Old Trafford has a number of places of worship. Our banns were heard at St Hilda’s, Old Trafford. But far and away the largest place of worship has thousands of adherents. Every Saturday, or thereabouts, they gather to chant devotion to their god. At times they will invite the leader of the worship, dressed in black, to improve his eyesight. They cheer whenever the team in red puts the ball into the net. Yes, football’s god is alive and well in Old Trafford. The fans do go there, they cheer the team, they wear red and they identify, they identify with the team of Manchester United.
Matthew’s gospel is unique in understanding that there is a problem with John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. In Matthew’s understanding of Jesus, Jesus is the perfect man, the sinless man who comes to bring salvation. John baptized for the repentance of sins. Sinners who had been convicted by John, turned away from their sins and turned towards God. And John then baptized them. But Jesus is without sin, so why should he be baptized by John? It does not make sense.
Matthew’s answer is to rest upon the mystery of God’s ways. ‘Let it be so for now,’ says Jesus, ‘So we shall fulfil all righteousness’. I wish to propose another reason for John to baptize Jesus. Jesus is deliberately identifying with the sinner. It is like the football fan identifying with their team. Jesus is deliberately walking with the sinner so that the sinner might be saved.
When I saw a family that was bereaved, I would deliberately aim to understand what they were experiencing. I would try and walk in their shoes and feel where they pinched my feet. That way I could begin the understand their grief…or lack of grief. I would identify with what they were experiencing so that I could offer them more appropriately some kind of comfort.
Jesus comes offering forgiveness for sins. He identifies with the sinner so that the sinner may more easily come to repentance and forgiveness.
It is easier to do something when another person understands us and walks with us. Forgiveness more easily happens if the person doing the forgiving understands the other person. There were two neighbours. They drank tea together and occasionally a little gin passed their lips. But one person was terribly proud and knew what was what. One day the other person had to admit that she had bumped her car into another car. The proud woman said that she did not know how the other could admit this fault. The friendship was broken. All for a bit of sympathy. The proud person should have walked with her neighbour and heard her bewilderment and shock and sorrow. She should have identified with her neighbour.
Jesus walks with us; identifies with us. God in Christ is saying ‘Yes’ to us as Christ walks with us.
We are called to walk with the other person. We live on a small estate off Alfred Street. It is a new estate. We are only beginning to work out our neighbours. Margaret and I made sure that we knew who were our neighbours. It mattered that we had good relations with our neighbours. We walked with the other person.
Hear the need
We are called as a community to hear the needs of others. People come to church for many reasons. Sometimes they will come once or twice and then disappear and we can feel a little distressed that they have not returned. But we need to understand that their needs have been fulfilled in those one or two visits and when needed they will return. We need to hear their needs.
But all of this is about entering fully into the Kingdom. Jesus is baptized then there is a vision of the voice of the Father saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. There is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and then there is Jesus, the perfect man.
At the heart
The prophet Ezekiel pictured heaven in a vision. At the heart of heaven was the figure of a man in glory. Christians see this as being Jesus, the one who is tempted as we are yet without sin. Jesus stands at the heart of heaven, he is the one who redeems us and brings us that forgiveness that enables us to become saints.
In his baptism, Jesus is commissioned to be the perfect man. He will walk with the sinner so that they might find forgiveness and he will walk with us, so that we find new life. He will raise us up to the courts of heaven that with the saints we may cry, ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord’.