Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
This day in the Christian calendar is set aside to focus on the baptism of Jesus.
A day to recall an event in the life of Jesus, a key in the sense that it marks a new beginning – for Jesus’ public ministry, his awareness of an identity marked by the audible and the visible presence of God in blessing and confirmation of belonging in the divine purpose.
But clearly, for Matthew’s community and for the Church down the centuries, it is a day for us to recall our own baptism (or to reflect on what that event may mean for us at some future point).
I wonder if, this morning, we might do just that. To recall the event and what that may have meant at the time, but more importantly what it now suggests to us about who we are. Our own identity.
Baptism is about identity. It has always, for the whole church, regardless of particular tradition, been about identity.
I have to admit that my recollections of my own baptism are not exactly marked by spiritual triumph. Having made a Christian commitment the previous year I’d thrown in my lot with Baptist folk. It might just as easily have been Anglicans and today I might have been attending a different church altogether.
To imagine that I’d been won over by the depth and integrity of the ‘the Baptist position’ on believers’ Baptism is to credit me with far too much discernment. It is likely that having fallen in love with a Baptist girl, the Baptists won. And here I am!
Not much of a start really, I have to admit. (I should say of my Christian journey, not my marriage). And it doesn’t get much better when I also recall that when the issue of baptism finally came up it was because it stood as a necessary step in my application to become a member of the local Baptist Church. I wanted to belong and my baptism ticked the necessary box.
Well pretty clearly, my identity as a Christian and member of a Baptist congregation was an identity by reason of association. The identity of the group – of the collective.
That source of identity is never sustaining, certainly not when times are tough.
Who am I and whose I am invites a more probing personal questioning. In a sense it involves revisiting Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism – finding ourselves in the story. It seems that Matthew wants to include us, to bring near, and to say to us, ‘where Jesus is, I am’. (In Matthew’s account, the voice from heaven was heard by everyone, not just by Jesus)
And it’s that that I invite us to reflect on this morning. And to help do that I want to draw on a tradition that is neither Baptist, Roman Catholic, nor mainstream Protestant.
It’s a perspective that comes from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Many of you will be familiar with the fact that much worship and contemplation for Orthodox believers is through the use of icons, artistic depictions of key figures or scenes from the gospels.
Take a look at this classical Orthodox icon of the Baptism of Jesus.
It depicts Jesus naked, up to his neck in water. On one side John the Baptist, on the other three angels holding Jesus’ clothes. (Interesting that this is almost a representation of what happens right here in the baptisms that take place in this worship centre). There is, as well, a representation of the hand of God descending from above.
But underneath, and this is the intriguing bit, in the depths of the river, you see little figures who commentators tell us represent the ‘river god(s)’.
Rowan Williams comments* that the scene it is a very strange, Classical survival in Orthodox art. We may brush this aside as an unwarranted theological fantasy but he suggests that there is a valuable insight that can enlarge our sense of baptismal identity.
He goes on to say …
“(The) presence of the river god is often seen, by Orthodox commentators as a representation of the way in which the Baptism of Jesus is understood as a descent into chaos: into a world of chaotic, unregulated reality, prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is like the waste and void which covers the face of creation at the beginning of Genesis.”
Matthew, too, begins his Gospel with (a derivative of the word) ‘Genesis’. Baptism was frequently linked with imagery first seen in Genesis: There the watery chaos is addressed by God. The Word descends into the chaos and, under the overshadowing of the Spirit, something is brought to birth, namely peace and order.
Here, in Jesus’ baptism the descending of God marks the vocation of Jesus to live out his innermost identity as God’s beloved child.
When he comes up out of the water there is no longer chaos, there is the voice of calling from above.
Matthew’s account of the birth narrative from which we draw our fondest images of the Christmas season is a more comprehensive narrative than the images we often extract for Christmas cards and nativity tableaus would suggest.
His is an account of disruption to an established order. There is personal, even very private turmoil that is obvious in the breaking news of the baby’s conception and the implications for the two people who find themselves at the centre of a circumstance that neither could have imagined or chosen for themselves.
Personal and family turmoil then gives way to a community’s agony in the massacre of innocent children as political forces rush to barricade themselves against the threat to self-interest.
Gentile people are involved and choose how to rightly respond, in the account of the Magi. And the family’s flight into Egypt as refugees carries the message of a disruption that crosses borders.
This story is not told just to fill in a detail about “what happened to Jesus next”. Against this turmoil, Matthew understands a deeper movement. There is a reassuring word that we are invited to hear and take in about a deep belonging right there in the zone of crisis and despair.
I find this thought that Jesus is baptised into a chaotic order but that he comes up out of the water hearing the Spirit speaking words of assurance, that chaos is not a final word, greatly encouraging.
There are moments in life when ‘situation normal’, that comfortable expectation that ‘things as they are supposed to be’ is, sometimes violently overturned. The sense of sudden disorientation registers in every part of our being. Reasoning loses its rational reference points, emotions overwhelm and attempts to act have an erratic and unpredictable quality.
Chaos is not too strong a word.
And at this point in our own history, with the country on fire and all the images of turmoil and destruction that come to us every day, chaos is what we are experiencing.
I find in myself recently in conversation with others and sense that there is a deep shock, a bewilderment and disorientation that is profoundly destabilising.
Loss of life; the incineration of carefully treasured memories bound up in dwellings and precious personal effects; native animals and habitats destroyed.
There is a deep sorrow. We are, collectively, stunned, speechless.
And we wonder, with others who are more in the know than we, whether the tipping point of change that has often been spoken about has been reached and the world as we have known it is disappearing before our eyes.
Faith struggles to find a place to stand … and not the sort of faith I heard uttered in a nearby town just last week: “The Lord will look after it”.
Hope is found not in fantasy or in our fears but searches for God’s presence here, now, where we are. It’s a contemplative, deliberate watchfulness that is called for.
For some struggling with health issues or caring for loved ones who are, the sense maybe of a chaos that is within, so overwhelming that even the fires that surround the country have barely registered.
This account of Jesus’ baptism puts before us the question of identity. How we manage to see ourselves when what we thought were sure things, begin to crumble.
It reminds us that we have been, in the one event of our baptism, given an identity and called to take on that identity. Gift and task.
Identity “in Christ”
Williams comments again:
… “Where you might expect to find a baptised person is somewhere near chaos. The baptised … are those who live in the name of God in the neighbourhood of chaos … both inner as well as an outer chaos. …
“The baptised person is aware of her or his proximity to chaos, of the impossibility of making order simply by actions of goodwill and hard thinking and frantic effort.”
I don’t have the resources to batter the world into submission and into patterns that satisfy me. But I am spoken to by the One who brings reality out of chaos.
It means that I may expect my baptismal calling to take me into the neighbourhood of other kinds of chaos.
The chaos of other people’s lives,
the chaos of suffering, the chaos of doubt,
the chaos of a real world in which people are ground down.
Baptism has always been, from the very beginning, a bringing in, a gathering together, a unifying in belonging and purpose.
In that sense it underlines a solidarity … the identification with lots of people you’ve never met and those who under normal circumstances you might never have thought of finding any meaningful connection with.
The one who is baptised is called (and graced) into a life in which personal boundaries are less predictable, less defended than could have been imagined.
My baptism didn’t say very much to me at 20 years of age. My identity was tied up with wider affiliations and the routines that others had set in place and that I simply walked into. Useful, even helpful at one level.
But we are called back to re-establish, again and again, where our baptism suggests we personally might be called to stand, both in times of unexceptional ordinariness as in times of turmoil and crisis.
Reminded either on this day each year in the Christian calendar or as we witness another baptism taking place right here.
But whenever and where ever, might our ponderings bring to us a stronger, clearer realisation of who we are, and whose we are.
A baptismal identity.
* Rev Dr Rowan Williams, Sacramental Living, St Peters Public Lectures, Trinity College. University of Melbourne, May 2002