(Isaiah 43.1-7, Acts 8.14-17 & Luke 3.15-17, 21-22 – Year C)

We are now in the season of Epiphany-tide.  Epiphany means ‘manifestation’, so throughout this period, up to Candlemas, we will be exploring the signs recorded in the Gospels to Christ’s identity. 

We began with the Magi and their 3 gifts – gold for a king, frankincense for God, and myrrh for sacrifice.  Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ.  And it is John the Baptist who sets out at the beginning, who Jesus is.  He made it clear to his followers that not only is John NOT the Messiah, but there is also a huge difference between himself and the Anointed One.  

The Messiah has power.  John does not.

The way he talked of Jesus, that he, John was not worthy to unite his sandals, implies that Jesus is the Master, and John was simply his servant.

John also made it clear that the baptisms were very different as well.  His were with water.  Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit and fire, divine power at work.

Fire links with John’s description of Jesus as the judge, separating wheat from chaff.  The chaff will be burnt with fire, as all that is evil is utterly destroyed.  So this mention of fire has a purifying element.  We’ll hold that thought all the way through to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit will descend in tongues of fire, a sign that the great sifting of God’s people has begun.

However if baptism, whether with water or fire, is a sign of repenting of sin and being cleansed, why did Jesus need to be baptised?  He was without sin.

Baptism was one of the ways Jesus entered into our human life.  He underwent the ritual, a sign of submission that his followers could easily identify with, to make a new beginning with God.  

He was showing the way to the people – modelling what repentance looks like.  Just as with little children, who notice more than you think, and copy our actions and the way we talk, so too do we look to imitate Christ.

This is such an important event that it remains the key, and I mean that literally, to entry to the Church, the worldwide family of God.  That’s why the font is at the entrance to the church, and not somewhere else.  The whole church is a symbol of our journey in faith, and we enter through baptism.  

Indeed in our service of baptism we use symbols, some of which come from today’s Gospel.

First, there is the water, just as  Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan.  Water is vital for life, and this water brings new life in Christ.  Different denominations of the Church baptise in slightly different ways, and each one will draw out a particular symbolism.  So for example, baptism by full immersion, which can happen in a river or a baptismal pool, involves the whole body and head being submerged.  It’s deeply powerful, and underlines the dying to sin, and being re-born in Christ.

Then there is the dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit.  In the reading from Acts, the Samaritans had been baptised, presumably with water, but not yet with the Holy Spirit.  So water is just one part of baptism.

In our baptism rather than a dove or fire, the presence of the Holy Spirit is sacramentally acknowledged with the use of the Oil of Baptism and the Oil of Chrism.  It’s a sign of the anointing of God, a setting of a seal on the person of God’s love for them.  

It’s actually where the word ‘Christening’ comes from, because Christ means ‘the anointed one’.  So we use the oil to make a cross on the person’s forehead, making the outward sign of the invisible grace, that they are a follower of Christ. 

And then there is the heart of our Bible reading, Jesus, the Word made flesh, the light of the world.  So every baptism candidate is given both a candle and a Bible, all part of helping them to build their relationship with God.

Finally I want to draw your attention to one, tiny detail in the Gospel reading. 

What does Jesus do once he has been baptised?  What is he doing when the sky opens and the Father’s voice is heard and the Holy Spirit descends?

He is praying.

Yes, Jesus may be fire and light.  He is also silence and obedience, aligning his will with the Father’s.  

It is then that heaven opens, then that his ministry begins…

In Epiphany the Baptism of Christ reveals Jesus to be the Son of God, the one through whom we will be purified and made clean.  It is a time when we remember especially our own baptisms, and so let us prayerfully prepare to renew our commitment to follow Jesus and to keep our baptismal promises:

  • To reject the devil and all rebellion against God.
  • To renounce the deceit and corruption of evil.
  • To repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour.
  • Turn to Christ as Saviour.
  • Submit to Christ as Lord.
  • And come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life.

(Artwork: ‘The Baptism of Christ’ by Grigory Gagarin (c.1840-1850)