I love the story of Jesus’ baptism. On the surface it was a most unnecessary thing for Jesus to undergo. The occasion, as Matthew alone recalls it, expresses this, with John asking, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’
I don’t think I need to explain to you that John’s baptism was one of repentance and preparation for Jesus’ coming. Jesus neither needed to repent nor prepare for his own coming.
Jesus response is telling. John doesn’t understand, we don’t understand (we don’t understand many things except with 20/20 hindsight), ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’
What we discover in the event of Jesus’ baptism is the voice from heaven affirming his identity, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’ Despite us talking about this being the start of Jesus’ ministry, this was followed directly by Jesus heading out into the wilderness – meaning the place of being alone – to cogitate on what this revelation means. You can almost hear Jesus saying, ‘What does this mean I am supposed to do.’
Actually, it was after the wilderness experience and the temptations that Jesus begins his ministry: Matthew writes, ‘from that time on Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”; Mark states that Jesus ‘came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news”; and Luke writes that Jesus ‘began to teach in their synagogues’.
Before Jesus began to do anything he spent time working out who he was and from that what he was meant to be doing. We see this at other points in Jesus ministry before making any big decision, before putting things into action. Before choosing from the disciples those he will interact most closely with to equip them as apostles, he spent the night in prayer. Before his crucifixion he spent time alone, even though inviting those who were closest to him to accompany him during the time.
I think this is consistent even with how God works, but we have interpreted God’s command to keep the last day of the week as a rest day as one where we rest from the labour that has gone before. However, if we think about what Jesus has done after his baptism, before he began his work and God dwelling in the creation before the real work began, we realise mistake we have made, the trap we have fallen into. What if the things we are labouring at are not the things God wants us to be labouring at, then our labour is in vain. The point of the Sabbath rest is not from the work that has gone before, but to work out what it is that we are supposed to do in the week to come.
This is what I love about January in the life of the Church. It is an opportunity to take a Sabbath month, not to rest from Christmas, but to mindful of and present with God to ask, ‘What is it you have for me, for us, to do?’ It’s kind of unfortunate that we use the accounts of Jesus in the wilderness as a preparation for Easter, focussing on the temptations, our temptations and our sin. This is OK, but there is something important to say about taking time out to stop and ask, ‘What is it you have for me, for us, to do in this year to come?’ The month of January is an opportunity to do just this – to be our Sabbath month.
The baptism that Jesus submitted himself to, ‘to fulfil all righteousness’, was a baptism of preparation. So, as we begin our new year, we are asking what is it that we are being called to do in the year to come. January is an opportunity to make plans. To fulfil those plans might include considering what training, what learning, we might need to be involved in order to bring those plans to completion.
During his baptism, Jesus experienced an affirmation of his identity, whether he understood it completely at the time. So, perhaps, as we begin this new year, we can ask again, or perhaps for the very first time, who am I. We know that Jesus asked this question of others, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ Indeed, we need to think about the spiritual gifts and talents that we have and ask, how can I best use those, and how do these things direct what it is that I need to be doing; where I labour and in what I labour.
I pray that you may use this month as an opportunity to take stock and a springboard into the new year of ministry and mission that is ahead of us.