The picture on the front of the order of service – or that is being shown on the screen right now – comes from one of the other chapels that plays a big part in my life – though I haven’t been there now for some time. For the past four or five years I’ve usually been in Geneva in early January and indeed January last year on this very Sunday was the last time I was there.
The picture comes from the wall of the chapel at the ecumenical centre in Geneva – a picture of the baptism of Christ. You walk past it as you go in. And in fact the picture kind of leaks on to the floor where some wavy lines represent the waters of the Jordan. So the effect is that you are joining Christ in the waters of baptism as you prepare yourself for worship in the chapel.
The picture itself is like many Eastern Orthodox icons of the story. We can see the hairy and dishevelled figure of John the Baptist, the unwashed wilderness man with a funny diet who fascinated the people. We can see the Holy Spirit coming down upon Jesus in the form of a dove. And we can see Jesus himself immersed, ‘up to his neck’ as it were in the waters of the Jordan. Eastern Orthodox pictures of Jesus’ baptism are often like this, with Jesus actually immersed in deep waters. They are strikingly different from some of the pictures we tend to know best in Western Christianity, where Jesus is often shown sort of paddling in a rather shallow stream, and the Baptist is struggling to scoop up a few drops to sprinkle over his head. In this picture he is shown deeply immersed in the waters – and he looks directly at us – always significant in a picture – as if to say perhaps, ‘Will you step into these waters with me?’.
It’s not easy to get a sense of what the baptism of Jesus might mean in this context when most of us have come from a culture where baptism has very particular meanings. I think that when most of uswere growing up being baptised was what happened to most babies – and if you weren’t baptised (or Christened) as a baby it was probably because your parents were Baptists and had a particular theological reason for waiting until you could decide for yourself. Baptism became a ceremony which may have meant a great deal to many people but for some was simply ‘what you did’, and associated with respectability. I have a silver baptism cup and a certificate – as perhaps some of you do. Nowadays, baptisms or christenings are much in decline and no longer the respectable thing to do. This may be something to regret, but it is, in its way, much closer to the situation in which Jesus was baptised.
Because aptism was, right then, everything to do with repentance, with sins. And John, who was known as the Baptist, was far from being a respectable establishment figure. He was a world away from heritage christening gowns and the top tier of the wedding cake. He was perhaps though considered a fruit cake of a different sort; a rather mad enthusiast, a wild man in a wild place, naming wickedness and sin, calling out even Kings and rulers, a voice in the desert, the place of wild animals and unruly creation. We know of course that he was disliked by the Herod of the time – disliked precisely because he dared to protest about Herod’s unseemly marital life – disliked so much that he was killed in the end. So, for some of Jesus’ followers it was a bit of an embarrassment that Jesus was baptised by John. Why would Jesus, in any case, need to be baptised because of his sins – wasn’t he sinless? Why would he want to be associated with this kind of fiery, old-time religion, that means admitting the world needs a radical shake up? By the time that Matthew came to write the story in his Gospel, we find him trying to explain just why Jesus should have been baptised ‘for the forgiveness of sin’.
But seeing the Eastern Orthodox icons, we might perhaps see a different kind of explanation. For the Jewish tradition, water, deep water, always signified the chaos that was there before creation and, if we’re honest, the kind of chaos that we still find within us and around in our lives. The Holy Spirit, you remember from Genesis, brooded over the face of the waters, the waters that existed before God made creation… In his baptism, we might say, Jesus went down deep into those same waters, as deep as anyone can go, and the Holy Spirit comes to create and recreate all humankind, as, just as at the beginning, the word of God speaks – and something new is made. Those who are immersed in the scriptures pick up these hints so readily… much more easily that we often do today.
I remember one holiday, many years ago, when I was in Greece and out on a boat on a warm sea, between islands. At one moment the boat was stopped and we were invited, if we wished, to jump into blue, blue sea. I never needed a second invitation and I jumped in and went down deep into the waters. I remember the silence and the fishes and the darkness of the water until there was a rush of the sunlight when I swam eventually to the surface and took a breath. For some moments I was in what felt like another world and I gave myself to it. I wonder if we might see Jesus’ baptism as a bit like that. He plunges into the deep water of our lives, into the depths of the world we have made, as he lives among us. He is baptised, immersed, into the depths of the life we know – as ‘God with us’. That’s why he is baptised in the wilderness too, by a hairy, unconventional prophet – he has come not to be among the clean and the tidy and the good, but to join those who are in the depths of whatever life can be. His plunging into deep waters is just like what he does in eating and drinking with taxcollectors and sinners, with sex workers and enslaved people. He is with us human beings in the very depths of what it means to be human.
I also have other memories of being in water. I remember when I have baptised adult believers in a baptismal pool. In my first pastorate one the churches had a pool – those to be baptised would walk down a set of steps, then be lowered, in the water, onto a cross marked on the bottom of the pool, and then raised up – and walk up another set of steps into a new life with Jesus. It was incredibly moving and always very significant to those who took part. I was at first afraid that at 5 foot 2 I might struggle to baptise a tall man, but it was fine. The water held us both and in the depths of the water we both confronted our faith in the depths of that water and rose with it renewed. The cross on the bottom of the pool so powerfully symbolised what our baptism is about – that we are plunged into the very depths where Jesus goes too, that we die with him and rise again, that we accept that we will follow him into the deep and dangerous places of our lives and of the life of the world. And in our baptism, as at the baptism of Jesus, the word of God comes to us and says, ‘You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.’
I was impressed recently by what Rowan Williams says about baptism when he says that baptism is not about giving us a special status before God (I’m baptised – now I can be part of the church…. or whatever!). But it’s about the news that in Jesus God comes down deep to our world – and then that we are called to follow him there, into the deep places. Jesus plunges down into the chaos of our world, a world that continues to resist the creative shaping of God. And Jesus invites us to join him there – in the deep places of our own souls – and in the places in the world where people suffer deeply too.
So, the invitation today is a kind of double one. It is an invitation to celebrate the revelation (the Epiphany) of the God who is unafraid to join us in our deep places; whether that’s our grief, whether that’s our sinfulness or just the usual kind of mucked-upness that human life becomes, or whether that’s our deepest needs of whatever kinds. In Jesus, God has jumped into the deep waters you are swimming in, to be there and to hold you up. But it’s also an invitation to go deep with Jesus, to go with him wherever other people are in deep water – and to be there too, holding them. And wherever we go we know that God values us and loves us children and is pleased with us. The waters may be deeper than we could imagine, but the everlasting arms are there. That’s what it means for Jesus, and for you, to be baptised.
Just now of course we can see very clearly that we are – as humankind – in deep waters. Covid-19. Capitol Hill. Climate crisis…. These are the deepest waters I have ever known. We are being baptised with the deepest waters. But Jesus plunges in – and we find him here with us. And he is ready to lift us into the light. May it be so. Amen.