How is 2020 treating you so far? We’re two weeks into the New Year and I wonder how things are going for you? After the excitement of Christmas, January always comes as a bit of an anti-climax, doesn’t it? I gather the first Monday back at work after Christmas is now officially the most depressing day of the year!
But don’t despair – because in Matthew’s Gospel today we arrive at a genuinely new beginning. We come face to face with some truly good news, news to put joy in our hearts on even the wettest, coldest, most miserable January mornings!
Between now and Easter we are going to be looking at Matthew’s Gospel in our Sunday Sermons. Its also a great book to read on your own as well. I have left some daily Bible reading notes on Matthew at the back of church – yours for just £2! Do buy one on your way out.
Get ready for God’s Son!
Last year our government had a facelift, didn’t it? Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May as Prime Minster and he created his own new Cabinet to replace hers. There has been a ‘changing of the guard’ you might say, with new ministers responsible for different government departments. And our own diocese of Chester said goodbye to Bishop Peter last year, and we await the announcement of his successor sometime in the coming months.
A similar changing of the guard appears in our passage today. God’s Old Testament spokesmen – the prophets – handover to two new faces – John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. To understand what I mean, listen to these words from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, which appear in verse 3 today: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’
When those words were first written by Isaiah they were a bold prediction that God would one day send someone to announce his imminent, personal arrival on earth. A messenger who would declare that the Lord was coming to bring blessing and forgiveness to his people, and judgment on his enemies.
As we read on to verse 4, we see that John the Baptist was this special messenger. Standing beside the river Jordan, wearing nothing but camel skin and a leather belt, he was literally ‘a voice in the wilderness’. His task was to tell people to get ready to meet with God – the Lord’s arrival was imminent, and they had to get ready!
John told his hearers to get ready by repenting and seeking the forgiveness of their sins. In other words, he told them to say sorry for their past misdemeanours and seek God’s mercy. And he told them to be baptised in the river Jordan as a sign of their sorrow – as a sign that they are serious about their sin and want it washed away by God.
What is remarkable is that people flocked to hear John speak. Verse 5 says the people of Judea and Jerusalem crowded around him, desperate to hear his message, be baptised and confess their sins. There was a spiritual hunger in the land, people had a strong desire to get right with God – the nation knew it needed forgiveness from the Lord.
How different from our own society today! It’s a tragedy that in twenty-first century England so many people consider Christianity boring, irrelevant or untrue. As we enter 2020 do pray that our community and our nation will gain a hunger for God, a healthy fear of the Lord.
Like the people of Israel in John’s day, we must all be ready to meet our maker. So share your faith with non-Christian colleagues, friends and family. Invite them to Church. Pray that their apathy, agnosticism – or even anger – about God will be replaced by repentance for sin and saving faith in Jesus.
Because faith in Jesus was the final component of John’s preaching. John didn’t want to become a celebrity – he wanted to point people to Christ. Listen again to John’s words in verse 11: “I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
With those words John leaves us in no doubt that Jesus is far greater than himself. Jesus is the coming “Lord” whom Isaiah had written about. Jesus is the Lord God who alone can pour his Holy Spirit on his people – a promise he kept at Pentecost.
With that in mind, verse 13 comes as quite a surprise doesn’t it? It says “At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John.” If Jesus is greater than John, we would have expected Jesus to baptise John, not the other way round! And if Jesus is the Lord, perfect and sinless, why did he undergo a baptism of repentance?
Even John seems surprised, doesn’t he?! Verse 14 says he tried to deter Jesus, saying “I need to be baptised by you, and yet you come to me?”
Why did Jesus insist on being baptised? Why does he tell John hat it is proper and right for him to do so?
The answer is that Jesus had come to earth to identify with sinners. He was born in Bethlehem to live among us, and he went into the River Jordan to identify with our sinful condition – despite being without guilt himself.
Jesus’ identification with sinners reached its climax on Good Friday, of course, when on the cross he took our guilt upon his shoulders. He was the sinless substitute who died so that we might become God’s forgiven friends forever. That’s the very heart of the the good news – the Gospel – that Matthew is so keen to share with us.
Join the Divine dance!
I don’t know if you are a fan of Strictly Come Dancing (its certainly popular in my house) but the latest series finished at Christmas, and the famous glitter ball trophy was been awarded to Kelvin Fletcher, who plays Andy Sugden in Emmerdale.
In final couple of verses of our passage today we are given a glimpse of another dance. A dance that has been going on for eternity and will never, ever end. Not a tango, foxtrot, or waltz – but a divine dance between God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Heaven is opened and we are given a short glimpse of this divine dance in verses 16 and 17 of our passage today. All three members of the Trinity appear in those verses.
Listen again at what happens: “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
As Jesus was baptised, God’s Spirit descended upon him from above, and God the Father spoke to him from Heaven. As Jesus began his public ministry, the Father and Spirit became present to affirm him, empower him and guide him through all that lay ahead. As we shall see next week, the Spirit’s first task was to send Jesus into the wilderness, for a face to face confrontation with Satan.
More generally, this scene gives us a window into the intimate relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. From before the dawn of time, there has been a relationship of love and co-operation within the very being of God. A relationship that created the universe and secured our salvation.
No wonder Christian authors like CS Lewis and Tim Keller have compared the life of the Trinity to a dance. It’s a dance that we are called to imitate here on earth, and a dance that we are invited to join in with forever.
You see, if our Creator exists in an eternal loving relationship, then we are made for relationships too. The Trinity reminds us relationships matter. They are hugely important. They’re what we were made for!
One of the reasons why people find things like family life, music groups, sports teams, and clubs so fulfilling is that God the Trinity made us that way – we are made in its image. God is himself a kind of team, a ‘society’ of co-operation, love and service between the three persons of the Trinity. He wants us to seek out and enjoy those things too – especially as part of his Church family.
Best of all, the three persons of the Trinity don’t want to keep their own relationship closed. God invites each of us to enter a relationship with him – to join their dance, if you like. Every time we pray, for example, we are getting to know God the Holy Trinity, we are joining their dance.
As CS Lewis wrote: “when an ordinary simple Christian kneels down to pray to God the Father, he knows that what is prompting him to pray is God the Spirit. And he knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Son of God. The man is being caught up in the life of the Trinity. He is being pulled into God, up to God, by God.”
Be in no doubt that God wants you to know him personally as your Father, your Saviour and your indwelling Comforter. If you put your faith in Jesus you don’t just get a ticket to heaven, you enter a relationship with God as well. You join the joyful, eternal dance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A dance we will never tire of, a dance that will never end. So come to Christ, and come dancing with God!
Copyright © 2015-2018 St John the Evangelist, Ashton Hayes. All rights reserved.