Sermon delivered on the Feast of The Baptism of Christ, the 1st Sunday of Epiphany, the 10th January 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 43:1-7         Acts 8:14-17         S. Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

S. Luke 3:22 "The Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased”"

The Baptism of Christ is one of the most important elements of the Epiphany observation. In the West the church traditionally centres the Epiphany on the visit of the Magi from Gentile lands in the East to the infant Jesus and their worshipping him with offerings of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, foreshadowing Christ’s roles as King, Priest and Victim. So the Epiphany becomes the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. But the Feast of the Epiphany seems to have begun in the Church Universal as a many-layered commemoration of all that revealed or manifested the Son of God to the world, including His Birth, His baptism, His first miracle of turning water into wine, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, and other revelatory elements of His ministry in the Holy Land. Our current lectionary displays the Baptism of Christ in a place of prominence today on the 1st Sunday after Epiphany. Now the Baptism of Christ occurred of course at the beginning of His ministry and not at the end. When at His baptism the voice came from heaven with the words “Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased” - or in fact more literally “with Thee I was, or have been, well pleased”, this was a sign of the attentive care of the Father for the Son throughout eternity. It was a sign confirming His eternal Sonship and all that that faithful Sonship would imply for this the Son's new calling upon the earth. And the New Testament record in general shows that baptism, the laying on of hands and the gifts of the Holy Spirit cannot be understood or appreciated in any depth apart from the element of being affirmed as God's children. So that we can carry out the business of God’s children, we need to know our Father and the way He cares for us. The ministrations of baptism and the laying on of hands and the possession and gifts of the Holy Spirit declare that we are His sons and daughters, a standing that has vast implications for our manner of life and our future. Although Jesus was aware of His heavenly Father before His baptism and its accompanying signs, this affirmation at His baptism of His status as Son was clearly very important for the ministry that followed. It is significant that the main thrust of the desert temptations following His baptism was to try to have him doubt that He really was God’s Son. By resisting such a temptation, Jesus fulfilled His calling and secured our redemption.

In order that Christ be manifest to the world it was necessary that he be manifest to His own people, and of course it was necessary that the will of God His Father be sufficiently manifest to Jesus Himself for Him to perform it. We can be sure that the experience that Jesus had when the descent of the Spirit upon Him took place was illuminating and instructing. It marked the end of His thirty years in the relative obscurity of His home in Nazareth and the beginning of His public ministry. Most scholars, studying all of the Gospel accounts of the Baptism of Jesus, believe that the words of the voice from heaven confirmed to Him that, first, He was indeed the promised Messiah (or Anointed One) and, secondly, that as Messiah He would also fulfil the role of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant of God. In Isaiah ch 42v.1 God's words concerning His Servant were, “Behold 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.” For Jesus, this new or renewed consciousness of the Father's will was a kind of little resurrection that even as disciples of His we can sometimes identify with, when after a time of clouded knowledge or some form of uncertainty about the way ahead, the time comes when it seems God reveals it to us and the way forward becomes clear. It seems likely that when Jesus came to John to be baptised by Him there would be in Jesus' consciousness a seeking after the will of God His Father, a seeking for a sufficient clarity of the knowledge of that will to perfectly carry it out. John too is searching for the meaning in Jesus coming to him for baptism. Those who have come to John the Baptist have come acknowledging their many faults and their intention to change and become the men and women of Israel they had so far failed to be, but this meaning, John recognises, cannot be applied to Jesus. But at Jesus' word, John submits to a situation over which he is no longer in control. Although he does not really know the meaning of it, John allows Jesus to have His baptism. Jesus by doing this forms a fellowship, as He so often did later, with those who in humility sought after righteousness, and identified Himself with them. For from now on He was to become their focus of attention as the new Israel. The day would come when by the influence of the Spirit, Baptism would become not a baptism into a restored and renewed Israel as John had conceived it, but a holy baptism into a new humanity, a new Israel founded upon Christ Himself.

In the Old Testament it is made abundantly plain that it is not the achievements of Israel that qualify the people of Israel in the sight of God, but God’s primary declaration of His intent towards them, although whether or not they maintain a faithful regard for this is important. The Book of the Consolation of Israel in the middle of the book of Isaiah is a wonderful statement of God’s love and care for Israel and His intent to redeem her in spite of her many past acts of unfaithfulness to Him. Our first lesson today, coming from this part of the book of Isaiah, shows the Lord calling His special people Israel precious, honoured and beloved, and giving many assurances of redemption and promises of safety and well-being for the future. This is a divine demonstration not of praise for what Israel has done, but of a special care and love for her. “I have called you by name,” He says to them. “You are Mine.” Again, this is the biblical and Christian basis for the self-esteem of the people of God: not that they have been praiseworthy, but that He has chosen them and loves them. In the second lesson today we see Samaritans being added to the following of God’s people, a Jewish fellowship in those early days of the Church. There can be no doubt that on receiving the Holy Spirit when Peter and John laid their apostolic hands upon them, these Samaritans at once gained a sense of how people normally despised and ostracised (as Samaritans were by Jews) could become valued and loved as fellow-members of God’s household, the whole community of the apostolic church. It was not the will of God for them to form a separate, ethnically Samaritan church body. God’s care for His people was being made incarnate in the Church, and out of that Fatherly care was formed a strong brotherly relationship between people that had formerly hated and belittled one another.

The manifestation of Christ to the world at His Baptism is the manifestation of the heavenly Father’s care for his beloved Son. Climactic in itself, this is a beginning for us. The proclamation of the Gospel in which we share, the ministrations of Holy Baptism and the laying-on of hands, called in our discipline Holy Confirmation, and the distribution of the Holy Spirit’s gifts throughout the world continue that same declaration of care, because other sons and daughters are being adopted as members of God’s household at the cost of the loving obedience of the Son. In this process our own self-esteem is being warmed, and the warming power is not merely praise for things we have done, but rather His constant care for us that we do not merit. Unworthy as we are, this should be a great wonder to us, and as recipients of such care, we are all called to dispense it too. This is the caring and faithful love that the Lord calls us to afford to one another and to offer to our neighbours and all the world in His Name, indeed, as an epiphany of His character, in 2016 and beyond.

The victory of the Church over the world is assured not by any perception of an outward strength on her part over the institutions and forces of our time. Indeed and paradoxically, the outward perception of the church is most commonly as a failing institution, and of such failings we ought to be aware. There is no room whatever for an attitude of triumphalism on our part. Nevertheless, we may be assured that God's Epiphany to the world in His Son was and will be victorious, and also that the church, for all her failings, continues to be the body instituted by Christ for the purpose of the continued unfolding of the manifold wisdom of God. Within that church in which we are built up as members in the divine fellowship, we all receive and are charged to exercise our individual callings.