The baptism of Jesus was one of the most decisive and pivotal moments of his life – tremendously important. It was his baptism and confirmation and ordination all rolled into one. In fact, there were some people in the 2nd and 3rd centuries who thought it was so important that they said that it was actually at his baptism that Jesus became the Son of God. God adopted him as his Son at that moment - they were called Adoptionists. It’s an attractive idea, but it diminishes the significance of the incarnation. It was the very nature of Jesus that he was both man and God from the start – not just from his birth, but from his conception, whether or not that was virginal. Christmas wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t believe that God was there in the manger.
At our services last Sunday, celebrating Epiphany, Jesus was still a baby, being visited by the Wise Men. This Sunday, we’ve taken a huge leap forward: today he’s a man of 30, and it leaves a big gap in our biography of Jesus. The Bible tells of just one incident in all those years – the time when he was twelve and Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.
It would of course be good to know more, but it’s also, I believe, very significant that we don’t. Actually, there are some gospels called Apocryphal Gospels which do contain stories about the childhood of Jesus. They tell of wonderful, magical miracles, and they were written to satisfy people’s natural curiosity about the young Jesus, and also in the belief that as Son of God he just must have been able to do such extraordinary things. Very wisely, however, the church rejected these books as well-intentioned but fanciful, and so did not include them in the New Testament.
No, Jesus was an ordinary boy, growing up in an ordinary way in an ordinary family, gradually developing, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially. As a normal child he must have made mistakes – all children do: it’s part of the learning process, and of course there’s a huge difference between mistakes and sins. Most children’s mistakes are in no way sins. Neither are adults’ for that matter.
Jesus must have gone to the synagogue school, and from Joseph he learnt the trade of a carpenter. And a carpenter then was not just a woodworker, a chippy, but a general builder, a handyman, making and repairing things to order – no job too big; no job too small. He was a craftsman, an artisan, employed by others and charging a proper price for his goods and his services – making a living. And also, there in Nazareth, he certainly learnt about life in general. It was no sleepy backwater, but a thriving town, a busy route centre and staging post at the northern end of the A1 from Jerusalem.
Tradition tells us that Joseph was older than Mary and died well before Jesus left home. So Jesus would have become the head of the family, responsible for the well-being of his mother and also for his younger brothers and sisters. The Bible’s pretty clear that he did have brothers and sisters. The notion of Mary ever virgin is, to my mind, theologically impoverishing.
I do like to think of Jesus in this way. Naturally, we concentrate on all those things that the four New Testament gospels tell us about him. But that covers, at most, just the last three years of his life, his extraordinary life. The first 30 years were, by contrast, really ordinary, with nothing outstandingly noticeable about them.
That’s shown on the occasion when he went back to Nazareth to preach and to try to heal. The locals said: Who does he think he is? Isn’t he the son of the carpenter? Don’t we know his brothers and sisters? There’s another time too which shows that even his family were embarrassed by his public ministry. They tried to get him to stop: this was something they hadn’t been led to expect of him.
Jesus really did share our life. He experienced it inside out – as child, as adolescent, as working man earning a living and looking after a family. And he brought all this personal experience and knowledge of everyday society to his teaching about life and how we should live it. He knew what he was talking about.
Also of course during those 30 years he’d been a synagogue-goer and so become steeped in the knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, and in Sabbath and other worship and customs. He was, the gospels make it plain, a man of prayer. And over those 30 years little by little he must have become more and more aware that God had a special mission for him. Could he be sure of it? Well, it’s absolutely normal to have doubts and to need reassurance.
He came to hear, as everyone did, about what his cousin John was doing; calling people to repent, to return to God, symbolically washing away their sinfulness, making them clean for a fresh start. And so Jesus too came forward. For him, it wasn’t the cleansing that was significant but that baptism into a new beginning and that confirmation which he needed and which he received from God. He now was sure that he had a special relationship with God and that this new life he was embarking on was right and pleasing to God. Indeed, the Spirit of God was upon him, ordaining him for his mission.
But what was he to do next? How was he to proceed? The following verse after the end of this morning’s gospel is: Jesus was then led away by the Spirit into the wilderness. He went into retreat, that period of 40 or so days we call The Temptation. It was a time of solitary thought and prayer which he needed to consider the implications of his unique mission and to work out his strategy and his priorities.
Today, just a fortnight or so after Christmas, we rightly celebrate the Baptism of Jesus – his sacramental act of commitment, God’s confirmation of their unique relationship and his ordination, so to speak, for the task ahead.
And also we give thanks for those preceding 30 years, ordinary, but consequently for us so significant. Thanks be to God.