There are baptismal fonts of all shapes and sizes in the churches of our Diocese. Some fonts are so small that they are barely practical for the baptism of a mouse, others are so large and imposing that family and friends have to guess what is going on inside them. Some of our fonts have heavy lids on them, dating back to a time when people feared that otherwise the water inside them would be stolen for use in black magic; others (like the fonts in the parishes of Lakes and Cardiff) are wide and deep enough for adults to be fully immersed in them.
The architecture of some of our churches was designed to provide sufficient space at the back of the Church for the font to be near the door, so that whenever Christians came into or left the Church building they passed the place where they had been baptised into Christ. In other churches the font stands near to the altar so that it can be prominently seen by everyone who gathers for worship. A powerful reminder that whilst we are sustained and kept in eternal life through the Eucharist, it was through our baptism that the door to that new life was opened for us.
In this Church we have the best of both situations. Our glass font stands prominently in the sanctuary as a visual reminder for all to see, and the holy water stoop in the entrance allows us to pass by the water of baptism every time we enter the building, perhaps dipping our finger into it and making the sign of the cross to remind us of what God in Jesus has done in us.
But it would be hard to miss the differences between the rather sanitised version of baptism which we practice in our fonts as Anglicans and the baptism being offered in the river Jordan by John.
Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John remind us that baptism itself was not a creation of the Church.
In the Jewish tradition, of which John, and indeed Jesus, were a part, immersion in water for ritual purification (the mikvah) were employed to restore people to an undefiled state. If a person had been in contact with a dead body, for example, ritual immersion in water was required before that person could re-enter the Temple, and to ensure that they did not contaminate others in the community by their uncleanness. Converts to Judaism were ritually washed to signify their change in status as cleansed and righteous people.
It is within this tradition that John is offering baptism in the running water of the River Jordan to those who followed him out into the desert. Our fonts – whatever they look like – wherever they are positioned owe more to the growth of cities, and the lack of accessible clean streams and rivers than they do to anything more profoundly theological.
Yet the baptism being offered by John is a bit of a puzzle for us. Whilst there were similarities between what John was doing and what had been practiced in the ancient Jewish laws, there was a heightened sense of urgency in what was taking place as well. We do not know whether John baptised those who came to him only once or whether, like Jewish practice of the day this was a rite which people could receive on a regular basis. What we do know is that, as the Jews looked forward expectantly to the coming of their Messiah, there was a strong sense that the messianic age would come with God’s purifying judgement.
The words of the Prophet Isaiah that we heard a few minutes ago would have been uppermost in the minds of those who wandered out into the wilderness to find John, and as they waited alertly for the coming of the Messiah: ‘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… He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.’
John the Baptist certainly stands in the great line of the prophets. The baptism that he offers is a dramatic and evocative example of prophetic symbolism. The messianic age is about to dawn, it is time to prepare for it, it is time to be washed, it is time to be made pure for the day of God’s visitation is at hand. As I imagine John out there in the wilderness I have a sense of the radical nature of what is going on. It is true that he is out in the desert, but the tall shadow of the Temple in Jerusalem is not all that far away from him. Through his actions John is directly challenging all that is going on in that Temple. He is offering a new way for people to be made one with God, not through the sacrifice of animals and the work of the priests, but through the cleansing of hearts and minds and the resolution to be ready for the Messiah. Perhaps John knew that a new temple would be created, although he would not have known what it would look like: a temple of flesh and blood, where the divine presence would be seen and experienced, and where forgiveness would be sealed forever: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’.
In all this we need to remember that the baptism being offered by John was not Christian baptism as the Church came to understand it. John’s baptism was radical and revolutionary yes, but it was also limited and provisional. It was concerned with being ready, with being clean, but it was pointing forward to a fulfilment that had not yet been fully articulated even though it was expectantly awaited. That is why in the Acts of the Apostles we find the disciples of John who had received baptism from him, being definitively baptised again in the name of Jesus.
We cannot know exactly why it was that Jesus himself came to that river to be baptised by John at the inauguration of his ministry. I have preached here on this Sunday on three of the last four years, and those of you with really good memories might remember that I have reflected on that question with you at greater length in the past. Perhaps Jesus wanted to signal that he was uniting himself with the prophetic and radical tradition that John embodied. Perhaps Jesus was offering a sign of his messianic vocation to bring reconciliation between God and humanity, identifying with us in our own need of forgiveness. Perhaps Jesus wanted to show those who would later follow him that this rite of purification was a kind of prototype of the Christian baptism that was to come. Perhaps it was only at the moment of his baptism that Jesus himself realised why he was there. We do not know.
But what we do discover through the account painted for us by the Gospel writers is that as Jesus is baptised what has been offered to him by John is transformed into something which is bestowed on him by God his Father. What is taking place becomes much more than the forgiveness of sins, it is a confirmation of the gift of the Spirit, and Jesus’ dignity as the beloved Son of God. As he rises out of the water the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and a voice proclaims divine sonship: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.
And what was true for Jesus in that one moment at the commencement of his ministry, has been true for all who have been baptised ever since. We are washed, we are filled with the Spirit, and God says to each one of us, because of my one and only Son you are also my beloved, my beloved sons and daughters as well. But reflection on Christian baptism in the New Testament does not stop there. The earliest Christian communities reflected deeply on what baptism meant for them using a range of images that have now become very familiar to us. For example, being born again: a new spiritual birth from above; being brought from darkness into light or being illumined; being clothed with Christ. Even more radically in the writings of St Paul, being united with Christ in such a mystical way that his death becomes our death, his burial becomes our burial, his rising again becomes our rising again. In other words, through baptism Christ’s story becomes our story so that we are
re-constituted in him, joined by faith and baptism, to those saving events that bring us to salvation.
Listen to these words from the instructions for the newly baptised in Jerusalem from one of the earliest Christian communities: ‘Now that you have been baptised into Christ and have put on Christ, you have become conformed to the Son of God… since you share in Christ, it is right to call you ‘Christs’ or anointed ones… You have become ‘Christs’ by receiving the sign of Holy Spirit… When you emerged from the pool of sacred waters you were anointed in a manner corresponding to Christ’s anointing. That anointing is the Holy Spirit… Christ was anointed with… and you have been anointed with chrism because you have become fellows and sharers of Christ…’
If the baptism offered by John pointed forward to the in-breaking of the Kingdom (the coming of the messianic age), then Christian baptism celebrates our incorporation not only into that new age but also into the one who brings that new age into being, Christ himself. If you look closely at almost any of the older stone fonts in churches around the Diocese you will notice that they have eight sides, to symbolise what I am trying to express here. Whilst the baptism offered by John looked expectantly for a new day to come, it remained for the moment within the normal cycle of life, the seven days of the week. But in Christian baptism that cycle is transformed. Those who are baptised no longer live in the cycle of this world, they live in the eighth day, the new day of the week, the eternal life of God’s unending love. We who have been baptised do not look forward to eternal life as if it something that will come later, we are joined now in Christ’s eternal life – that is the reality of what God has done for us through our baptism.
The problem is that we live in a time when the old age that is passing away and the new age which is being brought to birth continue to run in parallel. The trouble is that the radical call of our baptism is masked when we settle down into complacency, into spectatorship, into a disfigured understanding of what active Christian living is all about. That is why for St Paul, baptism and the consciousness of being baptised, means that we must be provoked (daily) to live as those who belong to the new age. He says, ‘Shall we continue in sin? No, in baptism you died to sin so that as Christ was raised from the dead, you too should walk in newness of life.’
Today we join with Christians around the world as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. And in so doing we celebrate our own baptisms into the eternal life of God’s love. At this Eucharist dear brothers and sisters we take hold of the dignity which is ours through Christ. But we remember too that that dignity is not a private possession, it is Christ’s not ours.
God says to us this morning, as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, ‘through Christ you are my beloved sons and daughters in whom I am well pleased; be refreshed here, that you may shine as a light in the world in the week ahead’.