As seekers and followers of the Beloved we are called by baptism and life to be new creations and at home in our humanity where we encounter Jesus, our neighbours and our true selves. (Baptism of our Lord. Matthew 3:13-17; Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43.)
“See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them.” It seems to me that as baptised believers this is the territory we inhabit – between the known things and new things, between what is familiar and what has been declared but not yet fully realised, between what we have integrated and what is still calling us forth.
We touched upon this same theme as part of Advent, the notion of living between the historical advent of Jesus the Christ and the second coming of Jesus at the fulfilment of time or as between historical Jesus and the universal Christ. It can be unsettling territory – a no person’s land, beyond the edge of the map of the known world where there might be dragons. (For the same reason it can also be an exciting place to inhabit!) In the baptism of Jesus story I believe that we can be reassured that Jesus entered this territory first and calls to us from there – from the place of being fully human and a new creation.
The baptism of Jesus is a troubling story in some ways. For if baptism is about the forgiveness of sins – original and particular – then why is Jesus being baptised? Indeed John the Baptiser has just this reservation for he has after all been proclaiming a baptism of repentance! Jesus’ response is: “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” Is Jesus suggesting doing something simply to “look right”? Hardly likely as he does not seem to feel this need anywhere else in the gospels. Rather I think that Jesus is saying that there is something deeply important, or proper, about the process of giving himself to baptism.
So if baptism is not primarily about the forgiveness of sins then what is being expressed by Jesus in this public event? Firstly Jesus expresses his solidarity with humanity and the human condition. In queuing up with everyone else he enters the story as an ordinary almost unseen human. And then as the Holy Spirit announces that this is the beloved Son we get to see, yet again, that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.
Secondly in all the gospels the story of Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry and so ritual cleansing may well be seen as an act of preparation for the work of his life, just as much later his anointing by the unknown woman will be seen as a preparation for his death and burial.
And of course his baptism leads to his being announced by God as the Beloved Son. In this way his baptism is effectively his anointing as Son, as Messiah, which literally means anointed one.
The story of Jesus is not only the story of what God did and does for us but of who we are and might be. And so it is with this story. It is the story of what Jesus did and is for us. And it is the story of what we are called to do and who we might become. In our baptism, in our belief and practice we enter into solidarity, deep sympathy and oneness with all of humanity, indeed with all of creation. Secondly in our baptism we are initiated into belonging within the family of all other believers and followers. And maybe most of all, in our baptism and belief, we are declared, reminded that, we are Beloved sons and daughters of God.
One of my favourite names for God, of which Scripture and tradition teach that there are many, is that of “Beloved”. We can dare to call upon the God of all as our Beloved because we are first declared beloved by God. It is very hard for us to know – in the marrow of our bones and in the secret chambers of our heart – that we are beloved. And yet God is our beloved – the divine beloved – the one for whom we yearn and seek and flee from and yet are always restless for. This yearning seems to be part of the very nature of being human for it is expressed in nearly every religion in the world – this restlessness, this seeking, this bittersweet ache for what we cannot see.
This desire for the divine beloved can take us on an interesting journey to many places, to many beliefs, in the company of some wonderful and dubious characters and into many strange activities as we seek solace and satisfaction of our yearning. Some take a lifetime and never satisfy the desire or even name it accurately. Others stumble into faith, relationship, spiritual practice sooner and know with a deep certainty their place in God’s created order.
This desire for the divine beloved will lead us to the stars and back into the mud from which we are made in deep union with those others who bare the image of the divine. This desire is our compass when we find ourselves in the unsettling territory of announced but not-yet-seen new things.
So wherever the Christ is calling to you from this new year – from the mystery of prayer, from the fearful place of struggle and grief, from the quietude of peaceful rest, from the demands of social justice, from the joy and excitement of adventure, be assured that this is the one who was baptised before us into the order of new things and from that place of newness and fullness calls us forward.
The Christian journey seems to always be in holy tension between certainty and unknowness. May we take courage for this next year of journeying further into the heart of God, the one who has named us Beloved. Even so, Come Lord Jesus Christ.