Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sin and Solidarity: Sermon for the Baptism of Jesus

So, it’s been a while since I posted a sermon. Have a look at this one and see what you think.

 

Matthew 3:13-17; Acts 10:34-43; Isaiah 42:1-9 

This morning we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. As soon as you start to think about that, you’ll realise that there’s something quite strange going on. Why on earth would Jesus be baptised? In the passage immediately before today’s reading, we’re told that John the Baptist appears in the wilderness proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The people from Jerusalem and all Judea come to John and are baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now Jesus comes from Galilee to John at the Jordan, expressly in order to be baptised by him.

One of the things we know about Jesus is that he did not sin. I had an argument with one of my ex-students about that this week. He asked me what I was going to preach about today, I told him, and mentioned this problem of Jesus being baptised. Alex couldn’t see a problem. He argued that if Jesus was fully human, which the church believes and proclaims, then he must have sinned – that there’s just no way that Jesus could have gone through life without sin. Alex, who’s twenty-two, told me that in particular there was just no way that Jesus could have been a teenage boy without sinning.

While I have to defer to Alex on the question of the sinfulness of teenage boys, since he, unlike me, has actually been one, I think that his argument’s based on a misunderstanding of the nature of sin. Sin is not primarily about what we do – or even about what we think or feel. Sin is, first and foremost, about separation from God, about missing the mark, about not living up to our potential to be the people God created us to be. Repentance is about turning around, returning to God, behaving like the prodigal son and going home to the Father who runs to meet us.

Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, lived his life in full relationship with God. John’s Gospel perhaps describes it best in his language of the Father and the Son being One. Jesus did not sin, and had no need to repent. So, why, since John is baptising for repentance those who confess their sins, does Jesus seek baptism?

It’s a question that obviously worried Matthew, too, because only in Matthew do we get a dialogue between Jesus and John on the subject. John points out that things are happening the wrong way round; that it is he, John, who should be baptised by Jesus. But Jesus answers: “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”.

Righteousness means doing what God wants. When John baptises Jesus, both are doing what God wants. But with all due respect to Matthew, that doesn’t really answer the question. It just raises the next question: why does God want Jesus to be baptised? I think, and I’m not alone in this, that it’s all about the Incarnation, God’s amazing, unique intervention in history that we celebrated at Christmas. In the Incarnation, God became human, in the most wonderful act of solidarity with humanity, and in his baptism, Jesus, God-with-us, continues to act out that solidarity.

Jesus doesn’t need to be baptised. But by submitting to John, by plunging into the waters of the Jordan, he gives us an example and models for us our own baptism. We do need everything that baptism means, to go through the waters, to die to our old lives and be reborn to new lives, to repent and return to God. We do this in imitation of Jesus, who did it before us.

In response to Jesus’ baptism, to his righteous action, the heavens open and the barriers between God and humanity are withdrawn. The Spirit descends upon Jesus and the voice from heaven says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”. Jesus’ identity as Beloved Son is confirmed. He is described as beloved, and this is at the very beginning of his ministry, before he has yet done any of the teaching and healing that Matthew will show him doing as Messiah; before he’s gone about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, as Peter tells the Gentiles in today’s reading from the Book of Acts. God’s love of Jesus precedes his ministry. The same is true for all of us. Before we do anything at all, God loves us, and whatever we do is done in response to that love, not in order to earn it.

When we follow Jesus into baptism, we are baptised into his life and his death, and into his relationship with God. The Eastern Orthodox Church calls our journey to God ‘deification’ – God became human so that we might become God. That sounds very strange to our Western, Protestant ears, sacrilegious, as though we are trying to become something we were never meant to be. But we are created to be in relationship with God, to be drawn into the love that is the Trinity, to become part of the community of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. We are created to be the beloved children of God. Just as the voice says to Jesus after his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved”, so God says to every one of us in our own baptism and forever afterwards: “you are my child, the beloved”.

The intervention of the Spirit does not just identify Jesus as God’s beloved Son. In today’s reading from Isaiah, one of the Servant songs, we are told: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” and it is this delight in God’s soul that is echoed in the words, “with whom I am well pleased”.  Jesus does not need to submit to John, to be baptised, but he does, and we see the Messiah being the Servant, the one that Isaiah describes: “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.” We see one of the paradoxes that is at the centre of Christianity: that the last will be first; the least greatest; the humble exalted. The one that John described as coming to baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire, the one who will gather his wheat and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, instead comes to submit to John and baptism by water. In our baptism, in the union with God that we are invited to seek, we too are invited to follow Jesus in being servants. Baptised into Jesus’ life and death and life, we too are invited to bring forth justice, to be 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. We are invited to do all that because we are the beloved children of God; we are invited to act in response to God’s love.

So why was Jesus baptised? For the same reason that the Son became incarnate, that God became human. To reveal what the Incarnation revealed, what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection revealed. God loves us. We are God’s beloved children. Today and every day, that is what we celebrate. Amen.

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January 15, 2008 - Posted by | Ministry

3 Comments »

  1. Sin is not primarily about what we do – or even about what we think or feel. Sin is, first and foremost, about separation from God, about missing the mark, about not living up to our potential to be the people God created us to be. Repentance is about turning around, returning to God, behaving like the prodigal son and going home to the Father who runs to meet us.

    Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, lived his life in full relationship with God…

    I liked this — you said it well & concisely. I’ll borrow it sometime!

    I also liked the connection between deification and being God’s beloved children. We need to draw on that more often.

    Comment by PaulW | January 16, 2008 | Reply

  2. Hi Avril, and happy new year!

    I think you have put your finger on the nub of the issue with this sermon in respect of both sin and Jesus’ baptism as this is portrayed in the Synoptic tradition. Sin is not mere wrongdoing, it is a state of mind, one that says humans are, in and of themselves, sufficient ground on which to stand. Likewise, the Incarnation and bapotism are about God’s radical solidarity with sinful and suffering humanity, that we might be freed from the conceit of sin and thereby liberated into life.

    Best wishes, Brendan

    Comment by Brendan | January 21, 2008 | Reply

  3. The concept of “sin” is the means of separation of human action from human desire, instituted by priests and lay-people with pointy noses!

    This is sometimes for good, sometimes to stop people touching a menstruating woman.

    Surely defining sin as merely a state of mind, a separation from God conflicts with the much of monotheistic commandment style teaching. A mental state implies a certain subjectivity which is at odds with universaly commandments.

    I’m curious Avers- can a mentally ill person sin? If they don’t KNOW they are? Or is their illness a separation from god- a sin in itself which they cannot control?

    Are atheists like me who certainly don’t feel close to a god, sinning through our distance?

    Comment by Alex | February 4, 2008 | Reply


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