The Perfect Penitent

Preached at Scholes Methodist Church
12th January 2014: The Baptism of Christ
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

For many people, January is one of the most difficult and depressing months of the year. Who here would ever believe that it was less than three weeks ago since Christmas? It seems a lot longer, doesn’t it? I was listening to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on Thursday and the speaker then, the Rev’d Joel Edwards started by saying that he has a friend who absolutely hates January because of its bleak unpredictability and the teatime twilight that seeps into the soul, destroying whatever is left of the Christmas spirit.

Whereas the excitement and anticipation of Christmas helps get us through December, January seems so miserable, so cold and so dark in comparison. January is when both our Christmas shopping and our Christmas eating seem to catch up with us. It’s when children go back to school, adults go back to work, after-Christmas sales come to an end, and normal service is resumed; the joy and wonder of Christmas being packed away again for next year, long gone like some feint and distant memory.

19 days ago in Church we celebrated the mystery of the Word becoming flesh, of God being born in a dirty stable. Come January it’s all too easy for that mystery to be forgotten and for us instead to go back to peeling the potatoes and sweeping the floors as if nothing had happened. Today’s Gospel reading won’t let us do that. If the Christmas story is about how God came to us in Jesus, then the story of Christ’s baptism begins to point us towards the reason why.

It’s significant, I think, that the first public appearance Jesus makes in his ministry is this one. You would expect, wouldn’t you, the Messiah to begin his election campaign where all the movers and shakers are, in Jerusalem. You certainly wouldn’t expect him to announce himself on the world stage stripped down to his boxer shorts being plunged into a dark and dirty river by a man with wild hair and even wilder wardrobe, who by his own admission isn’t even fit to carry his sandals. As PR exercises go, this wouldn’t be a great way of convincing people you’re the Messiah. After all, if Jesus was the Messiah, why on earth would he need to be baptised by John? John says it himself, “I need to be baptised by you, not you by me.” It doesn’t make sense.

John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, a baptism for people who knew they needed their lives turned around by God. It was a sign of sorrow, surrender and submission. It was a way of saying, “The old me is gone, drowned at the bottom of the river. It’s a new me that comes up out of the water.” In short, it was anything but the warm, cosy and gentle picture we tend to think of with babies wrapped in christening shawls, the minister very delicately pouring water over the baby’s head and adoring parents are watching on in wonder. Baptism is about death; the word itself means to be submerged, immersed, sunk. When we go through some particularly difficult experience in our lives we sometimes say that we feel like the waters are up over our heads; that’s what baptism is.

The question, then, is why did Jesus need it? If Jesus is the sinless Son of God, the one person who has ever lived in perfect harmony with God, as Christians believe him to be, in what way does he need to be baptised? What’s so striking about Jesus coming to the Jordan to be baptised by John is that it is so completely and utterly unnecessary.

C. S. Lewis calls Jesus the Perfect Penitent. “Only a bad person needs to repent,” he says, “[and] only a good person can repent perfectly.” The irony is, of course, that the worse you are, the more you need your life turned around and the less able you are to do it; the only person who could do is a perfect person, but they wouldn’t need to. It’s the superfluity of Christ’s baptism that shows us the reason for it. Jesus didn’t need to be baptised, but he was. God didn’t need to become flesh, but he did. Jesus is that perfect person who repents though he doesn’t need to, who shows us how to turn and centre our lives on God.

Clement of Alexandria, a Christian writer living towards the end of the second and beginning of the third century put it like this: “The Word of God became man, that you may learn from man how man may become God.” In other words, Christ became what we are that we may become what Christ is; the Son of God became human that we humans may become sons and daughters of God. The meaning of the Incarnation is God taking the plunge into our human nature in order to lift us into his divine nature. Christ’s baptism, therefore, is a statement of intent; it’s a sign of solidarity from a God who chooses to be known only as God with us, Immanuel.

In baptism, Jesus signals his readiness to descend into the murky depths of our humanity in order to re-ascend, bringing us with him. He who has no need for sorrow, surrender or submission, is willingly plunged into the wild waters of baptism so that he can raise us up out of them as new people. God came down at Christmas to lift us up at Easter. C. S. Lewis, always on hand with a helpful illustration, says: “One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover.”

You. You are that dripping, precious thing that Jesus dived into the baptismal waters to recover. You are the reason for the breath-taking miracle of divine descent known as the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas. You are the only thing God wanted that he didn’t have with him in heaven. You. As a minister will say to any newly baptised person: “For you Jesus Christ came into the world; for you he lived and showed God’s love; for you he suffered death on the Cross; for you he triumphed over death, rising to newness of life; for you he prays at God’s right hand: all this for you, before you could know anything of it.”

When Jesus came up out of the waters after his baptism, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove and God’s voice echoed out saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus shows us that to be children of God means surrendering to God; it means allowing God to give us our identity, our sense of who we are and what we’re doing. We live in a culture that promises to accept us only if we are a certain size or a certain shape, if we’re beautiful enough, strong enough, successful enough, rich enough, popular enough, young enough and so on. God’s love, on the other hand, is unconditional. In baptism, God declares that we are enough already; not on the basis of anything we do or anything we have, but solely by virtue of being people who he has given life to, people who he loves enough to rescue.

If you’ve ever seen the film Toy Story 2 (it was on over the Christmas holidays), you’ll know that there’s a point in the film when Woody the cowboy is kidnapped and taken to the apartment of the ‘bad’ toy shop owner. Woody finds himself alone in a dark room when out of nowhere he hears the voice of Jessie the Yodelling Cowgirl getting very excited that Woody is finally here. Woody’s confused. “How do you know me?” he asks. “Do you not know who you are?” she replies. She turns on the lights, revealing all the shelves filled with Woody memorabilia and slowly he begins to learn that he was a famous movie star and all this time he didn’t know it. Jessie puts on videos of old cartoons and Woody watches with great joy as he sees himself on screen for the first time, as he finds out who he really is.

That is a bit like what happens in baptism. God says, “You’re here! You’re finally here, my child, my precious child, my pride and joy! You’re here!” And we, rather perplexed by the whole thing, answer, “I’m sorry, but do I know you?” And there begins a roller-coaster of discovery in which God begins to show us who our true identity. The reason God came to us in Jesus at Christmas was not so that we would go on peeling the potatoes and sweeping the floors as if nothing had happened; it was so that we might hear the same voice from heaven that Jesus heard, the God speaking to our hearts naming us his children.

So let me ask you something: Have you heard that voice? Have you heard God speaking to you, naming you the apple of his eye? Because it was for that very reason that Christ came into the world. He came to remind us and show us who we are and through his example, through him living in our hearts, to enable us to be most truly ourselves. In the words of Jessie the Yodelling Cowgirl, the question is: “Do you not know who you are?” God says to each of us, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” My prayer for all of us is that whether for the first time or the thousandth time, we would hear God saying those words to us.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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