The church looks a little different today. Gone is the Christmas tree. Gone are the Advent candles. The pulpit falls are green rather than white. Gone are the flowers which adorned our pillars. The prettiness, the decoration is away. The church is back to normal.
And is church life back to normal too? Perhaps. We’ve put away the Christmas carols and are back to singing normal hymns. For me, after a couple of weeks without meetings and sometimes being unsure of which day of the week it was, I find this week is well filled already, and the normal pattern is resumed.
To some, all this may come as a relief. The disturbance of Christmas is over. In some ways, I like to get back to normal. In some ways, I prefer the predictable patterns, the working week laid out in its usual way, the pattern of Sunday worship comfortingly familiar. But wait a moment. What did I say? The disturbance of Christmas is over? Most assuredly, it should not be.
Much as I like my Christmas tree at home, and glad as I am to get it away and the dropped needles hoovered up, that's not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the profound disturbance that Christmas teaches us about, but which is so often so effectively obscured by the way we celebrate it. I’m talking about the profound disturbance of the natural created order, of the breaking of the division between heaven and earth, of the destruction of the distinction between divinity and humanity that occurred in real historical time, in a real historical place, in Bethlehem, a little over 2000 years ago. Our focus on stars and angels, on shepherds and wise men, on the pretty little nativity scene, on the cooing over the baby, can obscure the real impact of the truth that, at that time, God came to earth, not as God but as a human being; and it can distract us from realising the implications of this extraordinary act.
Today our Gospel text describes for us the baptism of Jesus. Only it doesn't. Matthew is a fascinating writer. He's always got something going on which can be hard to spot at first, but which is crucial to the story he is trying to tell. And what he’s doing here is talking about incarnation, but doing it in the context of Jesus’ baptism.
Let me unpick that a bit. When I say Matthew doesn't tell us about the baptism of Jesus, what I mean is that he doesn't say Jesus went down into the water. He doesn't say if John said any words over him. He doesn't say whether he was immersed or sprinkled with water. What he does tell us about is a conversation beforehand, a conversation between Jesus and John.
We need to put that in context. John had a particular understanding of what he was doing. The baptism he was offering was a ritual purification, an outward sign undertaken by people who had heard and accepted his call to repentance, who had decided, under his teaching, to turn their lives around, to renounce sin. John, and all the people who came to him, understood this. Doubtless, Jesus understood this to, but he also understood it in a different way, but we’ll come back to that. John didn’t realise that, hence his reluctance to baptise Jesus.
John had a theological understanding of Jesus at that point which was unique to him, but which all followers of Christ now accept. He understood that Jesus was God incarnate, the real God in actual human form. He knew that God was holy and without sin. How then could God incarnate require a baptism for the washing away of sin?
Well, clearly, he couldn't. But it was not for that that Jesus came to John at the Jordan. He came as a sign of commissioning, of setting out on his journey of ministry. We’ve noted a couple of times in the last few weeks how heavily Matthew drew on the stories of Moses in telling the story of Jesus. So, as the children of Israel left behind their life in Egypt and passed to the waters of the Red Sea, trusting in the guidance of God to lead them to do what he wanted them to do and to be where he wanted them to be, so Jesus passes through the waters of Jordan from his old life of anonymity to his testing, turbulent life of gospel ministry. And in this, he redefines John’s style of baptism, and gives us the style we practice in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for our baptism is a commissioning to ministry and service in Christ’s name.
So what of the conversation between Jesus and John which is really the focus of Matthew’s account? John's question to Jesus is a question about his own perceived unworthiness to baptise the son of God. Who am I that you should come to me?
That really is the question which lies at the heart of the mystery of the incarnation. His name shall be called Emmanuel – God with us – but who are we that God should want to be with us? Even more startling, who are we that God should choose to be one of us, incarnated fully in all that it means to be human, not least to know suffering? The answer is that we are no more worthy on our own account than John was, but that our worth derives wholly and completely from the fact of God’s choice, God’s choice to create us and God’s choice, in Christ, to redeem us.
The fact is that God has chosen to be with us. This is the profound disturbance of Christmas. For Christmas is the point that everything changes. The incarnation of God in Christ not only brings the divine into the human, it calls the human into the divine. It changes us as much as it changes God. It brings heaven to earth and earth into heaven. We may ask: who are we that God should do this for us? God’s answer is this – you are mine.
We are his. And everything that happens in the gospel from this point on, everything that Jesus says, everything that Jesus does, unfolds to us what belonging to God means.