Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Matthew 3:17
A voice said from heaven, "This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased."
River Jordan

Who we are and what we do

Several years ago Miriam and I attended a conference in Bethlehem and we were also given the opportunity to visit some of the important sites mentioned in the Bible.  One such place was where Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan.  The exact place along the river is unknown these days but that hasn’t stopped people taking advantage of the commercial value of this event.  You can buy a white garment, or just join the line, walk in the water and be “baptised” in the Jordan River. 

I was certainly excited to be standing on the banks of the Jordan and tried to imagine what it was like that day, many centuries ago when Jesus approached John and asked to be baptised.  And when John poured water over him, a dove appeared over Jesus and a voice spoke, " This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased”, that must have been an amazing moment.  But all those busloads of people lining up to be dipped in the waters of the Jordan,
why were they being baptised or rebaptised;
what did they understand about baptism;
did they think of baptism as a sacrament, a gift from God, a way in which God gives us his love and forgiveness;
was this just a fun thing to do like when I ran down the race track of ancient Olympia;
did they really understand the meaning of what happened that day when Jesus was baptised by John?
I tried to shut out this blatant tourist shallowness so that the moment wasn’t destroyed.

What does Jesus baptism mean?  This story might help.
The manager of a manufacturing company often visited the production area of the factory unannounced.  Sometimes he would take off his coat and tie, roll up his sleeves, and help on the assembly line.  One of the bolder employees asked him one day, “Why do you do come down from your air-conditioned office to get dirty down here?”

The manager replied, “I don’t know of a better way to find out what the workers think and feel and whether everyone is happy doing their job.  This is a good way of seeing things from their point of view.”

When he returned to the quiet of his office, he did so with new insight into the ordinary people who were an important part of his company, his world.  What is more, the “ordinary people” got to see the manager from a whole new perspective.

Jesus’ baptism was a sort of “going down to the production line.”  He certainly didn’t have to do it. He is the managing director of the universe he didn’t have to go anywhere near the “ordinary people”.  Some wondered why he would bother.

Jesus was baptised because he wanted everyone to know that he was human and that he understood all about sin and its effect on people’s lives. People came to know who Jesus was; that he was a man who was ready to get his hands dirty but more than just a man.  He was godly; full of love and mercy and peace that only come from the Spirit of God.

It’s true that Jesus’ baptism was unique but in a couple of ways his baptism is similar to ours.  Here’s two of them.  Firstly, baptism gives identity.

When Jesus was baptised a voice says from heaven, “This is my own dear Son”. There is no doubt who Jesus is. 

The terms ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ give us an identity.  I’ve just been down south visiting my parents.  I was often introduced to neighbours and friends with the words – “this is our son …”. 

Perhaps at some time when you’ve introduced your grandchild or a nephew or niece you have said, “This is so and so’s son or daughter”.  This helps others figure out where that person fits into the family.  The person is no longer a complete stranger. 

For thirty years, Jesus had been hidden away in a tiny town called Nazareth as the son of the local carpenter. When he was twelve he was taken to the temple and we get our first hint that Jesus was different from other boys, but this was just a tiny glimpse.  But when Jesus walked out of the water of the Jordan, the dove and the voice from heaven left no doubt who Jesus was.  This ordinary bloke from Nazareth is not just the son of Mary and Joseph but he is God – God's own Son, sent to this earth with a very special mission.  We are given a peek into the eternal interrelationship between Jesus, the Son of God, and the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Jesus’ identity is revealed. 

At our baptism we were given a new identity.  For most of us we were very new to this world when our parents brought us to be baptised, but even though we were very new additions to our parents’ families, we were made even newer.  We were given a new life as God's sons and daughters.  Just as Jesus was God's chosen Son, so also we are God's chosen people, adopted into God's family as his sons and daughters when we were baptised. 

We know that come what may during our earthly journey, our heavenly Father will never desert his sons and daughters.  He will always be on hand to
support us when life’s problems are too much to bear,
lift us up when we are down,
forgive us when guilt makes life miserable
and gives us his never-ending love even when we least deserve it.

Right from the very beginning of our relationship with God, God deals with us graciously.  When we were baptised, there was nothing that we contributed to our adoption into God's family.  God didn’t accept and adopt us into his family because he could see a good spot in us somewhere; there simply isn’t a good spot anywhere. Sin has taken control of every corner of our lives and there is no age when we can say that we are more innocent or tainted less by sin.

Yet God in his love and mercy freely and graciously brought us into his family and gave us the blessings that come from Jesus’ dying and rising.  We were washed clean, made holy and new, and brought into a relationship with God.  We were given a new identity – God's sons and daughters. At our baptism and every day, our heavenly Father says to us, “You are my son; you are my daughter”.

This brings me to the second point about Jesus’ baptism and our baptism.  With baptism comes a task.

Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his ministry. From this moment he went about meeting the needs of people, showing God’s love to the poor, the sick, the dying and those no-one cared about and finally making the ultimate sacrifice by giving his own life to save ours.

With his baptism, Jesus was given a special ministry.  God says in the Old Testament reading, “Here is the Lord’s servant, the one I have chosen.”  Note the use of the word “servant”.  That seems a bit of a contradiction – on the one hand to call him a “son” and then on the other a “servant”. 

It seems an impossible combination but that’s what God does.  He calls him son to describe who he is and a servant to describe the special work into which Jesus had been baptised.  Already in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus takes on a humble, self-effacing attitude as he comes to John the Baptist to be baptised.  Of course Jesus didn’t need to repent and to turn away from sin – he is the perfect Son of God.  As he bows before the desert preacher he identifies himself with all the others lined up on the banks of the Jordan.  He is foretelling a time in the not too distant future when he will take on himself the sin of all people and make the ultimate sacrifice.  He will identify himself with all of sinful humanity and die on the cross.

At the same time as we were made sons and daughters in our baptism, we were also made servants.  Just as the slaves in the past were branded to indicate who their owner was, the sign of the cross was made on our foreheads and bodies.  We are now God's.  We belong to him.  We are his servants called to live as those who belong to God and to carry out our heavenly Father’s will.

Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his ministry.  Our baptism is the beginning of our ministry.  

As God's children called into his family, made members of his church, he has called us
to love and show compassion,
to obey and urge others to obedience,
to be forgiving and considerate,
to show understanding and to value all people like no other people on this planet.

We are called to “offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him” (Rom 12:1) or as Paul says in Ephesians, “Since you are God's dear children, you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us” (5:1,2).  What could be clearer – God has chosen you and me to be his sons and daughters in our world.  He has given us a responsibility to be his servants and to be servants of others as we bend over backwards to carry on Christ’s work in our community and country in this New Year. 
He has called us to help others to see through the love that we show and the help that we give
that God loves them;
that he invites them to also be his sons and daughters;
that he wants to be their helper and strength through all the troubles that life in this world can bring.

When we were baptised a tremendously intimate relationship was established between Christ and us.  The implications of this are immense.  We are to let
his thoughts direct our thoughts,
his mind control our mind,
his concerns be our concerns. 
In the church we all share the same intimate connection with Christ.  We are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are new creations; the old has gone, the new has come!”  

To fail to let our baptism renew the way we live every day;
to deny its powerful effect in every situation
is to deny the power of Christ to change us and to turn away from our chosen-ness, our servanthood, our brotherhood with Christ. 

And it’s just when we realise our failure to live the new life that Christ has given us, that our baptism becomes even more important.  In spite of our failures, we still belong to God.  The simple unimpressive water of baptism assures that his love and forgiveness are as strong as ever.  He invites us to turn to him in repentance and faith.  He says to us, “You are my child, whom I love.  I am very pleased with you.”


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
12th January, 2014

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