baptised for fear of them going to ‘Bongo Bongo’ Land if they died. The church has been unhelpful in creating this impression in the first place, unbaptised babies who died were once concealed in adult coffins, emergency baptism gave the impression that if a baby wasn’t baptised then it would not go well for them when they met their maker. Some envisaged a 'Limbo Land' were babies went, not quite good enough for heaven but not desrving of hell.

This is not a new problem, there is so much confusion around baptism and what is happening and it has been going on from the earliest days. Some Christians, like Emperor Constantine, postponed their baptism until just before their death, fearing that they would violate Hebrews 6, committing some post-baptismal sin and so miss out on heave.

Fonts are interesting and give us an insight into baptism custom and practice. They are often at the door of the church, sybolising entrance

The four-sided font was meant to seem like a coffin (the baptisand was dying and being reborn)

The six sided one symbolized Good Friday and Jesus’ death on that day

The eight-sided one symbolized resurrection and the eight people on Noah’s ark saved by/through the flood; and finally

The round font signified the womb from which one was emerging in new birth.


We see that baptism of babies was probably normal in the 1st century because whole households were baptised(House of Stephanus mentioned in 1 Cor 1, Cornelius mentioned in Acts 10, or Lydia in Acts 16:15). It really took off however because the church had to do something in the early middle ages when lots of babies died, how could so many souls be lost to hell or the inbetween. Augustine has spoekn of original sin, it was important for bapotism to wash it away and the sacrament guaranteed their entrance to heaven. Symbollically they could then be buried in consecrated ground.

How do you deal with infants becoming Christians ? Well they could be seen as belonging to the household of faith, but theologians came up with ideas

Aquinas said children could be justified by the faith of the church

Luther suggested they could be justified by the faith of their sponsors

Calvin suggested by their potential for faith.

However not everybody accepted infant baptism

The Anabaptists said infant baptism was a harmful superstition without biblical precedent. Matthew 19:14 was seen as assurance of salvation for babies without the necessity of baptism.

William Penn and other Quakers dispensed with water baptism altogether, noting that Jesus himself baptized no one. Their cry was “we are disciples of Jesus, not of John.”
John Wesley affirmed because he could not believe all good Quakers were lost simply because they were not baptized

The Salvation Army likewise dispensed with the ritual of baptism.

It was apparently U. Zwingli (1484–1531) who first went the entire way of seeing baptism as a spiritual aid or pledge or symbol but not as a sacrament of grace.

The New Testament creates these problems for us because there is no clear instruction. In Acts whole families are baptised but we are not told whether it was in buckets or rivers Some early baptisms were performed naked, this showed removal of the old self and the clothing with new clothes afterward. This explains why in the second century there were separate baptisms of men and women.

Christ Church Logo Agnus Dei

I hope that you have all recovered now from the festivities of Christmas and the New Year and are settling well into 2008! Here in Hong Kong and China, of course, we are now getting ready for what is a much bigger celebration in terms of the effort that goes into it, that is, Chinese New Year. Not having liturgical significance, this is a celebration I rather enjoy!

At the moment, however, I am preparing for the sermon on Sunday and it has led me down some interesting paths. I am going to be preaching on the Gospel reading from John 1:29 specifically John the Baptist’s words: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ The Lamb motif, the Agnus Dei, is in effect the logo of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong. We have it as a mosaic outside our church and it appears on our literature. This was something I inherited when I came here and have been more than happy to use.

In the past, I have spent some time looking up its use historically in attempt to understand where the symbol originally came from. Fifth century Rome seems the most likely answer, although it only comes to prominence in sources from the ninth century onwards. It was later widely used by the Knights Templar during the Crusades.

What I have been wondering this week, however, is why it was adopted by Christ Church. True, the Lamb represents Christ and we are Christ Church, but I have been at many Christ Churches and it has not been used in this way by them. I have started to enquire into its usage here and interestingly no-one seems to know when, or why, it came to be used. Enquiries are on going and I will let you know!

Does it matter? Not at all. This is just one of those fun things that it is nice to know!

Perhaps more interesting is something that I uncovered in an essay by Richard Bauckham in his recent book: The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. He discusses the use of gematria in St John’s Gospel. Gematria is where a numerical value is assigned to a word. In Hebrew and Greek, he writes, the letters also represented numbers. Similarly, we sometimes do this in English with A having the value of 1, B equalling 2, and so on. He cites an interesting piece of graffiti from Pompei: ‘I love the girl whose number is 545’. That is, the girl the letters of whose name add up to 545.

Gematria is also behind the number of the Beast in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 13:18 it says:

‘This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.’

The writer is telling his readers who the Beast is. It most likely is the Emperor Nero. The sum of the letters Nero Caesar written in Hebrew is 666.

Why this is interesting as I prepare for Sunday is that, according to Bauckham, in Hebrew the numerical value for the name ‘Jesus’ and for the ‘Lamb of God’ are the same, that is, 391. To quote Bauckham:

So when John the Baptist sees Jesus and says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (1:29, 35-36), he is interpreting the name Jesus by gematria.

Does it matter? Not at all. This is just one of those fun things that it is nice to know!

Much more important is the question of what it means to say that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The use of gematria that I have just referred to shows that the ancient Biblical writers used techniques with which we are not immediately familiar nowadays. This means that we miss things that would have been obvious to the first readers. But it isn’t just in the area of literary techniques that we run into problems.

The sacrifice of animals was a familiar practice in the ancient world. At Passover Jews in Jerusalem sacrificed lambs in their thousands. This is not something we do or understand the point of. In fact, we rather regard the whole business as barbaric and primitive. This makes understanding the concept of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world also hard to understand. Indeed, it perhaps why some modern day Christians recoil from the idea of Jesus being a sacrifice for sin. As one recent writer puts it: ‘isn’t the idea of God sacrificing his Son a form of cosmic child abuse?’

We live in different worlds in more ways than one. The problem is that because we think we are more advanced than them in scientific and technological ways, we are also more advanced theologically. This is cultural and historical arrogance. We are back to the fact that God chose this time, 2,000 years ago, to give the supreme revelation of himself, the Word made flesh, as we have just celebrated. If we believe this, we are going to have to swallow our pride and accept that in this conceptual world we find so foreign, lie truths that are timeless and eternal, and which we ignore or dismiss at our peril. Ross Royden - Hong Kong

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Meditation

Unity, Freedom Charity Pope John XXIII (the twenty-third) was Pope in the early 1960s and he did a lot for world peace at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost became World War III. He is also well-known for being keen to bring closer together Christians of different churches. He said: ‘In essential things - unity; in unimportant things - freedom; in all things - charity.’ Pope John wrote a prayer “Renew in our own days your miracles like a second Pentecost. Grant that the church, re-united in prayer, may extend the kingdom of Jesus - a kingdom of truth and justice, of love and peace. Amen.”

Commentary

It is understandable that John should recognise himself as unworthy to baptise Jesus. However it is to misunderstand what Jesus is all about. God's reign will not be about John's fiery images of judgment for sinners, but rather God's "full immersion" into the trials and tribulations of his people. Jesus stands in the same queue with everybody else, because his role will not be that of handing out punishments for sinners, but rather of identifying with them.

John see things in terms of the human structures of authority, he is lower down the pecking order than Jesus. Of course Jesus will change all of this "The last shall be first," after all, "and the first shall be last" (20:16).

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Th really good news is that at the end of the episode we hear the voice of God affirming that Jesus has got it right, he has understood that this is God's way.

Behold!" "A voice out of heaven saying, 'This one is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased."

God is saying that in Jesus we see a glimpse of the heart of God.


 Hymns

  1. All hail the power (Tune Miles Lane)
  2. Rejoice, rejoice Christ is in you Mission Praise
  3. Christ when for us you were baptised (Tune Saint Magnus)
  4. When Jesus came to Jordan (Tune Cruger)
  5. Breathe on me breath of God (Tune Carlisle)
  6. When morning gilds the skies (Tune Laudes Domini)
  7. O let the son of God enfold you
  8. Songs of thankfulness and praise
  9. On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's cry
  10. The race that long in darkness pined
  11.  

 

O let the Son of God enfold you
with His Spirit and His love;
let Him fill your heart and satisfy your soul.
O let Him have the things that hold you,
and His Spirit, like a dove,
will descend upon your life and make you whole.
Jesus, O Jesus,
come and fill Your lambs;
Jesus, O Jesus,
come and fill Your lambs.

2 O come and sing this song with gladness,
as your hearts are filled with joy;
lift your hands in sweet surrender to His name.
O give Him all your tears and sadness,
give Him all your years of pain,
and you'll enter into life in Jesus' name.
Chorus