All part of a timeline - The Baptism of Jesus
When I was a schoolboy back in the last century when you could get chips wrapped in newspaper, I was asked time and again an impossible question: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” I was wondering last week what John the Baptist would have answered when his aunts and uncles enquired of him. We have an indication of what our Lord would have said because St Luke tells us that at the age of twelve he knew of his vocation when he stayed behind in the Temple on a family visit to Jerusalem: “Don’t you realize that I have to be about my Father’s business.”
John might have known of the special circumstances of his birth and naming, but it is difficult to think that he knew he would leave home in his mid to late twenties to live in the wild and exhort his local villagers and towns-people like an Old Testament prophet to get ready for the Messiah. “What are you going to be?” “I’m going to be a prophet!”
Anyway, the two, John and Jesus, meet up for the event described in today’s Gospel – the Baptism of Jesus. It is tantalizing that we know so little of their younger lives but we do know that they were cousins and that John was six months the elder of the two. So they must have known each other. They were family after all.
John is standing near a pool in the river Jordan where he is baptizing people as a sign of God’s forgiveness and as he looks up he sees his cousin approaching. “Why is he here? Why does he need to be baptized?” Jesus like the rest of the people there steps down into the water and is baptized by John. At this point Jesus receives confirmation of his calling: “Thou art my son, my beloved; on thee my favour rests.” Did John experience this too? Did the people also hear it? We don’t know, but we do know that this event sets our Lord on course for his ministry of service and sacrifice. It is a turning point from Old Testament warnings to the new age of the Messiah and of forgiveness and redemption. It is a moment of dedication and confirmation.
John was the last in a timeline of prophets – people like Elijah who John copied in his dress or Jeremiah and Amos, anti-establishment figures. Here he is handing over to a successor who also becomes the pioneer of a new timeline. Both of them are totally dedicated and moving God’s revelation of himself further forward in history in this momentous event.
Each one of us is part of a timeline when you think about it. Your family tree puts you firmly in a timeline with people before and after you and you have particular roles and responsibilities within that timeline. So also in our work and professional life we are or were doing jobs in succession to others and then passing on the baton to successors. From her Majesty to the lowliest Council worker; from the Archbishop of Canterbury to an occasional sidesman at St James; from a Chief Executive of a large multinational company to the newest apprentice – all of us paid workers and volunteers are part of a team and a timeline with duties to perform to the best of our abilities. No man is an island entire of itself., every man is piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Just as a Duke might say that he holds and cares for his castle in trust from those who went before and who follow after so do we in all the tasks that we do.
And sometimes there are those moments of inspiration or dedication or confirmation when everything becomes clear as to what we have to do; occasions like the Baptism of Jesus when events and people fall into place, big turning points in our lives, births and weddings and deaths and private acts of commitment when we devote ourselves to do our duty whatever it takes. For us who are Christians we do everything before God and there is therefore this extra dimension.
Clearly there is not much point asking ourselves what are you going to be when you grow up? Most of us have been grown up for rather more years than we care to admit. No, we should be asking ourselves who are we and what have we become now that we are grown up? And the answer to that will only make sense if we look back on those who went before us and those who follow after.