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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=107


 

Baptism of the Lord, Year C (January 10, 2016)         St James', Peace River

This Sunday is the one when above all I really feel that our personal stories and the story of the Bible come together. We have just come through a season when our focus has been on one of the central stories of the Bible – the birth in time of the timeless Son of God. And the Christmas story has a special quality, a connection to each of us, because it tells us about how God's story erupts into ours. As I tried to say last week, God doesn't ask us to go and meet him somewhere else – he comes to meet us here and now, right where we are.

But now we begin the work of retelling our own stories with that conviction in mind. And we begin at the beginning, with baptism – only in the Bible, it's not our baptism that comes first, but Jesus'. Yet there are so many reasons to think that this is in itself another story of convergence, a meeting point where God's story and ours come together. Why was Jesus getting baptized anyway? We don't think of him as needing to be saved from sin, or moved over from the kingdom of the world into the kingdom of God, or being introduced to God's family. But his baptism marks a new beginning for the world, a new era, it inaugurates that new kingdom and that new family, and it invites every one of us to do as he did, to enter a new way of living that he both opened to us and was also the first to demonstrate. It's an act of solidarity – so that when we remember Jesus' baptism, we are bound to remember our own – or perhaps for some of us, to think, “I want that too!”

I think it really helps to look at Jesus' baptism that way, because it also shows us how baptism is not a ritual act but an act of God which is full of profound meaning. Jesus coming up out of the water has an extraordinary intimate experience of God. The Holy Spirit descends on him, and he hears his Father speaking to him, “You are my son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” We could hear that as just part of the continuing story of the Son of God which we began at Christmas: it makes sense that the Father would speak to his own Son this way. But if you remember that the point of Jesus' story is to erupt into our lives and become one with our own story, his experience means something very powerful and personal for each of us. Those words from the Father, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, are for every one of us. God the Holy Spirit wants to live in you and with you; God the Father wants to call you his child, the one he loves and delights in.

It turns out this is not the first time God has tried to say that. God was saying the same thing many times in the stories of the Old Testament. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” - those are words from Hosea trying to communicate God's passionate love to his people, and it's interesting to see how Jesus also experiences that too after the fact – fleeing to Egypt as an infant with his family, who only returned when they were called by God. But we heard another similar passage in the Isaiah reading this morning: “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you; I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” The great and wealthy countries of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sheba are a ransom God would willingly give up.

It is as though you said to your own child, or your parent said to you, “I'm glad your mine, I would rather have had you than Serena Williams (or Bradley Cooper or Taylor Swift or whoever it might be).” What parent wouldn't say that – and what child doesn't need to hear it, and know it's true? So this is what God says to you and me, as he said it first to the people of Israel, and then in a world-changing way to Jesus. And as we grow in that love, we discover that it's not exclusive and there's more than enough to go round – just as parents in a large family can love each of their children completely. There's a wonderful passage in the book of Amos where God points out that Israel isn't the only nation he has brought out of captivity into a land of promise. What he can do for one out of his infinite love, he can do for us all. The challenge for us is not to let that make it any less personal – rather as we come to know how deep God's love is for others as well, to let that deepen our own experience of how we too are precious in his sight and dear to him.

That's where our focus needs to come back to Jesus again. He is not just the exemplar – the one to whom God speaks so that we can all hear God speaking to us. He is also the proof of what God is saying. This is how much I love you, God says. I am willing to give anything for you, so here is the most precious thing I have. Quite a stunning reversal from the earliest days of the Bible where people offered the lives of their own children to prove their faithfulness to their gods – and remember how that got turned around when Abraham took Isaac along to be a human sacrifice, but learned that God didn't want that kind of dedication after all. Instead, here we have God giving us his Son. Not as a sacrifice – it wasn't God who killed Jesus, that's down to human beings – but certainly as a way to go beyond words in demonstrating the love God has for every single one of us.

But there is one more way in which God goes beyond words, and enables each of us to take our invitation into the new kind of life seriously and personally. It formed the focus of the Acts story that we heard in the second reading, though the key to understanding it is once again in Jesus' experience at his baptism. The Acts reading happens just as life in Christ starts to break out beyond the immediate environment of Jerusalem and Judea. It is beginning to erupt into human life in other places as well, and the first place we hear of is Samaria, the old northern half of Israel. As soon as they hear there are new disciples there, the church in Jerusalem sends Peter and John to welcome them as part of God's new family. But there's a hiccup. They know about Jesus, and they have been baptized like he was (and in his name) – but there's a missing piece: “the Spirit had not yet come upon any of them.”

We learn from the rest of the book of Acts that this is an anomaly. Baptism and the Holy Spirit go together like a horse and carriage! And that's rooted in what happened to Jesus, when his baptism opened up that experience of the Holy Spirit coming to be with him. The Spirit's presence is the living reality of the love the Father speaks of, and also the living reality of God's desire not just to do good things for us, but to be with us through everything. It's a solidarity that goes beyond us following in Jesus' footsteps or him leading the way for us – it's a solidarity in the present moment, the assurance and the reality that God never leaves us, but lives in us as we live in him, our stories finally converging into one.

If you are a person to whom God says, “you are my child, I love you and delight in you,” (and so you are!) well then, you need to know that God lives that out, not from a distance but right there with you. This is what I mean about how we need to remember to take all of this very personally – it is not some story that happens on the page, at which we can nod our heads and be appreciative. God is in the story of our lives, and the presence of the Holy Spirit is how God does that and how we know it. It's an incredible gift – one of our eucharistic prayers calls it “God's own first gift for those who believe.”

Like so many other gifts that we receive, it's easily lost and forgotten. Some things that were under the Christmas tree just two weeks ago may already have gone astray. Even some of those lifelong gifts we received from our parents as we grew up may have got left behind, only to be rediscovered much later. That's how it is to receive a gift that we may not yet be ready to fully receive. But, from God's side, the gift of himself, first in Jesus and then in the Holy Spirit, is never lost and never forgotten. It is always there, because that is the very meaning of the gift – that God is always there, wanting to be part of every moment and every element of who you are.

If you want that gift, or if you want to recover it – it is no farther away than your own heart and soul. Be baptised along with Jesus, or simply remember your baptism. Because in that moment, God promises you once and for all, but then again in every moment of every day – I love you, I will give anything for you, I will never leave you.