Sunday, 26 January 2014

Galilee under the Gentiles

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
26th January 2014, 11.00am

Matthew 4:12-23  Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,  14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:  15 "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--  16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."  17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  18 ¶ As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea-- for they were fishermen.  19 And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."  20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.  22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  23 ¶ Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Isaiah 9:1-7  But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.  2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.  3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

I’d like to begin this morning with a confession.
            Well, perhaps not so much a confession as an admission
                        - after all, I’m not sure that I need to feel particularly guilty about this.
But anyway, I think I should tell you…
            that the subject of Geography has never been my strong point.

I managed only a D-grade in my geography GCSE,
            and I have one of the worst senses of direction and place that I’ve ever met.
I would, quite literally, be lost without my sat-nav,
            and when I was at university and shared a house with geographer,
                        I might, on occasions, have asked him
                        how his ‘degree in colouring’ was coming along.

But those of you who are more geographically inclined than I am
            may be pleased to hear that I’ve had a change of heart, if not of ability,
            and so I’d like to start by showing you a map:

On the left, we have a map of Israel,
            showing its division into tribal groupings
                        as described in the book of Joshua
            following the conquest of the land
                        at the end of the wilderness wanderings.

Whether or not this was ever a genuine political reality isn’t too important,
            what matters is that it entered into the Jewish mind-set as a reality,
            and has informed the geo-politics of the region for the last 3,000 years.

The map on the right is a close-up of the area around the sea of Galilee,
            showing the tribal areas of Zebulun and Naphthali.
The ancient town labelled Kinneret, on the northern shore of the lake,
            is quite close to the first century town of Capernaum
where according to our reading from Matthew’s gospel
            Jesus made his home.

I’ll leave these maps up,
            as they help provide a sense of location
            for the events we’re going to be looking at this morning.

I also ought to warn you that the sermon will involve,
            not just references to geography,
                        but also some time travel.
Because in order to understand what’s going on in Matthew’s gospel,
            we’re going to have to turn the clock back six hundred years,
                        to the time just before the Babylonian invasion of Israel,
            when the prophet Isaiah was writing the first part of his book.

This is because when Matthew describes Jesus moving to Capernaum
                        following the arrest of John the Baptist,
            he does so using a quotation from the book of Isaiah.

Matthew says that Jesus made his home in Capernaum by the sea,
            in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,
            ‘so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled’ (v.13).

Clearly, for Matthew, there is a parallel to be found
            between the events of the time of Isaiah,
            and the events of Jesus own time.[1]

So let’s go back to Israel of the seventh century,
            back to the time of our Isaiah reading,
and see what was going on there,
            in order to see how it might shed light
            on what Matthew thought was going on with Jesus.

The section of Isaiah which we call chapters 7 to 9
            is a block of text where the prophet is addressing King Ahaz of Judah.
By this time, the kingdom of Israel had been split in two,
            with Judah forming the southern kingdom
and the northern tribes including Manasseh and Ephraim
            forming the northern kingdom.

Ahaz was king of the south,
            but he had a problem.
You see, the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom,
            and had taken possession of the land from Galilee
            all the way down to Ephraim.
Ahaz, quite sensibly, thought that Judah might be next on their hit-list,
            and so he and his subjects were quite literally shaking with fear (7.1-2).

Isaiah, however, tries to set Ahaz’ mind at rest,
            and tells that God has said that the Assyrian imperial threat is doomed (7.3-9).

After a bit of an argument,
            God gives Ahaz a sign,
and tells him through Isaiah that a child has been conceived
            whose name will be ‘Emmanuel’ - which means, as we all know, ‘God is with us’.
Isaiah tells Ahaz that the child is a sign that King David’s royal line will continue,
            and that the northern imperial powers are doomed.

So, Isaiah chapters 7-9 addresses a context of pronounced imperial threat,
            and here we begin to get our clue
            as to why Matthew saw this as a parallel situation to that of his own readers.

Perhaps located in Antioch in Syria,
            Matthew’s original readers of his gospel
                        were a small, marginal Christian community,
            who knew daily the political, socio-economic,
                        legal, religious, and cultural reality
                        of Roman imperial power and presence

And as with Isaiah’s child called Emmanuel,
            so Jesus, the Emmanuel of Matthew’s gospel,
            is to be understood as a sign of resistance to imperial power.

So far in Matthew’s story, Jesus has been consistently presented
                        in opposition to the forces of empire:
            In chapter 1, he is named Emmanuel in fulfilment of Isaiah,
            in chapter 2, Jesus escapes from the Roman vassal king and tyrant Herod the Great
                        by fleeing to Egypt, another site of Jewish oppression.
            in chapter 3 Jesus is baptised in opposition to the powers of Rome,
            and in chapter 4 he is tempted by the devil
                        who offers him his prize possession of the Roman empire.

John the Baptist has just been arrested
            for his opposition to another Roman vassal ruler, Herod Antipas.
And so Jesus withdraws to settle in Capernaum
            in Roman-controlled Galilee.

This isn’t a retreat to safety – Herod Antipas is the ruler of Galilee
            Rather, it’s Jesus symbolically challenging Herod’s Roman-derived power
                        by going into his territory to begin proclaiming a different empire
                                    – which he calls the Kingdom of Heaven.

This area around Capernaum,
            where Jesus made his home,
            was very much part of the Jewish heartland.
It’s population was Jewish,
            and its religion was Judaism.

Which is why it’s slightly strange that Matthew calls it
            ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’
Because it isn’t gentile territory at all,
            it’s thoroughly Jewish.

Of course, the clue is to be found in Isaiah,
            because Matthew is quoting Isaiah at this point,
And Isaiah calls this area of Zebulun and Naphtali ‘Galilee of the nations’ (9.1)

What Isaiah means by this
            is that Galilee has been ‘occupied’ by the nations;
it’s a land under the power of, and possessed by,
            the Gentile imperialist power of Assyria.

A better translation might be to call it not ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’
            but ‘Galilee under the Gentiles’.

In Isaiah’s time it was occupied by the Assyrians,
            and in Matthew’s time it was occupied by the Romans,
It was still, very much, ‘Galilee under the Gentiles’

So, when Jesus moved to Capernaum,
            in the land of Naphtali, in Galilee under the Gentiles,
                        he was still in the promised land,
            but he was in the part of it that historically
                        had been thought of as ‘occupied territory’.

The fact that this area to the north of Galilee
            remains disputed territory to our present day,
gives us some idea of the political tension inherent
            in Jesus, the Jew, moving in to occupy land
                        to which Gentiles had laid claim.

And Matthew’s naming of Zebulun and Naphtali in his quoting from Isaiah,
            is, for those in the know, a clear signal of God’s sovereignty
                        that contests and challenges:
            firstly, any Roman claims on Galilee,
                        secondly, the presence of Roman client rulers like Herod
            and thirdly, the Roman imperial theology
                        which was based on the worship of Jupiter, the head of the Roman pantheon.

This is Jesus going head-to-head
            with full might and ideology of the Roman empire.

And having located Jesus in Capernaum,
            Matthew has Jesus echo exactly the challenge of John the Baptist,
as Jesus begins to proclaim,
            ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (4.17)

In many ways, the concept of the ‘kingdom of heaven’
            is the root metaphor and the central symbol
            of Jesus teaching and work in Matthew’s gospel.

We need to remember not to think of the kingdom of heaven
            as a pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die reward for a good life
                        - that’s actually more a Graeco-Roman idea
                                    than it is a Jewish or Christian one.
Rather, the kingdom of heaven is God’s eternal rule over all creation,
            it is what Tom Wright describes as ‘God’s space’
            where full reality exists, close by our ordinary, ‘earthly’ reality,
                        interlocking with it and breaking in upon it.[2]

Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of heaven is at hand,
            and in doing so overtly challenges
            the earthly imperial kingdom of Roman power.

Jesus proclamation of God’s kingdom
            is described by Matthew, again using the language of Isaiah,
                        as being like a great light
                                    dawning on those who live in darkness,
                                    in the region and shadow of death.

‘Darkness’ in the Jewish tradition
            symbolised that which is contrary to God’s life-giving purposes.
From the disordered dark chaos of the void,
            before God brought life and light to the cosmos (Gen 1.2),
to the Jewish experiences of the oppressive empires
            of Egyptian slavery (Ex. 10.21, 22, 14.20),
                        Babylonian exile (Isa 42.7, 47.5, 49.9),
                                    and Assyrian conquest (Isa 8.22-9.2).

And it is this final one,
            the Assyrian occupation of the northern territory in the time of Isaiah,
that sets the scene for the imagery of darkness,
            that we find in our readings this morning.

By contrast, ‘light’ is a symbol in the Hebrew Bible for the righteous,
            for those who fear the Lord,
                        those who deal in justice,
                                    those who give to the poor.

Darkness and light, in the Jewish tradition, are not spiritualised terms,
            rather they denote concrete realities
            in the experience of the nation of Israel.
They speak of political, social, economic, and religious structures,
            which can either be aligned to the darkness of the imperial empires,
                        whose actions are contrary to God’s purposes,
            or they can be aligned to the light of God’s kingdom,
                        when they enable human behaviour that is God-focussed,
                        leading to the creation of his empire of justice and righteousness.

For Isaiah, in his day, the darkness was the Assyrian empire,
            that exercised its rule in Galilee.
For Matthew, it is Rome’s empire exercising its rule
            over the same region.

And for both Isaiah and Matthew,
            the language of darkness speaks of human actions,
                        through the structures of empire,
            that reject God’s call for a transformed society,
                        and oppose the call to repentance that the prophets bring.

So John the Baptist, the prophet who challenged Herod to change,
            and proclaimed repentance and the dawning kingdom of God,
found himself arrested and executed.

It’s no coincidence that Jesus echoed the exact words of John’s call to repentance,
            and did so by going to the heart of the Roman occupied territory
                        to live in the midst of the Roman imperial structures
                                    that were dominating the land
                                    in opposition to God’s will for his people.

Jesus takes upon himself the mantle of the recently deceased John,
            and embarks on his own mission
                        to oppose and expose the darkness of the imperial powers
                        that were dominating the world.

And the message of Matthew’s gospel
            is that the darkness does not get the final word.
Darkness in the biblical tradition is always subject to God’s power (Isa 45.7):
            light, an image of God’s life and saving power (Ps 27.1) dawns,
                        and rescues people from darkness,
            whether it be the political oppression of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon or Rome,
                        or the personal experience of misery, depression, hunger or affliction.

Light, for Matthew as for Isaiah, means God’s reign
            of justice, righteousness, and peace,
                        which breaks the ‘rod of the oppressor’ (Isa 11.4-7).

So, Matthew’s use of Isaiah’s imagery of light
                        coming to those who live in darkness,
            to describe Jesus going to live in Capernaum
                        in Galilee under the Gentiles,
is him offering a strongly politicised
            theological understanding of Jesus’ mission.

The way Matthew sees it,
            Jesus mission is a mission to overthrow the imperial powers
                        that dominate the world
            and to shine the light of the inbreaking kingdom of heaven
                        in the midst of those who live
                        in the deep darkness of oppression.

In an interesting first century parallel,
            the imperial poets Statius and Martial
            used imagery of light to praise the Roman Emperor Domitian,
            who may have been the emperor at the time Matthew was written.

But the ‘light’ of Matthew 4.16 is not the light
            of the presence of the Roman emperor
            who ‘rules’ Galilee through his puppet king Herod.
Roman rule, the way Matthew sees it, is part of the problem,
            it is the ‘darkness’ and the ‘shadow of death’
            under which ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ now suffers.

Jesus’ goes to Galilee as the one commissioned at his baptism to make God known,
            as the one whose task is to transform darkness into light.
And so, having moved to Galilee under the Gentiles,
            the stage is well and truly set for the next phase of Jesus ministry
                        of bringing light into the imperial darkness of the world,
            and his public ministry is about to begin.

So Matthew tells us of Jesus calling his first disciples,
            not just to follow him in terms of personal discipleship,
but to follow him in his mission
            to expose and ultimately overthrow the darkness of human imperialism
                        that has manifested itself down the millennia
                        as Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Rome and so many other guises
                                    through to the political and ideological empires of our own day.

Wherever humans construct their empires of darkness,
            wherever we create powers that oppress the earth and exploit its people,
Jesus does the same thing as he did in Northern Israel,
            he moves into the heart of the empire,
            to bring the light of his proclamation of the in-breaking kingdom of heaven.

And he still calls followers to join him,
            he still calls ordinary people,
                        drawn from among those who live under the empire,
            to leave their old lives,
                        and to join him and follow him
                        in his ongoing mission to transform the world
            by bearing faithful witness
                        to the reality of the alternative kingdom of heaven.

Today, we have celebrated as Graham was baptised,
            and we have heard and witnessed him making his public commitment
                        to revolutionary people of Christ.

The kingdom of heaven continues to break in upon us,
            even as we live in the midst of empire.

It may not be Rome, or Assyria, but the empires of our own day,
            the empires of nationalism, of global capital, of religious ideology,
            are every bit as real, and every bit as oppressive.

And we ordinary people, who live in the midst of the empires of this world,
            need to hear the good news
                        that it was in Galilee under the Gentiles,
                        that Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s empire.
It was as a light shining in a land of darkness,
            that the kingdom of heaven started to become reality.

Through his ministry, people were healed of their woundedness,
            and the controlling powers that blighted their lives were cast out.
The empire was resisted
            and those who were oppressed were brought to liberation.

The mission of Jesus, which began in Capernaum, in Galilee under the Gentiles,
            runs through the gospel to the cross
                        and through resurrection to our own day.
It was, and still is, a mission of subversive teaching and action,
            which consistently challenges all idolatrous imperial claims.

And along the way, beginning with James, and John, and Andrew, and Peter,
            Jesus continues to create a community
            with distinctive socioeconomic practices
that recognises and anticipates
            the full establishment of God’s kingdom.

When we pray, ‘your kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven’
            we join ourselves to the kingdom of heaven, which is at hand,
            and we play our part in Jesus mission of liberation for all.

This is gospel, this is good news,
            because the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
            and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death,
                        light has dawned.

[1] This sermon borrows freely and without further reference from Carter, Warren. Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2001. pp. 93-107.

[2] Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part 1, p. 37

Sunday, 12 January 2014

A Baptism of Non-Conformity

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
12th January 2014, 11.00am

Matthew 3.13 - 17  Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  14 John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"  15 But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented.  16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." 

Isaiah 42.1-9  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;  3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:  6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,  7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.  8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.  9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

At the heart of today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel
            is something of a mystery,
and it’s a mystery that has puzzled people
            from John the Baptist himself,
            to the biblical scholars of our own time.

Now, I’m not proposing that we’ll fully resolve this mystery this morning,
            but spending a few moments with it
                        might help us find a way
                        into one of the more puzzling scenarios of the gospels.

The mystery is this:
            Why does Jesus come to John for baptism?

The story appears in all three of the synoptic gospels,
            and is alluded to in John’s gospel,
so in as much as we know anything about Jesus and John,
            we know the story of Jesus
            being baptized by John in the river Jordan.

But the question is, why?
            Why did Jesus do this?
            What was Jesus thinking when he came to John for baptism?

Was it a baptism of repentance for sins committed?
            If it was, then this is somewhat out of step
                        with the dominant Christian teaching
                        that Jesus was sinless and had no need of repentance?

Was it a baptism of solidarity with sinners,
            with Jesus simply standing alongside those who did need to repent?
Possibly, although it’s not clear why baptism by John is necessary for this,
            unless it is simply to underline
            what has already happened at the incarnation.

If this is a question that puzzles modern readers,
            we can take some comfort from the fact
            that it also seemed to puzzle John himself.
We’re told that John initially tried to prevent Jesus from being baptised,
            asking instead that Jesus should baptise him.
But Jesus argued back by saying, somewhat enigmatically,
            ‘Let it be so for now,
            for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ (v.15)

And here we find our first clue,
            as we begin to grapple with the mystery of Jesus’ baptism.
Jesus is baptised by John to ‘fulfil all righteousness’.

We might normally think of ‘righteousness’ as one of Paul’s great themes,
            with his letters, particularly Romans,
            shot full of language about justification and righteousness.
But it’s also a concept that crops up again and again in Matthew’s gospel,
                        particularly in terms of the ‘fulfilment of righteousness’,
            and we’ll find ourselves coming back to this over the coming year
                        as our Sunday readings take us through Matthew.
His gospel is often described as the most ‘Jewish’ of the gospels,
            and his repeated use of the term ‘righteousness’
            is one of the things that indicates his particularly Jewish concern.

‘Righteousness’ as a theological concept
                        finds its origins in the Hebrew scriptures,
            where it’s used to express conformity to God’s will
                        in all areas of life: from law and government,
                                    to covenant loyalty and ethical integrity.
The Jewish idea of ‘righteousness’ was that
            when humans conformed to God’s will,
                        rather than to any other claim on their life,
                        they were considered just or righteous.

To put it another way, the Jewish insight was that
            because God is righteous,
            so his people are to be righteous in their behaviour.

Or, to put it yet another way,
            ‘Righteousness’ was considered a visible sign
                        in the life of God’s people,
            confirming their status as members of God’s covenant community.

How did you know whether you were part of God’s people?
            You knew because of righteousness.
            It was a sign of the covenant

So when people departed from righteous living,
            when they worshipped other gods,
            or failed to keep the commands of the Lord,
they were considered to be breaking the covenant,
            and the ancient Jewish prophets, such as Elijah,
                        would call them to repentance,
                        to a turning back to righteousness,
            and to a rediscovery of life lived in covenant relationship
                        with the God of righteousness.

And this calling of people to repentance,
            this challenging of them to submit themselves to God’s will,
            and to live righteous lives,
was the key message of John the Baptist,
            sometimes described as the new Elijah,
who appeared in the wilderness
            baptising people with a baptism of repentance.

From John the Baptist’s perspective,
            the society of his day had departed from the covenant;
            it had lost its focus on righteousness,
            and needed to turn, to repent, and to start living differently.
So the baptism of John was a rallying call
            for all those who wanted to join him
                        in his rejection of society,
            it was a baptism of turning away,
                        a baptism of repudiation of the dominant values
                        of his society and religion.
It was a baptism that marked a commitment
            to live life in a very different way
            from that which the world was demanding.

In the midst of all the pressures to conform,
            be they ideological pressures,
                        theological pressures,
                                    or sociological pressures,
John invited people to turn away from an unrighteous society
            and to turn towards a new way of living.
He called them to enter into the life of a new kingdom,
            where God was once again the focus of existence,
and behaviour was determined by obedience to God,
            not conformity to the status quo.

By this reading,
            John’s baptism was a radical and non-conformist baptism.
It was an outward sign of an inward commitment
            to rejection of an unrighteous society,
and a turning towards an alternative,
            God-focussed, way of being.

So, when Jesus came to be baptised by John,
            ‘to fulfil all righteousness’,
he was aligning himself with the non-conformist and radical nature
            of John’s challenge to first century Jewish society.

It wasn’t a baptism for the forgiveness of his personal sins,
            rather, it was an act of public repudiation of conformity.
It was a rejection of the compromises
            by which his inherited religious tradition
            had entered into its uneasy alliance with the powers that be,
and it was an act of commitment to the recovery
            of the true meaning of the covenant
            as the in-breaking of God’s justice and righteousness on the earth.

The challenge which John brought to the world
            of first-century, second Temple Judaism,
is a challenge that echoes down the millennia to us as well.

It is a relevant challenge to us, because humans,
            be they first or twenty-first century humans,
have a tendency to compromise,
            a tendency to set aside righteousness,
and a tendency to then justify that compromise
            as necessary, pragmatic, or expedient.

‘It’s just the way the world is’, we tell ourselves.
            ‘We can’t change it, so we might as well join it’, we say.
We conform, and then we try to justify our conformity,
            as we try to justify ourselves,
by making the same move in our own time
            that John challenged in the first century
            with his baptism of repentance.

The collusion of the Christian church with the powers that be,
            from the time of Constantine onwards,
has reinvented within the church of Christ,
            the same pattern of compromise
that led John into the wilderness to take his stand.

The tradition of Christendom,
            of the ‘Christian country’
is the same attempt to fuse faith and fatherland
            that led to the post-exilic Jewish compromise of the first century.
And the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John
            was an expression of his commitment
                        to a radical, non-conformist alternative.
Jesus’ baptism was him consciously and publicly aligning himself
            with the radical revolution of the Kingdom of God,
                        where compromise is rejected,
                        and conformity confounded.

Now, this is a vision of baptism
            that I can start to get quite excited about!

You may have noticed that the building where we’re currently worshipping,
            rejoices under the name of
            Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
The history of this fellowship has been told and re-told
            by far greater historians than I, so I won’t rehearse it again now.
But I do want us to pay attention for a moment
            to the fact that we are a Baptist church.

We’re a church that baptises.
            We invite people into the waters of baptism,
            and we immerse them on expression of repentance
                        and declaration of faith.
We do, pretty much, what John did.
            And many of us have been through that experience ourselves,
                        following the example and command of Jesus Christ.

And the origin of this practice,
            at least in the way that leads to the Baptist churches of the current era,
was for baptism to be seen as an act of non-conformity.

The early Baptists of the seventeenth century were,
            like their earlier continental cousins the Anabaptists,
uneasy about the alliances and collusions
            that had grown up between church and state.
They were unhappy with a situation that required all children to be baptised
            as an expression of their joint membership of church and nation.

The rejection of infant-baptism,
            and the rediscovery of believer-baptism,
was born not just out of theological conviction,
            but also from radical political conviction.

We have a baptism coming up here at Bloomsbury in a couple of weeks,
            when Graham will be making his journey
            through the waters.
It will be a joyous, and challenging occasion,
            but what we don’t expect is that it will put his life in danger.
Yet this was once the case here in London,
            and it remains the case in other parts of the world,
            as some of those who are part of our fellowship here can testify.

In many ways we have lost the political significance of baptism,
            and yet Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John
            points to a profoundly and radically politicised act.

Now I’m sure none of us yearns for a return to persecution,
            In fact, the commitment to religious liberty for all
                        is as much a core part of our Baptist history
                        as the non-conformist act of baptism itself.
But nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the radical and political nature
            of baptising someone in repentance and into righteousness.

Baptism is more than a symbol
            of our personal forgiveness
            and of our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.
It is also a sign of our entry
            into a radical, revolutionary, and counter-cultural lifestyle
                        that rejects the status quo of conformity
            and yearns, longs and lives for a world transformed,
                        a world re-imagined, a world reconfigured.

Baptism is the initiatory act
            of the convicted revolutionaries
            of the in-breaking kingdom of God
It is a rejection of conformist religion,
            it is a rejection of the notion of the Christian country,
and it is something people take upon themselves
            to mark their membership of and entering into
                        a radical new way of living.

And so we come to our second mystery in today’s reading…
            And the second mystery is this:
                        Why a dove?

Jesus has gone to John, had his argument, and been baptised,
            and then something very strange, something very apocalyptic, happens.
The heavens open, and the Spirit of God
            is seen descending on Jesus like a dove,
            and alighting on him.

And I find myself wondering, why a dove?

But then something even more strange happens,
            and a voice is heard speaking from heaven,
And the divine voice quotes the prophet Isaiah,
            ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

All very strange, when you stop to think about it.
            And all very symbolic.
So let’s start with the voice,
            and then come back to the dove.

The quote from Isaiah is from chapter 42,
            which we had as our Old Testament reading.
And as is often the case with those places
            where the New Testament quotes the old,
the quote is just the first verse,
            but it implies the whole of the passage that follows.

In this case, the Old Testament passage that is being referenced
                        is the first of the four ‘servant songs’ of Isaiah,
            where the prophet writes of a servant
                        who will bring about a new world
                        through suffering, death, and restoration to new life.

In the context of Isaiah’s original community,
            the suffering servant was Israel itself,
            it was Israel personified.
Isaiah was writing to the exiled Jews in Babylon,
            offering them a perspective on their present suffering,
                        and a hope for future restoration,
            by personifying the nation of Israel as a servant,
                        whose suffering and restoration
                        would bring about a new world of justice and righteousness.

In the Christian tradition,
            and we see it here in the words spoken from Heaven at Jesus’ baptism,
this vision of Israel personified, of Israel the servant,
                        of Israel as the one who suffers and is restored,
            came to be seen as finding fulfilment in the person of Jesus.
It is Jesus who takes on the role previously held by Israel,
            and he does so by divine command.
He becomes Israel, he becomes the servant who suffers,
            and he does so in order to bring about
                        the new world of justice and righteousness,
            he does so in order to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.

And so back to the dove.
            I(n the Jewish tradition,
                        the dove was used as a symbol for Israel,
            and the descent of the Spirit as a dove on Jesus
                        provides a further clue
            that the one on whom the dove alights
                        should be understood
                        as a personification of the nation of Israel.
It is through Jesus that the covenant will be fulfilled.
            It is through the suffering and resurrection of Jesus
                        that Israel will be restored
            and the righteousness of God made known throughout the earth.

And so the voice says to Jesus,
            to the one who is to become the servant,
            to the one who is to suffer and die before restoration can come,
‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’

And so the servant song from Isaiah is heard over the waters of the Jordan,
            as the prophetic insight of the exiled prophet in Babylon
            is proclaimed fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
            my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
            he will bring forth justice to the nations. 
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
            or make it heard in the street; 
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
            and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
            he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
            until he has established justice in the earth.

The kingdom is coming…
            and it’s a kingdom of righteousness and justice.
And it’s coming through Christ,
            the servant who is also the son of God.

The emperors of Rome may have claimed the term ‘son of God’ for themselves
            to legitimate their own rule over the world,
but the voice from heaven, the voice of God
            proclaims Jesus, and Jesus alone,
            as the legitimate son of God.
The earth is the Lord’s and Jesus is his son,
            and all other powers and principalities are merely false pretenders.
Their claims to divine sonship are illegitimate attempts
            to assume a throne and a kingdom
            that does not belong to them.
And so we are back to the political ramifications
            of the baptism of Jesus in the wilderness.

Just as the people of Israel made their exodus from the empire of Egypt
            through the wilderness to promised land;
just as the prophet of the exiles
            proclaimed the hope of a second exile from Babylon;
so Christ, in whom Israel and covenant are fulfilled,
            initiates the third and final exodus
                        from all the corrupt and evil empires of the world
            as people follow Jesus through the waters of baptism
                        into the new world of justice and righteousness
                        that is the kingdom of God

Jesus not only identifies himself with John’s radical rejection of conformity,
            but he is proclaimed the personification of Israel,
                        and commissioned as the rightful holder
                        of all power in heaven and on earth.

But, and here is the radical theological insight:
            he holds that power as a servant, not as an emperor.

This is where politics and theology collide.

Jesus, the son of God, saves the world not through conquest,
            but through suffering.
He brings new life through death,
            and hope into the darkness.
Because his kingdom is a kingdom of justice and righteousness,
            and it is breaking in upon the earth
            as others catch the vision, and join the movement.

And so Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan,
            to be baptised by him.
And he calls us to follow his example,
            and to join him in his radical and non-conformist vision
            for the transformation of the world.