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'With you I am well pleased"

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 10th January,

is“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It wasn’t the first moment in his life when he became aware of his place in God’s intentions. St. Luke has already told us of the time when, as a twelve year old boy, he had visited the Temple and listened to the teachers and asked them questions. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” he asked his anxious parents.

He knew then that God had something in mind for him. Now, it’s about eighteen years later. Those years had no doubt been spent at home in Nazareth, surrounded by devout and loving family, regularly worshipping in the local synagogue, listening to and meditating on the scriptures, becoming more and more aware of his relationship with God, of the world’s needs and of the purpose of his life.  

Now the time he has been waiting for and preparing for has come. John the Baptist has raised a widespread awareness of God. People everywhere are becoming sensitised to the reality of God’s presence and the seriousness of God’s purpose. This is his moment. Now the God, whom he had recognised as his father eighteen years before, recognises him as his son.  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The course of his life is set.

He would recognise the words God was speaking to him as springing out of the Scriptures with which he was so familiar. The first half of the declaration comes from Psalm 2 verse 7: “You are my son”. The second half comes from Isaiah chapter 42 verse 1: “in whom my soul delights.” Two separate parts of Old Testament thought are brought together in the mind of Jesus. Psalm 2 speaks of the one who has a special relationship to God as Son. 

That son-ship is defined as the one who is to subdue the nations and to do so with might and power.” “You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 

But the Isaiah passage speaks of the one who is to be the suffering servant. What Jesus heard God saying to him was that the son is the servant. He is to be the one who brings all nations under the rule of God, but not by using might and power. “I have put my spirit on him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”Christ has understood what it means to be the Son of God and has accepted the role and the cost of it. So the relationship is completed. The Father and the Son are one, bound together in the Spirit. The baptism of Christ is his acceptance of total commitment, whatever the consequences. He has spent 18 years working out what it would mean. Now is the time for him to say, “Yes”. That’s why he hears God say “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

While it would be foolish to pretend that our baptism is of the same order as Christ’s, this act of Father, Son and Spirit does provide some clues to what, at best, our baptism does mean. Different Christian traditions have different patterns of the baptismal process. But in all of them it is a process, not just a one-off ceremony.

Some baptise babies and young children and commit them to the care of their families and the church until such time as the child comes to faith and confirms his or her baptism. Others dedicate the children and commit them to the care of their family and the church, until such time as the child comes to faith and accepts baptism. 

In each case there is that gap between the initial and the final act of commitment. In the case of Jesus the gap was eighteen years, for us it’s often much shorter that that.

But just as he spent that time within the care of a devout family and listening to scripture week by week in the synagogue, all the time working out what it was that his Father was asking of him, so that time between the initial and the final act of commitment is for us and our children a time to work out what it is that God is asking of us. Until the time comes for us to say, “Yes.”

That initial act is important, whether it’s a baptism or dedication. It is that act which brings the child into a new environment, the environment of the church of Christ.

Donald Baillie tells the story of a hospital for motherless babies in India, and how, for lack of a mother, many of the babies pined away and died, however well fed and attended to. The nurses kept the usual rule of not handling the babies unnecessarily. But one day a woman came into the ward and started dandling the babies in her arms. “Why don’t you let the nurses dandle the babies? A baby must have love.” Baillie goes on to say that that first act of commitment (in his case infant baptism) is the church’s cuddle which imparts to the child concerned the very grace of God. The period before final commitment is important too.

Albert Schweitzer once said, “One thing stirs me when I look back at my youthful days, and that is the fact that so many people gave me something or were something to me without knowing it. Such people, with whom I never perhaps exchanged a word, yes, and others about whom I merely heard things by report, had a decisive influence on me; they entered into my life and became powers within me.”

We have more influence on the lives of young people amongst us than we realise. This is particularly true of parents and other family members, but it’s true too of those who, week in and week out spend time with children and young people in our churches. It’s true too of those who have no direct role in the leading of children but are simply part of the church and unconsciously impart their gentleness, modest, kindness, willingness to forgive, and strength to cope in times of suffering and adversity. But it’s the final act of commitment, whether it’s confirmation of infant baptism or acceptance of baptism after child dedication, which is the place at which we come closest to Christ. This is the moment when we ourselves take responsibility. Up till now it’s on other lips that we’ve heard the name of Christ, it’s in other lives we’ve seen what it means to be a disciple; it’s others who’ve opened the scriptures, taught us to pray and demonstrated what it means to be a follower of Christ in their daily work and their political commitment. 

In their lives we have seen and heard what it means to accept that we are children of God and what the consequences are. Now we have to answer for ourselves the question that Jesus asked his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, to be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?”

To say “Yes”, at that point is a momentous decision, to be undertaken in fear and trembling. It’s then that we need to be reminded of those words quoted by Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine.”

And that’s very close to the words that Jesus heard when he was baptised: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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