Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Sometime last year I found myself in a queue for confessions at a church in central London. I can’t remember why I was there and not seeing my spiritual director – probably I’d messed up my diary. The queue was not short, and not moving terribly quickly. As we all shuffled along a pew every few minutes, I found myself thinking ‘what if someone sees me here?’ It was an odd thing to think. I make no secret of the fact I go to confession; and despite my best efforts I have never had any success in convincing people that I am perfect and have no need of repentance. So why did it begin to bother me that someone might see me here, in this queue, next to the sign that said ‘confessions’ in big letters? Why did I worry about being seen among those very obviously marked out as sinners?
Partly, I suspect, because I still care too much what other people think. If there’s a choice to be made, I would like to be found among the righteous, not sitting in a queue among sinners, projecting onto passers-by the judgement I fear.
I remembered this feeling when I read today’s Gospel reading. John is baptising in the wilderness around the Jordan, and crowds are going out to him. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Pharisees and Sadducees were among them, though in terms that indicate they are not there to repent and be baptised, but to keep a watchful eye on proceedings and report back about the popularity of the ministry of this wild man of the desert, who models himself on Elijah and stirs up the people. But there are also the crowds: ‘the people of Jerusalem and all Judea’, says Matthew. Some might have gone as spectators, to see what all the fuss was about. But clearly many went in response to John’s call to repent and be baptized. So on the banks of the Jordan we find sinners: the notorious, obvious ones – tax collectors, prostitutes, extorters, collaborators – and the mass of the greedy, the selfish, the gossips, the covetous, the mean, the proud and the resentful: humanity in all its varied sinfulness.
And in their midst we also find Jesus. He’s not standing with the Pharisees and Sadducees, at a safe judgemental distance from the crowds of sinful humanity. He’s not exercising a closer up ministry of encouragement, helping people into and out of the river, supporting John in his call to people to repent. He’s right there in the midst of them, to the extent of wading into the river, accepting baptism from a reluctant John, plunged under the water as a sign of his complete identification with the lot of sinful humanity, no matter that he has done no wrong, and no sin is found in him.
This is the first public act of the adult Jesus. And it sets the scene for all that follows, for in his identification with sinful humanity Jesus will go to the utmost, to laying down his life, to restore us to God. The public ministry that begins in the wilderness beyond the Jordan leads to the cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.
Readers of Matthew’s Gospel already know that Jesus is the Messiah. From chapter one he is presented as the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes, this child whom Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit. The visit of the wise men shows him to be the light of the world. Now the voice from heaven gives divine confirmation: ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ For the crowds there that day this is powerful language, rich in Old Testament allusions. From Isaiah we hear of God putting his Spirit upon his servant (42.1). From one of the Psalms used in the coronation of Israel’s kings we hear God saying ‘you are my son, today have I begotten you’ (2.7). And in God’s words we hear the echo through the ages of the command to Abraham to ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love’ (Genesis 22.2), and to sacrifice him. God’s words confirm Jesus as the long-awaited servant on whom God’s spirit rests, the king who will restore Israel and be a light to the Gentiles, but who will bring this restoration through obedient sacrifice.
And there’s another echo from the Old Testament that tells us why this is important. At the start of Genesis, we hear of the Spirit hovering over the face of the waters in creation. Here, the Spirit descends like a bird over the waters in Jesus’ baptism. There is a new creation going on, one that will happen through Jesus’ death and resurrection, of which his baptism is a foretaste. As in the account in Genesis, the water symbolises the chaos out of which creation emerges. As Jesus is plunged into the waters of the Jordan, he shows his descent into all that is chaotic and disordered, all that stands against the creation that God intends. In Jesus God shows that he doesn’t stand far off, mutely observing or passing judgement or simply willing us to be better. He is not afraid of being polluted by contact with us, but comes right down into our lives, not ashamed of being found among sinners but entering into the state of sinful humanity so that, as he rises from the waters, he can make of us a new creation.
For the voice from heaven tells us not just who Jesus is, but who we are in him. ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’, writes St Paul (2 Cor 5.17). God made us to be his sons and daughters, to be a people formed by his love and living confidently in it. But that identity gets marred and disfigured by the things we do or that get done to us, by our sin and forgetfulness and lack of faith. So we tell ourselves other stories or listen to other voices: voices that tell us that our identity is found in what we do, what we have, what others think of us; that we are better than others, or worse than them; that we had better keep up the pretence in case people find out what we’re really like…
Baptism drowns out those other voices, leaving us free to listen to the one voice that tells us who we really are. As Jesus submits to baptism by John, he announces God’s refusal to let sin have the final word. Jesus comes and subjects himself to all that can keep us from God, all that can mar and distort his image in us. And in our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection God makes of us new creations as we hear the voice that tells us who we are in him: my son, my daughter: the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.