Readings: Isaiah 43, 1-7; Ps29; Acts 8 14-17 Luke 3, 15-18, 21-22
Hymns: O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; When for us you were baptised; When Jesus came to Jordan; Hail to the Lord’s anointed.
If I start by asking, ‘who were the wise men’ you’d probably say, remembering the C+ M+ B chalked on Roman Catholic houses here each Epiphany, ‘Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.’ And if I ask ‘who were they, what did they look like, where were they from?’ your answer might be even quicker, even though neither pictures nor descriptions exist. But the odds are our mental images would suit ourselves, we would have ‘appropriated’ them to our own ideas, the outcome become fact. That’s what people in Madrid this week were doing when they complained angrily seeing for the first time the wise man allocated to Africa in the City’s pageant was not the usual white Spaniard painted black, but a black Spaniard. ‘Making black’ was acceptable to people’s perception of their ownership of the Kings – or their perception of themselves as kings – but not being black.
If I had started by saying, ‘Who baptised Jesus?’ you might think I hadn’t read today’s text never mind the Bible! The obvious answer is John the Baptist, that direct-speaking man of action, part of a group who taught repentance, the remission of sins and the giving of alms, cleansing potential followers with water for their new life. In the first part of today’s Gospel chapter, John called his hapless listeners ‘a brood of vipers,’ demanding that all share excess clothes and give away excess food, and telling the tax-collectors whom he baptized to ‘collect only what is due to the state, not taking an extra cut,’ and demanding of soldiers that they ‘do not extort money or bring false accusations.’ Going back to the wise men, seeing them in our image, or us in theirs, is fine: with this congregation before me, we’d have a dozen sets. But insisting my image was right and Daniel’s wrong, or vice versa, would be wrong, for we’d each be trying to own the wise men, just as some people try to own the so-often it improbably blue eyed blond Jesus. That the egoism with exclusion against which John warned is involved is suggested by the fact that Judas doesn’t get the blue-eyed blond treatment!
John is clearly the baptizer in Matthew, Mark and John: but today’s Baptism lectionary elegantly omits two verses, 19 and 20. John speaks in verse 18, and Jesus appears in verse 21. In 19 and 20, John has openly opposed Herod for marrying his half-sister and for his other sins to which, as Luke puts it, Herod added by putting John in prison, which turns out to be his death-sentence. We don’t notice the gap, in part because the lectionary cuts it out but also because ‘we know’ what happened, just as we ‘know’ Bible texts which are actually no such thing, but phrases plucked out to suit our intentions.
So who baptised Jesus in Luke? Assuming that the text is a little jumbled, with the intrusive verses 19 and 20 popped in by mistake, I’ll focus on John’s actions. He insisted no one should abuse power, or take from people anything which affects their capacity to survive. Did he make demands of others while indulging himself? No, for when he saw serious wrong-doing, which in this case was sexual but in John’s terms or ours could equally be economic or political exploitation, he spoke even though the risk was obvious. And ultimately, it was that comment which led to his death.
Clearly, John baptised many, including Jesus. But in Luke, it is the actions of John in living life with integrity that intervenes amid the baptismal drama. And that is the point! Baptism is not just for the day, it is not just a formula. Putting those two verses in the middle of the baptism story, verses of deprivation and death, makes the challenge of living baptism clear. Baptism is to be lived by everyone here, whether formally baptised or not, for in Baptism we are named, as Isaiah puts it, God saying, ‘I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…and I will be with you.’ The Samarians committed themselves to Christ, Son of God, in baptism, a grace-filled act completed by the Holy Spirit through the offices of Peter and John: next week we shall renew our baptismal vows and commit ourselves to God’s way and God’s love in the Covenant Service. The dove with olive branch on your service sheet is for the baptism of Christ, but it also appeared three times last year for the four baptisms of Evy, Martha, Hannah and Henrietta. Baptism is part of us as we move towards the Eucharist, and indeed today, as every time I preside, I shall be quietly saying as I pour the water of Baptism into the wine of Completion: ‘Baptise us afresh in your love, and give us the guts to follow your way.’
Without exceptions based on denominational label or understanding, this joy-filled Baptism day is a call to action for all, as Bonhoeffer puts it:
Don’t chose the cosy way but the right one
Don’t dither indulgently but bravely grasp reality
Don’t take refuge in thinking but find freedom in doing.
Turn away from frightened apathy to the lively flurry of action
Carried by God’s commands and your faith,
And freedom will joyously embrace your spirit.
Recd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg 10th January 2016