Father Simon recently rejoined the team at St John’s, and is now back on the preaching roster. Due to popular request from the congregation I am posting his first two sermons. This one is for the feast of the Baptism of Christ which we celebrated a few weeks ago.
Children these days! They grow up much too quickly!
Certainly, the gospel reading this week appears to confirm this!
Less than three weeks ago we gathered here to rejoice at the birth of Jesus. Last week we celebrated the Epiphany when the Magi brought their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Now we seem to have time travelled to the time of Jesus’ baptism as a young man at the Jordan by John the Baptist. Our Lord seems to have gone from helpless infant to adulthood in a matter of days.
This rapid change seems both strange and not a little worrying, after all and despite our grumbles, children don’t really grow up that quickly.
The gospel writers, apart from the brief scene at the temple as told by Luke, tell us almost nothing of Jesus’ early life, so this apparent accelerated maturing is the result of this brevity.
Therefore, after we hear about the presentation at the Temple, the flight into Egypt, and that visit by the Magi, we have to leave the season of Christmas behind as we move on into the future, when Jesus has become a man.
Now, just as if we were sitting at home and watching a DVD, we ‘fast forward’ to John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness and Jesus coming to the Jordan to be baptized by him.
In the gospel according to Mark, this is the first encounter we have with Jesus; there is absolutely nothing at all about His birth let alone his growing up!
The baptism by John indicates Jesus’ formal introduction and presentation to the world, and perhaps this is Mark’s version of a Christmas story; the story of the Son of God entered into the midst of human life and sent out to redeem it.
Baptism marks a rite of passage, and it seems that rites such as these are becoming ever more important and popular than ever.
Think of their variety: Birthdays, confirmations, school leavers’ balls, graduations, and engagement parties. Each of these events ritually marks a key milestone in the transition from childhood to adulthood. We celebrate what our young people have achieved, how far they’ve come, how much they’ve learned and grown. We try to give them words of encouragement and we hope that these words give some support as they go on to face new challenges and opportunities. Finally, we present them to the world as people who are ready to be received as adults. We wish them well in all their endeavours, and we prepare to relate to them in new ways as they get ready to make their own independent way.
Obviously, there are some major differences between the baptism of Jesus and our more ordinary coming of age rituals. The heavens rarely open at a graduation ceremony, at least, not in the sense that we see it at Jesus baptism anyway! Also, when Jesus is baptised by John, and sent out, He really is sent out to change the world. This young man, already on his way to the cross, will shake the very foundations of the world, in a way that no one else has ever done, before or since.
When we tell our children that they’re going out to change the world, we may well just be inflating their perhaps already large egos and may be risking leaving them vulnerable when things go wrong and their dreams are sadly shattered.
Yet despite these differences the occasion still marks the point in the Gospels when the story of Jesus evolves from youth to adulthood.
And as with our ceremonies, this ‘rite of passage’ implies a deepening vocation. Of course, Jesus has always been God’s beloved Son, but the affirmation of God’s approval here in Mark, really launches Jesus’ public ministry, and in this brief scene, we can see that Jesus symbolically replaces the prophetic voice of John the Baptist with his own.
As we read on, we see that Jesus will now go out into the wilderness where he will face the temptation of Satan; there he will be face the harsh reality of what His love for the world will cost.
Jesus will return from the wilderness to proclaim the kingdom of God, He will call identify His first disciples, heal the sick and cast out demons. These amazing things all happen in this the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus does indeed grow up very quickly.
This episode changes things for us, too. Graduations, engagements, and important birthdays are not just about the changing life of the young person concerned. They also affect the family and friends who also have to change as their expectations and their relationships develop and change. As parents we have to learn to let go, to give our children the space and freedom to progress. Others must learn not to offer every piece of advice that comes to mind, to let the young person grow and mature.
This can be difficult, especially for parents, as they move from carer to equal, and it becomes even harder when we need to trust our children to aid us in our weakness.
Most of us will one day need to learn to be dependent on those who were once dependent upon us.
The gospel says “He saw the heavens torn apart” but we can’t be sure if anyone else did, or whether they heard that heavenly voice, but what we do know, is that this account is there for us to hear today. It’s the introduction to Jesus as he comes of age and it reminds us that we cannot always relate to Jesus in the same way that we related to the infant in the manger.
And just as we struggle with this concept of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, so too did his contemporaries. Jesus’ long-time acquaintances dismissed him with a brief question. “Is this not Joseph’s son,” they will ask, “whose Father and Mother we know” (John 6:42)? They are unable to take him seriously as an adult, much less as one who speaks with the authority of God.
Many people love the Christmas story, but never look beyond it, and if we’re totally honest, I suspect that sometimes we do too. We infantilize him so that we can accept the gift he brings to us without needing to obey him. I think most of us would rather have been there to see Mary sing a lullaby to Jesus than to be there when He was casting the moneychangers out of the temple.
And I suspect I’m not alone in this, if you look, there are many more paintings of the Madonna and Child than any other scene from the life of Jesus.
We really can’t pick and choose which Jesus we prefer. The infant Jesus really does grow up! He becomes the one who: teaches with authority, heals the sick, casts out demons, and ultimately shows us our own cruelty as He hangs on the cross.
Jesus is the beloved Son, who struggles with Satan and wins, and whose words and deeds bear the stamp of the Father’s approval. And no, we really can’t choose which Jesus we prefer!
The story of the baptism by John at the Jordan issues a call to faith, a call that moves us from welcoming the gift of the Christ Child to accepting the gift of His adult ministry.
It should force us to move away from attempting to meet the infant Jesus on our own terms because we need to receive the adult Jesus as the one who has both the power and the will to care for us. And just as it is difficult for us as parent to let go and accept the care of our children so it is to do the same for Jesus. But we must open ourselves to the love of God whose desires for us are better than anything we could want for ourselves.
We really must be prepared to accept our position as children of God, and welcome the guardianship and protection of Jesus. Because then we have a chance to glimpse the grace and freedom of salvation.