Baptism of the Lord


Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-11; 1 John 5:1-9; Mark 1:7-11

WE COME TODAY to the end of the Christmas season. And we have the third great ‘epiphany’ or showing of God in the human person of Jesus. The first ‘epiphany’ was at the birth of the child Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem when he was visited by the shepherds representing the poor, the marginalised and the sinful for whom Jesus had specially come. The second ‘epiphany’ was when the ‘wise men’ came from ‘the East’ to worship the newly born Jesus. They represented all those peoples and nations who were being invited to be numbered among God’s own people through the mediation of Jesus as Lord.

Today we celebrate the third great ‘epiphany’ of the Lord in Jesus Christ. The time is much later. Jesus is now an adult, probably about 30 years of age. We are brought to the banks of the River Jordan somewhere north of Jerusalem where John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus, is living out in the desert. The desert in some ways is a place where God can be found, although for Jesus it was also a place of trial and temptation. For the early Fathers in the desert it provided both experiences.

John the Baptist

John leads a very austere life, dressed in the simplest of clothes and sustaining himself on whatever nourishment he can find in the vicinity. He has made a name for himself as a man of God and large numbers come out to hear and be influenced by him.

The opening words of today’s Gospel tell us that he was proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. It is important not to misunderstand the meaning of these words. It would be quite wrong to think that people simply had to come for baptism in the river for all their sins to be wiped out. That would be little more than superstition. The baptism itself was a symbolic act which had to be accompanied by an inner change. The word for ‘repentance’ here is metanoia (metanoia) in Greek. It implies a radical change in the way we look at the meaning and purpose of life and how we live that life ourselves. It calls for much more than is normally connoted by ‘repentance’ which we normally understand as ‘being sorry’ for something we have done. Metanoia is much more than just feeling sorry. It calls for a total reorganisation of one’s attitudes so that such errant or hurting behaviour would simply disappear from one’s life.

And the ‘forgiveness of sins’ is more than just God just wiping out the guilt and the threat of punishment that our sins might involve. In a sense, our sins can never be wiped out. The damage they do often lasts for a very long time and cannot be undone. If I have murdered someone, they stay dead no matter how sorry I feel. If I have destroyed a person’s reputation, it may remain destroyed for ever. Hurtful words spoken cannot be called back.

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