This sermon was preached by John Lawrence, a lay minister from Holy Apostles' Church, Cheltenham, at Highbury on Sunday, 9th January.
Have you been to a pantomime this Christmas? We are going next Saturday to Aladdin, at the Bacon Theatre at Dean Close School. What is the appeal of panto. One appeal for me is that particular production will have my daughter in it – in fact she is rehearsing as I speak. But part of the universal appeal of panto is the combination of the familiar and the unexpected. I haven’t seen Aladdin yet, but I know there will be singing, booing, dancing, and shouting out“Oh no it isn’t”. Every year those familiar ingredients are included. And yet, you can’t simply repeat the same production every year. The songs will be different from last year, the script will be different from last year, some of the jokes will be awful – but they will be different awful jokes.
Now hang on to that mix of the familiar and the new, because something similar happens in this story of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew isn’t writing light entertainment, but there are parallels. The baptism account is a little like a joke. It begins with a building sense of tension, tension caused by expectation. And that expectation will be met in a surprising way. Surprise makes a joke funny. But with Jesus the surprise is not funny – it is lifechanging. Jesus makes a surprise beginning to a ministry which will continue to surprise. So we need to understand the source of the tension. Because it isn’t Jesus who is tense – it is John the Baptist
John’s clothes are unusual, his food is unusual, what he says is unusual. He is strange and yet he is familiar. For in word and action John clearly belongs to the great line of the prophets, reaching back into Israel’s past.
Two familiar themes in John’s preaching, each with something new.
The need for repentance. This had been the message of many of the prophets. But John has a new twist. He is John the Baptiser. He uses a ceremony that has been added to Jewish life since the time of the prophets, the ceremony of Baptism. And John offers baptism in a new way. It isn’t just for converts to Judaism – it is for everyone.
Theme two is the coming of God’s chosen one. Mt. 3:11 “I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Again the coming of God’s chosen one was a familiar theme of the prophets. But the twist is that no longer is the event in the distance, now it is here. Yet John’s expectations of the one who will come after him are very much in the line of the prophets. John speaks of power and fire He seems to be expecting a big entrance, explosive arrival.
When Jesus turns up at the River Jordan, John knows this is the fulfilment of his expectations. Yet he is tense, because this is definitely not what he has been expecting. Jesus arrives on foot, without fanfare, seemingly alone, and asking to be baptised.
This is a puzzling event. John is puzzled. I’ve been to many baptisms. I’ve been baptised myself. As father and godfather, I’ve said the baptismal words for others. And this event puzzles me too. What is baptism all about? John called his baptism a baptism of repentance. Baptism was a symbolic washing, a public sign of turning away from a wrong way of living. At baptisms, what is the answer we have spoken for ourselves, spoken for those we love, heard others say. The answer is “I repent of my sins”
[PAUSE] John knows Jesus has nothing to repent of. Jesus doesn’t need to be washed clean. It doesn’t make sense. John has no choice but to protest:
Mt. 3:14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”
But Jesus words of explanation are less than crystal clear: Mt. 3:15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.”
Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, puts Jesus words like this: “This is how it’s got to be right now’ said Jesus. “this is the right way for us to complete God’s whole saving plan”.
I imagine John the Baptist shrugged his shoulders and said “If you insist”.
Now the problem for us is that Matthew’s gospel wasn’t designed to be read entire, not in little chunks, one Sunday at a time. His gospel is extremely carefully structured and the structure is part of the story. And here in the third chapter, Matthew is establishing expectations which won’t fully make sense for another 24 chapters. He is using allusions, making references which probably pass 21st century listeners by. However, they would have been a lot more obvious to 1st century Jewish listeners.
44 years after England won the world cup, if you mention the phrase “They think it’s all over” to an English football fan, they will think of Geoff Hurst’s clinching goal in that final. You don’t have to say any more than those few words—the event is so much talked about and remembered, even today, that people know what you are talking about.
Every nation, every people, every group, has common memories like that. And for Jews, among the most important events they remembered were those of the Exodus, the escape from Egypt through the Red Sea and the Wilderness. So what happens when Jewish listeners hear of Jesus passing through water, then spending time in the Wilderness. Spending how long in the Wilderness? Well not 40 years, but 40 days! They instantly [snap fingers] pick up that God’s plan for Jesus ministry looks very like the Exodus experience of the whole Jewish nation.
You may be thinking –that’s nice. But I’m not a first-century Jew, I’m a 21st century Briton. What does it mean for me?
This is what it means for me, what it means for us. It means that from the very start of his ministry Jesus identifies with his people. It demonstrates that from the outset Jesus fulfils the promise of Emmanuel, God with us. Because Jesus is identified with his people in chapter 3 of Matthew, he continues to be identified with us, his people, in chapter 27 of Matthew. Jesus is identified with his people even in the agony of the cross, and somehow out of that identification comes Jesus ability to take upon himself the terrible consequence of our sin and wrongdoing.
John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. In other words it was a sign that people recognised their need to be forgiven. But John’s baptism had no power to promise forgiveness.
When Jesus identifies himself with his people in baptism, he is laying down the foundation that will make baptism in the name of Jesus Christ a baptism, not just of repentance, but a baptism of forgiveness, forgiveness that was purchased when Jesus identified himself with us upon the cross.
Here is the solution to the riddle which John the Baptist faced. How could this humble, powerless man Jesus, be the same one who would take John’s ministry on to a new level. How could this candidate for a dunk in a dirty river be the one who was coming “with power” to bring in a baptism of “the Holy Spirit and of fire”.
Jesus comes in power—yes, but it is surprising power rooted in weakness, kingship that willingly takes the role of a servant. Jesus comes as a Saviour who himself becomes helpless.
John, greatest of all the prophets, doesn’t live to see the way all this works out. But John was privileged to be in the water with Jesus the day that Jesus set out. John was there when God showed how the riddle could be answered.
Mt. 3:16 As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.
God validates Jesus ministry from the outset. Yes, his baptism will be a baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus. But the form God’s Spirit adopts is that of a dove, a form of gentleness, a form of vulnerability.
Jesus is the one John expected. He is greater than John, and he comes in power. But he comes in a way that John did not expect, he comes not with the power of a conqueror, but the power of a victim ready to be sacrificed.
We read this passage early in a New Year. That is logical place as we remember the journey from Christmas to Easter. But it also a time to think about change, to take a fresh look, to allow the familiar to be transformed by the new. I quoted Bishop Tom Wright’s earlier. I’d like to end with some words Tom Wright wrote about Jesus’ baptism which spoke to me very powerfully as I prepared this talk. I hope they will encourage you, and challenge you in this New Year of 2011. He writes:
Part of the challenge of this passage is to learn afresh to be surprised by Jesus. He comes to fulfil God's plans, not ours, and even his prophets sometimes seem to misunderstand what he's up to. He will not always play the music we expect. But if we learn to listen carefully to what he says, and watch carefully what he does, we will find that our real longings, the hunger beneath the surface excitement, will be richly met.
At the same time, those who in repentance and faith follow Jesus through baptism and along the road he will now lead us will find, if we listen, that the same voice from heaven speaks to us as well. As we learn to put aside our own plans and submit to his, we may be granted moments of vision: glimpses of his greater reality. And at the centre of that sudden sight we will find our loving father, affirming us as his children, equipping us, too, with his spirit so that our lives may be swept clean and made ready for use.
Lord Jesus, thank you that you were willing to be identified with us in your life and death. Help us to embrace the surprise you bring, and to be identified with you in your power and your gentleness.