Baptism and Adoption

jordan

Last April, I was standing in the River Jordan, at the site not far from the Judaean desert, where Jesus was baptised (if it wasn’t there, it can’t have been far away). The Jordan is not the mighty river it must have been in Jesus’ day.  Nevertheless, of the places I visited on that particular trip, it was one of the most moving.

I am reminded of that event as I reflect on the Collect for Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday where Anglicans remember the Baptism of Jesus.

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. [1]

One of the great things about being a Baptist, newly come to Anglican liturgy and Evensong, is the opportunity which that service gives to listen to Scripture read without distractions, and knowing that no-one will expound it for you later: it’s down to you (with the help of the Holy Spirit) to apply it to your heart. Another is hearing the great collects of Thomas Cranmer – often, for me, for the first time.  Matthew tells the story in this way:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptised, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13–17 ESV)

In the Anglican service for the Baptism of Jesus we are asked to remember the significance of Jesus own baptism and to answer the question that John poses too: why does Jesus come to be baptised?  There are many threads to draw from this event, but to highlight just two: Jesus identifies himself with humanity and in this event is numbered with the transgressors, freely, in obedience, even though he is not a transgressor himself; and Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism to be led into the wilderness to be tempted just as Israel came through the waters of the Red Sea and then wandered in the desert. Gordon Fee writes:

Jesus [is] stepping into the role as God’s Son, going through the waters, followed by forty days in wilderness, but succeeding precisely at the points where Israel failed when they were tested forty years in the wilderness. [2]

So, as Trevor Burke points out:

the climax lies in the declaration of Jesus’ identity, who he is, namely, God’s unique Son…Here his filial identity is explicitly and overtly brought out into the open.  [3]

As I listened to the collect (on this occasion being ably intoned by my fellow chorister, Adam, standing next to me!) I was struck by the parallel Cranmer draws between Jesus baptism and our own, especially what Burke calls the climax of His baptism: the Father affirming the Son. I had never thought before that my baptism was a sign of my adoption as a son and that in baptism God was saying to me: you are my son, I am pleased with you.

Tom Wright has clearly read Cranmer’s collect, and is perhaps drawing on it when he writes:

The whole Christian gospel could be summed up in this point: that when the living God looks at us, at every baptised and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day…

Reflect quietly on God saying that to you, both at your baptism and every day since.[4]

He goes on to say:

Any early Christian reading this passage would also, of course, believe that their own baptism into Jesus the Messiah was the moment when, for them, the curtain had been drawn back [i.e. seeing the heavens open] and these words had been spoken to them. We need to find ways, in today’s church, of bringing this to life with our own practice of baptism and teaching about it. [4]

Whether our own experience of Baptism was exactly like this or not, a moment of revelation, when the curtain is drawn back, we surely need to hear today, and every day, those words which the Father spoke to the Son, and speaks also to us: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”


[1] Collect for the Baptism of Christ from Common Worship. Church House Publishing, 2006.

[2] Fee, Gordon D. Pauline Theology: An Exegetical-Theological Study, Hendrickson, 2007. p.542

[3] Burke, Trevor J. The Message of Sonship. IVP, 2011. p.106

[4] Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone. SPCK, 2004. p.5-6

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Healing with Authority

rembrandt_the_hundred_guilder_print

I was reading Matthew’s gospel recently as part of reading through the Bible in a year in 2019.

After the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 to 7, there are two chapters (8 and 9) where Jesus travels around Galilee and the Gentile area of the Gadarenes healing “every disease and every affliction.” (Matthew 9:35 ESV). These chapters include ten specific stories of healing in quick succession. Interspersed among these are some specific incidents where Jesus begins to explain more about his ministry, and also one other miracle of the calming of the storm on Galilee.

We are so familiar with these stories it’s easy to miss what’s going on and the remarkable nature of what Jesus is doing.  What’s perhaps surprising, though, is that the disciples seem to miss some of this too.  Other gospels record the amazement of the crowds and how Jesus’ fame spread “so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town” (Mark 1:45), but in Matthew’s gospel the amazement is reserved at first for the calming of the storm: “And the men marvelled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him’ ” (Matthew 8:27)

This got me thinking. Why were the disciples not more amazed by the healings? Surely that was marvellous enough?

Further research reveals that in fact “The retelling of biblical narratives in postbiblical Jewish texts indicates that magic and miracles permeated the world of the Jews in the second temple period” [1].  There were several miracle workers operating at the time of Jesus, for example Honi the “circle drawer” and his grandchildren, who made it rain and healed the sick [1].

Of course I’d forgotten too that Jesus himself refers to other healers. When accused by the pharisees of casting out demons by the “prince of demons” Jesus reminds them that their sons cast out demons too – so how are they doing it? (Matthew 12:24ff). The pharisees could see that something more was going on.

Nevertheless the disciples and the crowds were amazed (and frightened sometimes too) by what Jesus was doing.  Something unique was going on, that was for sure. But it wasn’t simply that Jesus was healing the sick.

It will take more than a short blog post to unpack all of that, but here are few bullet points which I noted across these two chapters:

  1. Jesus heals remotely – he doesn’t even need to be there (Matthew 8:13)
  2. The healings are radically inclusive, the outcast, tax collectors, sinners, even the gentiles – not just those worthy (9:10-13)
  3. Nothing is impossible – the blind, mute, utterly demon possessed, even the dead –  all cured!
  4. Many of the healings introduce an element of faith, in Jesus himself (e.g. 8:13, 8:26, 9:22, 9:28)
  5. The pharisees are scandalised by Jesus linking healing to forgiveness of sin (9:6)

All three of the synoptic gospels include the story of fasting and new wineskins among these healings, which indicates that something completely new is happening. Mark records that the people marvelled at “a new teaching with authority.” (Mark 1:27) Matthew reports that the crowds “marvelled, saying, ‘Never was anything like this seen in Israel.’ ” (Matthew 9:32)

Yes, there had been teachers and healers before. But never like this…


 

[1] Gideon Bohak and Geza Vermes, Jewish Miracles Workers and Magic in the late Second Temple Period in Levine, Amy-Jill. Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford University Press, 2017, p.680ff

New Year Services in Vienna

Stefansdom outside

This year we decided that rather than sit at home and complain about Jools Holland on the TV, we’d celebrate New Year in Vienna, home of the famous New Year’s Day Concert at the Musikverein. Although tickets for that were an impossibility, we watched several events on big screens around the city and in two of the many cafés for which Vienna is so well-known.

But the highlight for me was being able to attend two New Year services at the main Cathedral in Vienna, the Stefansdom.  I’d remembered reading that it was in the Stefansdom that Pete Grieg’s 24-7 prayer movement celebrated their 15 year anniversary, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn.

On New Year’s Eve the cathedral was standing room only for the Gottesdienst zum Jahresschluss (end of year service) led by the same Cardinal Schöborn who projected a real warmth (even though I don’t speak more than two words of German).

The music was led by a choir of perhaps 30 and small orchestra, both of a very high standard, which performed two pieces from Mendelssohn (his Christmas piece, Vom Himmel Hoch, and the final chorus from the Lobgesang, Hymn of Praise), Mozart’s Laudate Dominum and finally Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus (in excellent English).

I couldn’t really follow much of the service, but there was something very moving about joining in with the congregational hymns Now Thank We all our God and O Come all Ye Faithful in German – and it was rather nice to hear the Willcocks’ arrangements given an outing for the latter, almost a thousand miles from the chapel where they were originally performed.

But most special of all for me was the reading from Isaiah (which I could follow courtesy the ESV app on my iPad)

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me;
my Lord has forgotten me.”
“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.
Your builders make haste;
your destroyers and those who laid you waste go out from you.
Lift up your eyes around and see;
they all gather, they come to you.
As I live, declares the Lord,
you shall put them all on as an ornament;
you shall bind them on as a bride does. (Isaiah 49:14-18, ESV)

The remainder of the service was a bit of a mystery to me, although it included a sermon, and prayers for the world, Europe, Austria and our families amongst other things. But that did at least give me space to thank God for the past year and to pray for the new. And the sense of God speaking through his Word to me was tangible and very moving.  Feeling sometimes very far from God, this was a wonderful reminder and promise for the New Year.

Feeling very blessed I was determined to return the next day for the New Year’s Day Hochamt (High Mass) and Elizabeth very kindly got up early so we could. A smaller orchestra and (surely professional) choir led the music with Haydn’s Little Organ Mass.

Although as an Evangelical Baptist I am not a fan (I guess that’s an understatement) of the Catholic mass, there are always three readings (plus Psalms on occasions) and since everything else was in German there was time to focus again on Scripture, which we can so easily lose in the busy-ness of a typical Evangelical Sunday morning service.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

“So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27, ESV)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:4-7, ESV)

And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:16-21, ESV)

Again I felt that God was saying I should take these passages and treat them as promises from God for 2019.

  • God will NEVER forget me. How could He?
  • God will bless us in 2019, with all the change that it’s already scheduled to bring (retirement, a first grandchild),
  • God has called me His son, however hard that is to accept sometimes,
  • He calls us to believe the Word spoken to us, ponder these things, and praise God publicly for them.

It’s hard to understand how God works and speaks sometimes, not least within a service from a denomination where I would have some VERY fundamental doctrinal differences! Nevertheless, He does. And so I can truly say:

Der Herr krönt das Jahr mit seinem Segen

The Lord crowns the year with his blessing

Stefansdom Inside