When we get older, we maybe apologise more readily. We work out that an apology can ease a difficult situation. Apology is something we learn genuinely to wish to express. It can make things better.
Is that what we are doing, when we confess our sins? Confession may feel like apologising to God for whatever failings we have committed, thereby trying to make things better with God who, we may feel, ought to be angry with us. But this line of thought ignores some crucial considerations. The God we confess to is, as Scripture tells us, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Furthermore, his ways are not our ways. And most importantly, in Christ, we are already forgiven.
So why, in every service, do we confess our sins? And what are the sins we should be confessing?
Exploring these questions will help us make sense of the story of the Baptism of Jesus. It is a perennial conundrum. All the gospels, and Luke in particular, go to great lengths to emphasise that Jesus was without sin. He had nothing to say sorry for. He was pleasing to God. So what was he doing, undergoing a baptism of repentance?
We never read the rest of Luke Chapter 3, the verses which come after this brief account of Jesus’ baptism, and there’s a reason for that. It is a list of names. But it is interesting none the less. It is a list of all of Jesus’ forefathers. (Luke, unlike Matthew, does not include any women.) It starts, “He was the son, or so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat . . .” and so on, back through David and Jesse, through Judah, Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, back through the more mythic figures of Shem, Noah, Methuselah and concluding with “Seth, son of Adam, son of God.” Between God and Jesus there are seventy five names. But why is the list there at all?
The first thing to note is that, actually, it affirms the paternity of Joseph. That Joseph was Jesus’ biological father in no way undermines his status as God’s anointed son. Taking that first step back through Joseph links Jesus into the story of Israel’s history, told in the Old Testament. Named in the list are priests and kings, establishing Jesus’ religious and royal antecedents. There are heroes here. There are people with flaws. There are villains, and there are those in whose names traces of tragedy linger.
All this adds up to tell us that Jesus was born from as well as into a world of systemic sin. His origins are here on earth. He wasn’t parachuted in from a realm of perpetual virtue. He emerged from a lineage, a world all too well acquainted with suffering and tragedy, with guilt and fear, with injustice and tyranny, with conflict and conflicted interests. These, not infringements of a personal moral code, are what sin is. When we confess, we recognise we are a part of this system. Jesus’ baptism showed that he understood the systemic nature of sin – that every action, every choice, every event is in some way compromised. It showed that, through his incarnation, he fully identified with the world for which he would give everything to save.
His baptism was not about personal sin, any more than ours is. It was about repentance, as ours is.
Repentance, properly understood, is about challenging the sin laden systems of the world, about making incarnate, in this flawed world, the purity and virtue of the next. It is not about saying ‘sorry’. It is about making changes, turning around, taking a better path. A little later in the service, we’ll have the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to repentance. This is our call as followers of Christ: to stand with him against the things that cause suffering; to stand with him against injustice; to work with him for the healing of minds and bodies, of communities and nations, of the whole of creation; to witness with him to truth amid lies, to kindness amid cruelty, to generosity amid greed, to love amid hatred.
Jesus’ baptism is a sign of God’s commitment to the world as it is and to bringing about the world as it should be. It is a sign that Jesus came to serve. It is a sign that what God has made is fundamentally good and can be redeemed from sin. Our baptism, which we recall today, is an invisible sign, but a powerful sign, that we, with Christ in our hearts, work with him for the redemption of the world.