Sunday, January 8, 2017

the baptism of our Lord

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

On the first Sunday after the Epiphany it is traditional to look at the baptism of our Lord. It might seem strange to do this so soon after Christmas when we have been focused so deeply on the scriptural accounts of the birth of our Lord. However, we simply follow the example of the Gospel in doing so; for you will note in your reading of scripture that those accounts go from the details of the incarnation and nativity of Christ to his baptism and ministry.

It should therefore be no surprise that the Church does likewise in her selection of readings for the lectionary. And not only does she follow the example in scripture in doing this; but a deep theological point is made also. Christ came into the world for the salvation of souls; and it serves us well to remind ourselves of this at all times. The work of Christ was not finished when he came into the world; and reminding ourselves of this by looking to the event that begins his time of ministry in the Gospels is a powerful way of making sure that we do not let our focus become too one-dimensional, concentrating on only one aspect of his life.

And it is interesting to note that the topic of baptism essentially bookmarks our Lord's ministry in St Matthew's Gospel, from which our reading is taken today. Indeed, the first words he speaks and the last in that Gospel concerns baptism. His first words are spoken to St John the Baptist, are to tell him that in order for all righteousness to be fulfilled it is necessary that he baptise the Christ, even though St John realises that it is he who should be baptised by Christ. And his last are spoken to his disciples just before his Ascension, commanding them to go out into the world, preaching the Gospel to all peoples and baptising them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This serves to emphasise the importance our Lord placed on baptism in God's plan for the salvation of mankind. And it is always good for us to think deeply on those things which our Lord emphasised to us during his ministry.

Indeed, so important did he think baptism that he underwent it himself. Clearly baptism, which washes away all sins, whether original or those we have committed ourselves, was something of which he had no need, being like us in all things except sin. But he wished to set us an example. It is as if he says to us – I, the Son of God, do this; and so therefore must you. Christians down through the ages have, of course, taken his words to heart. Not only are all Christians baptised, we are baptised during infancy. There are some who have objected to that, claiming that it is something a person should decide for themselves. But it is a false argument. It would be unnatural for a parent to wait until their child was fully grown before teaching them the skills they need to navigate this world; why on earth should we expect them to delay when it comes to matters pertaining to eternal life?

Now, of course, we may wonder, since baptism washes away all sin, why do we not wait until much later in life to baptise, and thereby take advantage of the benefits of this sacrament to rid a person of all the stains of a long and sinful life, perhaps even delaying until shortly before death, so as to assure that person that they will be welcomed into heaven? And the answer to that is that, as Christ himself told us, we know not the day nor the hour when we will be called before the judgement throne.

In any event, we know from scripture that it is part of God's plan that parents bring their children for such initiation at a young age. Christ himself, we may note, was circumcised as an infant; and circumcision was the equivalent initiation rite for the Jewish people as baptism is for us. And we also know that baptism is not the only means Christ gave us for the forgiveness of sins – those who truly repent of their sins of both commission and omission, in thought and word and deed, may confess their sins and receive absolution, which in a way refreshes the cleansing of sins received in our baptisms.

Soon, we will be renewing the promises or vows made at our baptisms. They were made for us when we were baptised as infants; and ourselves if we were baptised at a later age and made again at the time of our confirmation. The sacrament of baptism may not, of course, be repeated; but by reflecting deeply on those vows as we make them, we may enter into the spirit of that great sacrament given to us by our Lord. Doing so may help us reflect on the many ways in which we have less than perfectly kept them during the course of our lives; this may also help us to truly repent and ask God's pardon for those failings; and also ask his continuing grace to better keep them for the remainder of our lives. Thus we end this morning by praying to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that we may be granted true contrition for our failures and the strength to do better in the future, that we may better follow the example of our Lord, and better live out the promises made in baptism. Amen. 

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