God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Psalm 46)
Hymn CH3 223
O love how deep, how broad, how high!
Loving heavenly Father, our strength and our joy in times of ease and in times of trouble, it is good to come before you in worship. Though our churches are again closed, and we worship distanced from each other, yet we join together in heart and voice to praise your holy Name.
Holy God, we know that for many years we have lived in relative peace and prosperity, compared to so many nations and peoples in the world. Now, when we as a nation face a new illness, with its accompaniments of premature death, economic and social disruption, we realise that we have so often taken our peace and our security for granted.
Forgive us, we pray, when we have failed in gratitude.
Forgive us when we have failed to understand or to care about other people and other nations who face every day, and to a much greater extent, such problems as those which now beset us.
Teach us from our present difficulties to value peace, freedom and prosperity more justly, and to seek them for all the world’s people.
And teach us, above all, that true peace and security are to be found in you alone, our Strength and our Redeemer.
The Lord’s Prayer
………………………… . Amen.
Reading: St Matthew 3: 11-17
(John the Baptist is speaking to the crowds who have come for baptism)
‘I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering up his wheat into the barn, and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’
Then Jesus came from Galilee to be baptised by John. John would have prevented him, saying: ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’
But Jesus answered him: ‘Let it be so now, for it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness’. Then John consented.
And when Jesus had been baptised, 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. And a voice from heaven said: ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ Amen.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
In this season of Epiphany – the season when the Church remembers the various ways in which the nature and mission of Jesus Christ were revealed to humanity – we ‘fast forward’ from the visit of the wise men to the holy child of Bethlehem, to the emergence into the public arena, some thirty years later, of the mature man Jesus, carpenter of Nazareth. His baptism in the River Jordan is a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus.
His relative John the Baptist, having lived until recently an ascetic life in the wilderness, had now begun his mission in the region of the River Jordan, preaching the near approach of the Kingdom of heaven, and baptising in the river those who came to him seeking remission of their sins.
This was unusual – baptism with water as a cleansing procedure from past uncleanness was known to the Jews, but it was generally applied to Gentiles converting to Judaism. John must have been a very charismatic and convincing preacher, to have persuaded not just ‘ordinary’ sinful folk, including (according to St Luke) soldiers and tax-collectors, but also the religious elite – Pharisees and Sadducees – to seek to make confession of their sins, and to undergo a public baptism of repentance. And John did not ‘let them off lightly’. He warned them bluntly that neither being born a Jew, nor religious ritual, would avail them, unless they truly repented, and reformed their way of life.
Then Jesus appears, seeking baptism, and John is astounded. ‘I should be baptised by you, not the other way round!’ he exclaims.
Why should the sinless Son of God require baptism? This question may perhaps be partly answered by Jesus’ spiritual experience as he rises from immersion in the river, to see the Spirit descending and hear the voice which proclaims him the beloved Son. Whatever his past spiritual journey during the ‘silent years’, of which we know nothing, this public experience, to which, according to John’s Gospel, the Baptist bore witness, must have set the seal on his calling, and all that would follow from that.
There may be another answer to the question, why baptism for Jesus? When God in Christ came to earth to seek and to save lost humanity, he identified completely with that humanity, from birth in a lowly stable to death on a cross, and burial in a borrowed tomb. So baptism in the Jordan may be seen as yet another instance of that total identification with humanity. As John Henry Newman wrote in his great hymn, Praise to the holiest in the height: ‘A second Adam to the fight, and to the rescue came.’
John tells the people that while he will baptise with water, the one coming after him will baptise with the Holy Spirit, and with fire. Water and fire – two of the ‘elements’ described by the ancients (the others being earth and air) – both have powerful symbolic significance. Each, in a sense, gives life – the fiery sun being the source of the energy necessary for life, and water being the element in which all life on earth began, and from which all humans still emerge, in the waters of birth. Both water and fire are gifts to the creation, of our great Creator God.
Both fire and water are means of cleansing, of purification. Both have also the potential to destroy. Baptism by immersion in water symbolises not just cleansing, but the death of the old self, and its regeneration to new life; while purgation by fire signifies the destruction of that sinful pollution which, uncleansed, results inevitably in death of the soul.
It is by baptism with water, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that the Church admits to membership of Christ’s Body. And it is by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which descended on Him, like a dove, at His baptism, and, on his disciples, like tongues of flame, at Pentecost, that Christ sanctifies and inspires his Church.
As Scripture tells us (Titus 3:5): Because God was merciful, he saved us through the water of rebirth and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, which he lavished upon us through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
Thanks be to God.
Holy God, Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we thank you humbly, and from the bottom of our hearts, that you sent your Son to take on himself our human flesh, to be born, to live with struggle, to suffer, and to die, even as we do. We thank you that, though without sin, he for us submitted to baptism, and then to death: that through him we might be cleansed of our sins, and rise in him to the life eternal.
Gracious God, hear our prayers for the world in this difficult time.
We pray for all people and all countries afflicted by the pandemic.
We pray that you will continue to bless the efforts of scientists and of all health care workers, who strive so hard to bring hope and healing to the afflicted.
We pray for all who suffer at this time, whether from illness or anxiety, pain or loss. May your peace be present with all who are in need.
In moments of silence we name before you all known to us in special need of your blessing. Pause
At this time of tension in the world’s affairs we pray especially for our friends in the United States of America.
We pray for our own country, and for its leaders, who daily face the most enormous problems. Grant them, we pray, wisdom, integrity, and resilience, that they may lead our nation forward to a renewed commitment to justice and fairness for all our people.
And we pray for your Church in this land, asking that you will renew her faith, and raise up leaders and ministers to nourish and inspire this generation to a new commitment to you.
Eternal Father, at the baptism of Jesus you revealed him to be your Son, and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful to their calling as your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Hymn CH4 336
(Tune: Highland Cathedral)
Christ is our light! The bright and morning star
The Lord bless us and watch over us;
The Lord make his face shine upon us, and be gracious to us;
The Lord look kindly on us, and give us His peace. Amen.