Epiphany and Baptism

January 5, 2020

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley using John 1.-29-34 at Evensong on Sunday 5th January 2020, Epiphany.

Today we’re celebrating the Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus as Christ, the showing of Jesus to the world. So the readings for today overall, while mainly about the Magi following a star to greet the infant king, include other early manifestations, or epiphanies, as well.

So this afternoon’s second reading from St John’s Gospel was the famous encounter of Jesus with John the Baptist, when they were both about 30. They were relations, possibly cousins, because St Luke describes John’s mother, Elizabeth, as a relative of Jesus’s mother, Mary. In the reading, John the Baptist says he had not known Jesus. But scholars tend to think this means that he hadn’t known him in the special identity that was now being revealed, hadn’t realised who is truly was. So, as relations, Jesus and John and may well have met before. John had become an itinerant preacher, and is described in St Mark’s gospel as living on locusts and wild honey and wearing camel’s skin clothes. He may have joined the Jewish sect of Essenes, a community who lived simple lives, actively waiting for the Messiah and practising ritual immersion as a sign for people repenting and starting new lives, and who probably wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. All four gospels recount John the Baptist’s activity, as does the Jewish historian Josephus, and he is honoured by Muslims as well as Christians as a great prophet.

St Mark says that ‘John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.[1] Now he was at the River Jordan preaching and baptising those who wanted to make a fresh start in their lives. And he saw Jesus approaching. He had foretold the coming of the Messiah, he may well have heard something of Jesus’s character, and now he puts the two together. St Matthew recounts John’s reluctance to baptise Jesus, saying it should be the other way round.[2] But Jesus persuades him and is baptised.

But why did Jesus need to be baptised, we ask ourselves. Wasn’t he the sinless son of God? I confess that I find Jesus’s sinlessness very difficult to understand, even though I realise this is traditional Christian doctrine. Jesus was fully human, we believe. On that basis, I find it difficult to understand how any human child can learn good behaviour without discovering the consequences of bad behaviour – both in terms of punishment and in terms of the visible effect of distress on the part of those who are hurt. Back in 1926, the artist Max Ernst even painted a controversial picture of Mary smacking the infant Jesus on her lap. I don’t know the answer to the sinlessness conundrum, and I leave you to ponder. You can find Ernst’s painting on the internet, if you care to find it.

Anyway, sinless or not, Jesus underwent the sign of repentance and was baptised in the River Jordan. At the very least, he was identifying himself with the whole of humanity in our sinfulness. You’ll agree, I think, that we are all certainly sinful and constantly need to repent. And for Jesus, as for us, his baptism was clearly the start of a new life. He had come from his home in Nazareth, and now both he and John had an intense experience of a new gift to him of the Holy Spirit. This was going to inspire him during his 40 days in the wilderness and in his coming three years of public and private ministry.

Some of you, I guess, may have been baptised as teenagers or adults, probably before being confirmed. You are very fortunate to have that recollection. If you’re one of those who haven’t been baptised at all, then speak to the clergy here or at your home church, learn more about the faith, and be baptised – it will mean so much. Some people today are baptised by total immersion, like Jesus, and at least two Winchester churches have indoor pools for the purpose. But generally, most people are baptised by water being poured over their heads. Most of us will have been baptised as babies or toddlers, and hopefully have a certificate to show for it. The clergy prefer babies to toddlers – they are less likely to struggle! Such little children are rather like what we understand about Jesus at his baptism – they have little or no sins to repent of. So they are baptised on the strength of their family’s faith, however unformed that sometimes is, and in solidarity with the whole Christian community, and as a promise of forgiveness in the future.

I read recently about a baptism taking place during Mass in a little French village church. Two American guys on a European tour had joined in the Mass, and, since the church was surprisingly full, had to sit near the front. Not speaking or understanding any French, they agreed they would follow the example of the chap in front and sit, kneel and stand as he did. Suddenly, the man in front stood up, so they did the same. The whole congregation started laughing, and only afterwards did the priest kindly explain to them in English. The priest, it turned out, had asked, ‘Will the child’s father please stand.’

We seem to have strayed from today’s theme of Epiphany somewhat; but perhaps not entirely. Jesus’s baptism was an epiphany. It was a manifestation to John the Baptist and to all those present of who this man was, and probably a revelation, or at least confirmation, to Jesus as well. And it remains a revelation to us too of how Jesus identifies with all humanity in our human lives as mixtures of goodness and badness.

In fact, Jesus himself constitutes an epiphany. How can we possibly know the unknowable God? Well, of course we can’t, not really and entirely. But we have a major source – the life of Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, our example, our inspiration, the one who promised us forgiveness, love and life. How else are to know the unknowable, ineffable God? Jesus is the epiphany of God. The Christian life is one continuing experience of epiphany, provided our eyes are open and our ears attentive to the wonders of creation, the wonders of human love and the epiphany of Jesus.



[1] Mark 1.4

[2] Matthew 3.14-15