Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3: 13-end.
On Sunday 2 December 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of the French. Although, following the upheavals of the French Revolution and the execution of the last Bourbon King in 1793, this would seem to have been a backward looking ceremony it was, in fact, an entirely new affair.
Every aspect of the event was planned. Not just the words that would be used, but the venue for the ceremony, the choreography, and the symbolism we’re planned to the last detail. Every part of the ceremony was designed to declare that this would be a new form of monarchy. Not the ancien regime in new clothes, but that great paradox, an imperial monarchy formed by popular acclaim to defend the principles of the Revolution and the Republic is formed.
So rather than taking place in Reims – the ancient place of French coronation – the ceremony took place at Notre Dame in Paris. The service was given imperial splendour by the presence of Pope Pius VII. But the most dramatic change in the ceremony was at the moment of coronation. Here, rather than the Pope – or some other august clergyman – placing the crown on his head, Napoleon took the crown from the Pope and crowned himself.
Some have re-written the history of this occasion claiming that Napoleon seized the crown from the unsuspecting Pius, but in reality, this was all part of the careful choreography of this very public and very modern event. By crowning himself Napoleon was declaring to the world that he had had become Emperor by his own merits and through the will of the people. No priest or holy man, not even the Pope himself, was able to tell Napoleon what Napoleon already knew about himself. Every detail every act in this ceremony, down to who put the crown on his head, was designed to declare to the world who Napoleon believed himself to be.
The Feast of the Baptism of Christ which we mark today is, like this coronation, a very pubic declaration of who Jesus is.
The title of this feast can be a little deceptive as we can all too easily slip from this commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan to a reflection on our own baptism. There is of course a direct link from one to the other. But hearing this story in Epiphany season, hearing it as one of the wonders of this time, we are invited to reflect chiefly on Jesus’ baptism as part of his manifestation to the world. To fully grasp this, we need to look not only at the words being spoken, but, like Napoleon’s coronation, we need to observe what we are being told in the movements and actions in this epiphany of Jesus’ true self.
The first thing we hear is the seemingly mundane account of Jesus coming to John at the Jordan. However, this was not simply a family reunion, but a deliberate movement that Jesus makes. In the verses that precede our reading today we here again and again of John’s own reflection of his unworthiness in comparison with Jesus.
one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
In a context and time when the weak travelled to visit the powerful (remember the movement of the Wise men to Herod, or Herod's siren call to the wisemen: ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ ) Jesus, the powerful one, travels to John.
Jesus power is repeated in the short section of dialogue we hear when Jesus arrives at the Jordan seeking the Baptism of John.
John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’
Here again is this inversion. Jesus submitting himself to the care of someone who did not believe himself to be Jesus’ equal.
And then we come to the zenith of the story. As Jesus is lifted from the water by John (an act of submission itself) we hear the voice from heaven as the spirit descended on him like a dove.
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
This divine utterance builds on everything that we have seen in the movement and actions of this story. Here is God’s anointed, God’s chosen one, come to be our king, come to rule, but in a new a radically different way.
This divine utterance echoes the ‘Servant Song’ from Isaiah. Through the Servant Song we hear that the transformation that God promises us will not come through force of arms or wealth and power. The transformation God promises us will come through one who will serve others before himself, who will:
…light…the nations…open the eyes that are blind…bring out the prisoners from the dungeon.
Every part of the account of the Baptism of Christ – not just the words, but the actions and movements it speaks of – tells us of God’s plan revealed in Jesus. That greatness does not come with public acclamation but humble service. That true worth comes from submitting ourselves to the needs of others, not proclaiming our great deeds and worth.
What is extraordinary about this story is that when remind ourselves of all the subtleties woven into it by the skill of the Gospel writer the truth vocalised by the heavenly voice at the end of this passage is self-evident in the actions that precede them. That Jesus’ movement from power to weaknesses, his desire for John’s Baptism, his physical submission to John's hands in the River Jordan all tell us, before we hear the words, that his God’s anointed servant.
This coming Friday, whether we like it or not, the eyes of the world will turn to Washington DC to one of the great declarations of modern political theatre. At the inauguration of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth President of the United States we will observe the peaceful transfer of power in the most powerful nation on earth. We will hear oaths reminding us the duty to ‘preserve, protect, and defend’ and in the new president’s first speech we will no doubt hear of the words of conciliation, unity and service.
But what we are shown in story of the Baptism of Christ is that those words are meaningless if they are not accompanied by the actions and movement that speak together with those words. What we discover in this the Baptism of Christ is that we see this great epiphany of Christ’s true self not just in the words used, but in the actions, he took to accompany them.
The true vocation revealed in Christ’s Baptism is not just to say that we serve, but that service becomes a reality when we we put down our power for the sake of the weak. And the truth of this vocation, the truth of this calling should be self-evident in our actions before a word is even spoken.