In 167 BC, the Greeks, who were the latest occupying power in the land of Israel, decided to eliminate all vestiges of Jewish faith and impose Greek patterns of worship and theology on them. At its most extreme, this involved sacrificing pigs on the altars in the Temple at Jerusalem – about as bad as it can get. A popular uprising ensued, led by Judas Maccabeus, and in 165 BC, the land was cleared of the Greek overlord and the Temple was re-consecrated. Lamps had been lit during the revolt, and one, in the Temple, unattended, had burned for 8 days. To celebrate this great victory, a new festival was established, the Dedication, or Consecration festival, but which is now called Hannukah. It is a midwinter festival, very close to our Christmas celebrations, only Jewish children get presents every day for 8 days, which can get a little taxing for their parents.
This is what is going on in Jerusalem in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus is in the Temple during this 8 day festival, teaching, talking, meeting people. And some want to know if he really is the Messiah, as people are claiming that he is, or just another preacher and miracle worker. Fair enough, you say, we would want to know precisely that, too.
Does Jesus give them a straight answer? Yes and no. Yes, he has told them that he is the Messiah, and the things that he has done show that, but no, because a lack of faith is getting in the way of them hearing exactly what he is saying.
But there is more to this than a simple yes or no. Back in 165 BC, after the Greeks had been cleared out, the people unanimously made Judas Maccabeus their king. His family ruled Israel until the next Mediterranean superpower swept in – the Romans – but they had other ideas. They deposed the Maccabean dynasty, and imposed the Herods – a bunch of Rome-based Jewish sophisticates who had never set foot in Israel until this moment. However, to secure himself a bit of legitimacy, Herod the Great married a great great granddaughter of Judas Maccabeus.
A midwinter festival. A celebration of a cleansed Temple. Light that no one could extinguish. A new king. Does this all start to sound familiar? And just to throw a bit more into the mix, Jesus talks about sheep, his sheep, who listen to his voice and follow him – pure Isaiah, pure Ezekiel, pure restoration prophets, calling for a purging of the leaders of Israel and the coming of a new shepherd king – the Messiah.
All of that is going on as Jesus talks with these people. He wants them to be part of the new flock, he wants them to listen carefully to him and believe, so that they can fully know God, and share fully in the life of his family.
And all that is going on this morning, too. We have a child, who is listening, who is gazing around at us all, who is all dressed up and waiting for something to happen. Surrounded by parents and godparents, family and friends, the child waits. How much is going in, of what is happening here? Everything! It is all there, deep inside, waiting to come out as the child grows. And how is that to be released? By all of us. We are going to make promises on this child’s behalf, we will promise that we will pray for them, care for them, walk with them in God’s ways, and little by little, year by year, as we give this child a good example of faith and worship, of prayer and engagement, everything that this child has heard and seen today will make sense, and they will join with us fully in expressing their faith.
We have just started the process of preparing a group of 9, 10 & 11yr olds for admission to communion. These are children who have all been baptised, just as this little one will be soon, and who now, as they have grown up and learnt an enormous amount about God, about his Son Jesus Christ, about the life of the Church, they want to be fully part of the Christian experience. They want to eat of the bread of life, they want to drink of the true vine, they want to be seen for what they are, children of God like all of us here, sheep of God’s flock, believers.
And all that is available to this child, too. As they grow up, they will start to put into practice everything that they see here, everything that we talk about and show them in Junior Church, in the normal things that churches do like eat cake and drink tea, share burdens and joys, sing, watch the seasons go by and celebrate week by week the goodness of God. Baptism is the beginning of that process, the first step on a journey that will take them to communion, to participation, to involvement in the life of the people of God.
And we adults will be watched. This child will fix their beady eye on us on a Sunday morning, and observe what we do – how we pray, how we sing, how we share the peace, how we listen, how we talk to people. We adults are the ones that they will set their standards by. We adults are the ones from whom they will build their expectations – yes, primarily their parents, their godparents and family and friends, but in church, it will be us they are looking at. That is an awesome responsibility – this child, this lamb in the flock, will grow up to be a useful, fulfilled sheep, if what they see in us is real, authentic, heart-felt and faith-meant. If they see us take bread and wine with joy and faith, they will want that. If they see us pray, and work to make our prayers answered, they will want to learn to pray. If they see us bear one another’s burdens, they too will be generous with their care and support as they grow older.
It is a joy and a delight to baptise. It is a great responsibility too. I may pour the water, but we all are part of the process of baptism by our assent, our promises and by our example. May this child know the joy of the living God, flowing through their life, every day. May these parents know the pleasure of seeing their child grow to maturity of faith. May these godparents know the satisfaction of a role fulfilled. May we all take seriously our undertakings as the people of God on this child’s behalf, and may we rejoice together in Christ our king, our good shepherd, our light, our life.