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.

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