John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Lord of all time and eternity,
you opened the heavens and revealed yourself as Father
in the baptism of Jesus your beloved son:
by the power of your Spirit
complete the heavenly work of our rebirth through the waters of the new creation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
As the reading tells us, John comes along to baptise as repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is easy to see the symbolism of the washing clean in the water. In the play, Lady Macbeth tries repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to wash her hands clean of the murder of King Duncan, perhaps it’s not just the symbolism, but the repentance that counts.
However, the baptism that you and I might have experienced either as child or adult is different than that. The symbolism of water is still there but it is the water of death. Listen to the words that I use, you die to the old life and rise again to the new life. Baptism is not simply about being cleansed; it is about rebirth. It is being born again. Born again of water and the Spirit. Baptism like this is baptism into the fellowship of the church, baptism into Christ. The church uses it as an induction into the membership of the church. It is the joining ceremony. Most of all it is becoming a Christian, becoming a part of Christ.
However, that raises another question about the baptism of Jesus. On the one hand Jesus is regarded as sinless, therefore this can hardly be John’s baptism. On the other hand, Jesus has not at that stage died and risen, the church does not yet exist. Why would he be baptised into fellowship with himself.
The answer lies both in the name of the Sunday and the lesson itself. This is the time of Epiphany. Like the story of the three wise men, God reveals himself to the world – that is what Epiphany means. Hence as Jesus comes from the water, the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends like a dove and the voice comes from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. The revelation of God in this act is not just for Jesus, it is for John and the whole world.
With my best wishes,