Epiphany 1/Baptism of Jesus

Sermon Date: 
9 Jan 2011
Bible Base: 
Matthew 17

David Jeans

The church year is quite confusing at this time of year. It bears no relation to the idea of a new year which is prominent in the world’s thinking and inevitably in ours. And then there’s Epiphany where we are not sure whether to focus of the visit of the wise men or on the baptism of Jesus. For example, we weren’t quite sure whether to complete the crib scene with the arrival of the wise men this Sunday or last Sunday. (Of course the most appropriate time would have been Thursday, the day marking the feast of the Epiphany).
In some ways it seems a sudden jump to go from the visit of the wise men to the baptism of Jesus. But actually there is quite a connection. The word Epiphany means revelation or manifestation. As a Christian festival it is now mostly associated with the visit of the wise men – but in the Orthodox church the emphasis is also on the baptism of Jesus. I remember when I was training for ordination in Bristol going to a Polish Orthodox service on the feast of the Epiphany which is still observed by many of the Eastern Orthodox as their celebration of Christmas. In this service – which started at 11.30 pm and lasted for nearly 3 hours – the baptism of Jesus plays a prominent part. It is as though the time between Jesus birth and the start of his public ministry is skipped over. There is something like a thirty year gap – and I have often wondered what was going on in that time. We will come back to that later.
Why is the baptism of Jesus seen to be so important? Three reasons

  • It marks the start of Jesus’ public ministry.
  • It declares who Jesus is and points to what he will do.
  • It is a key moment in God’s empowering of Jesus for his ministry.

Firstly, it marks the start of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus himself had been preparing for this for thirty years. The people of Israel had been looking for God to act, for God to do something, for God to make the world a better place. If you like, they were hoping for a new time, a new age, a new year of the Lord’s favour. They did not want another year just like the old one. Both Jesus and the people wanted to know ‘is this the time’. They had been under starting orders. Now they wanted to hear the gun.
This start begins with the ministry of John the Baptist.
‘On your marks’ - he says ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. The idea is of ‘God ruling’, of God being in charge. It is what the godly people of the day were waiting for. Synagogue worship of Jesus’ day ended with the prayer “ May God let his kingship rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the whole lifetime of the house of Israel, speedily and soon”.[1] Joseph of Arimathea is described in Mark 15:43 as one who was ‘waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God’. ‘On your marks’ says John – it’s coming!
‘Get set’ – repent, sort your life out, sort your priorities out. That is what John’s baptism is about.
‘Go’ – is probably addressed most to Jesus! And the gun is his baptism , which includes this event of seeing heaven opened. Centuries earlier Isaiah had written ‘Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down’ (Isaiah 64:1). Now at long last it is happening. The starting gun has been fired.
Secondly it declares who Jesus is, and points to what he will do.
A voice from heaven declares This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. The voice of God declares to those who will listen ‘this is my Son’. For Jewish listeners this is language used of the King – Psalm 2:6-7 “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain’. He said to me ‘You are my Son’”. The voice is to Jesus as well – indeed Mark has the voice saying ‘You are my Son’. Jesus needs to hear that voice.
Why does Jesus need to hear that voice? Because he did not know who he was or what his ministry was through getting out the minutes of committee meetings in heaven. Jesus came to his understanding of who he was and what he was to do through the same means that are open to us as we seek to understand and do God’s will. Through study of the scriptures on his own and in public worship. Through his life of private prayer and public worship. Through his relationship with his Father. Through the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. That is what the thirty years were about. They were about Jesus getting to know his Father, and getting to know his voice and his will. And at the heart of that was his study of the scriptures.
So the voice of God confirms to Jesus who he is – You are my Son. And God says more than that to Jesus by using words which carry echoes of the scriptures that Jesus studied and loved.
You are my Son – the one through whom I will exercise my kingly rule. Jesus the King.
With whom I am well pleased, in whom I delight. Where had Jesus heard that before? The same place as we heard it a few minutes ago – Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. Isaiah 42. Jesus the Servant King – who will bring justice to the nations, who will be gentle with those who struggle – a bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. (I love those words – when I am bruised, when I am only smouldering, I know that the Servant King will be gentle with me; and those words give me a pattern for my own ministry, Encouraging smouldering wicks into flame rather than snuffing them out by saying their faith isn’t good enough.)
My Son, whom I love. Here the scholars see connections to Genesis 22, where Isaac is described as Abraham’s only Son, whom you love. The Greek word used in Matthew (and in the Greek version of the OT) is agapetos – often used of only children. And the profound hint here to Jesus through the connections with Abraham and Isaac is of a Father prepared to offer his only Son as a sacrifice for the sins of world.
King, Servant, Sacrifice – and before you say that the scholars may see that now, but Jesus (and the onlookers) would not have made those connections, remember that Jesus had immersed himself in scripture for nearly thirty years. It was his lifeblood; it was his heartbeat. It is where he gained his understanding of himself and his ministry. His understanding of the scriptures was far deeper and more profound than the greatest of biblical scholars – they speak about me, he said to the Pharisees. The voice from heaven is not telling Jesus anything knew – it is confirming what he already thought, and it is doing it through familiar words for Jesus.
[Connections again to the wise men and their gifts – gold for a king, frankincense for divinity, myrrh for burial and therefore sacrifice.]
Thirdly, it empowers Jesus for his ministry
Jesus’ baptism was not only the starting gun for his ministry, it also gave him the power he needed for it. Of course Jesus already had the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life, but he needed that extra surge of power for the daunting ministry ahead of him. And if Jesus needed extra power for his ministry, can we ever say we don’t?????
Which is where John the Baptist’s prophecy about Jesus comes in – that he would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The fire part of that is part of the ‘on your marks, get set’ bit. Our part is to repent and change the priorities of our lives. The Spirit’s part in that is to be the refiner’s fire, to purify us from those sins and other hindrances that prevent us from serving God to our fullest. Then when our priorities are right and we are following God’s voice into the ministry that God calls us to, we will be given the Spirit’s power and gifting that we need.
So where does this leave us as we face a new year?
Firstly, we need to learn to recognise God’s voice. And there are no short cuts to that. Jesus had thirty years to learn to recognise his Father’s voice. Years of prayer, years of immersing himself in the scriptures that resulted in him knowing what direction he had to go in. As ,individuals and as a church we need to spend time with God and with his Word so that we will recognise his voice when he speaks to us.
Secondly we need to ask God to sort out our priorities and to refine us by his Holy Spirit.
And thirdly, when we have heard God’s voice we need to follow where he leads us and be open to receive the Spirit’s power. [Always remembering that for Jesus the experience of the baptism was followed by temptation in the wilderness, and that following his Father’s voice led to Calvary before it led to resurrection glory.]
And lastly, when we are bruised reeds or smouldering wicks – we need to seek the one who will not break us or snuff us out, and ask him for his comfort and his strength.
On your marks, get set, go!!!!!

[1] Quoted in R.T.France The Gospel of Matthew(Eerdmans 2007) p103