Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17 preached by
Mrs Kate White
13th January 2002
There, in 5 short verses we have a matter-of-fact description of an event which is not matter-of-fact at all. The scene is well-known to us; but covered so sparingly that it's easy to glide over it and move on into Jesus' time of testing, and forward into the period we know as Lent. But today we routinely pause, as the Lectionary invites us to do today, and revisit this baptism account in this post-Christmas period.
In two short weeks of the church's calendar we are catapulted forward through 30 virtually unseen years of Jesus' life, from the manger in Bethlehem to the river Jordan in Galilee. And then here is John the Baptist again, that maverick flouter of convention who has played a bit-part already of course, but who now makes his starring role. This he does by initiating the next great episode, that of the public ministry of Christ. He does it through words and ceremony, both of which we, the Church, have come to treasure and enact for ourselves over hundreds of years in our own baptismal liturgies.
Together John and Jesus take part in a repentance event which is at the same time quite ordinary and startlingly extraordinary. John had been conducting a ministry of baptism before this moment, but it changes here for all time. Initially only converts to Judaism had required baptism. Those born a Jew, as was Jesus, did not need it for they already belonged. But here we see Jesus voluntarily submitting himself to this act of peculiar drama with John the Baptist, and inviting his own baptism of repentance. The powerful concept of "Immanuel", God with us, is brought into sharp focus again, 30 years on. For Jesus, born a human being in a very mundane way and place, is here undergoing a very human religious ceremony.
In so doing he lines himself up fully alongside generations of the baptised, past present and future, taking on an ownership of human sin and repentance, an acceptance of divine forgiveness and, most crucially a complete submission to the will of God. He is baptised with water and emerges renewed and with a strong vocation. And of course the final verse of that passage from Matthew's gospel adds reassurance. It sees God, in the form of spirit descending like a dove, saying "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."
We could spend the whole morning analysing whether a dove actually descended, whether a dove was seen by some or all of those present, why it was a dove, the meaning of its symbolism and so on. Interesting stuff perhaps, but wide of the mark in terms of where the significance of this passage lies. For its significance lies in the fact that the baptism of Jesus took place at all, and that it transformed a routine ceremony into a special manifestation of the closeness of God to us all - God breaking in and transforming the ordinary. Do we see the extraordinary lurking in the ordinary? The special in the mundane? Our God, unexpected, in unlikely places? For example, I was travelling in a car on a strong moonlit night with discarded mirrors in the back. They caught and multiplied the moonlight; which surprised and bemused me. It broke into my mundane journey. I had forgotten God was there. Perhaps a fanciful interpretation, but for me in the surprising and sometimes dazzling beauty of the created world, there is God.
I wonder do we feel a vocation, as we all should, to expound the closeness of the divine alongside the human at every turn? Or are we content to leave the concept of "Immanuel" behind us in the Christmas stories now consigned to last year? In the story of the baptism of Christ we see the extraordinary in a religious ceremony. Do we look for the extraordinary deity in our ordinary ceremonies? Are we open to that? Or does it startle us and bring us up short if we spot our God hanging around with us, close by when we take communion for example? We should not forget that many people who come to church are hoping to find a bit of God there, not unreasonably. In the fabric of our buildings, the ordinariness of our weekly Church life (church notices), in our ceremonies marking key occasions, do we aid the manifestation of God to human beings? Do we help God to speak and show himself in extraordinary ways through the ordinariness of his church?
For example, Philip Larkin: poet and atheist/agnostic. In some of his poems, most notably "Church Going" written in 1954, Larkin writes very movingly of visiting an old church and finding significance there. He does not call that significance "God" but, according to some commentators, came close to acknowledging absence and emptiness where God might have been. Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, is Larkin's biographer, and over the Christmas period I saw a TV programme in which he was interviewed about Larkin's religious beliefs or lack of them. What irony that £1 million of Larkin's money, left to his mistress of 40 years, has been disclosed just this week as a legacy by her to the Church of England! Fitting perhaps? Lachlan Mackinnon, a poet and teacher, writing in the Independent this week said "Disbelieving, but nostalgic for the Church as an embodiment of tradition and community, Larkin was, as he said 'an agnostic, I suppose, but an Anglican agnostic, of course.'"
Are we not challenged by the account of the baptism of Jesus to move those who are "disbelieving, but nostalgic for the church" to a place where they can and do see God? The baptism story reminds us of the vocation we all have to share and promote our understanding of God as a nearby reality who understands the human condition and can transform it. It reminds us how we are called to endow the ordinary in fabric, ceremony, and human experience, with a layer of the extraordinary. As a church and as individuals we are called to move forward with a God who has infinite power to draw alongside us in our ordinariness and show us what his extraordinary kingdom is like every day of our lives.