Sunday, January 13, 2013


Sermon preached in the Church of All Saints, New Eltham
at Parish Mass on Sunday, 13th January 2013



“Father, I’d like to have Jimmy christened!”

That’s a request I found was often made although, like buses, they either all came at the same time or there were none for ages.   It is, of course, an important event in the life of a family, as well as the church.  For us it means another member has been added to Christ’s body, the church.  For the family I guess it means many things.  From “It’s what we should do for our baby” to “We want her to be blessed by God.” 

Of course, it’s not just babies who are Baptised.  Many come to the Sacrament as adults (I was 17 when I made my decision to be Baptised and Confirmed) and Jesus, of course, was baptised by John when he was in his early 30’s.  Centuries ago the Western Church separated the one Rite of Christian Initiation into Baptism and Confirmation but, in essence they form a whole.

Today the Church, as part of the Christmas cycle, celebrates that event, the Baptism and - in a sense Confirmation - of Jesus.  All the gospels tell us that his cousin, John, presided at that event.  Matthew tells us that John performed the Baptism in the context of calling people to repentance (3:10): Mark actually opens his gospel with the story and speaks of the way people “confessed their sins” (1:5).  Luke tells us that John “went through the whole Jordan area proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (3:3) for Baptism was – and continues to be – associated with a change of life.  It involves recognising the errors of ones ways and desiring to live a new life.   Now that, clearly, causes questions when we baptise babies.  They can hardly repent of their past life.  Instead the new life offered through Baptism is accepted on their behalf by their parents and godparents. 

But today we also need to pause and ask the question, “Why was Jesus baptised if he was sinless?”  Well, the answer lies in the nature of this event.  What all the gospel writers are agreed upon is that he joined in a general movement that was occurring in Judaism that concerned how men and women could live out a ‘purer’ form of their faith.  It was, if you like, a reaction against the corruption of ‘official’ Judaism.  Groups such as the Essenes (of which John may have been part) were trying to live out their Jewish faith in a more radical way. 

So one could say that Jesus was ‘associating’ himself with this more radical form of Judaism; he embraced Jewish fundamentalism at a time when Israel was occupied by foreign troops and ruled by a puppet regime.  It all sounds very familiar!  And, if that were the whole truth of the matter, Jesus may have become just another radical preacher.  But we need to probe deeper.

First of all, all our readings concern, in some way, that most basic element – water.  Water brings life – and, of course, death.  It has come to symbolise starting afresh, and it has been used as the passage to eternity.  We might look at a perfect sunset over the ocean, but we know the destructive power of a tsunami. 

Water – life and death, hope and despair.  In a way, we have absolutely no control over water; some pray for rain, others pray for the rain to stop.  Like the air we breathe, water is something we long for, and something we fear.  Perhaps it’s those properties of water that make it such a perfect symbol of the grace of baptism.

Water is one of the most evident features in scripture.  From the opening words of Genesis, where the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the deep, through the story of Noah and the covenant between God and God’s people, to the Red Sea, and then to today’s anointing of Jesus’ ministry through his own baptism, water has woven the story of God’s life and ours together.

Baptismal water flows today: in our passage from Isaiah, we’re reminded that even as we pass through raging waters, God is with us.  Overflowing rivers will not drown God’s people.  And why?  Because the word of the Lord – those wonderfully reassuring words – through Isaiah says, “Do not fear not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Of course water here is an image.  Earthly water and fire – another image in today’s passage – can do us bodily harm.  Water and fire bring life and death.  But when we dig deeper we realize that God is reminding us that no earthly thing can keep us from the love and comfort of God.  Even if nature overwhelms our bodies, God’s spirit is with us.  God’s love comforts and heals.  This isn't just an historical telling of the start of Jesus’ ministry. This message is for us, too. But you might say, we know this story. We know it’s important to be baptized. But do we take our baptisms seriously today?  We certainly still take water seriously, its ability to affect both life and death, but if we really took our baptism seriously, wouldn’t our world and our church look different? 

Think about those promises we all made at our baptism, or were made for us – promises we renew each Easter at the Great Vigil Mass of Easter:

-           We promised to keep alive the apostles’ teachings and the prayers. 
-           We promised, as those people did at the Jordan, to acknowledge our sins, repent, and           return to the Lord. 
-           We promised to see Christ in each other and to respect the dignity of every human being.
-           We promised to work for justice and peace.

We didn’t promise just to think all these things would be nice.  We promised to DO something about them – to WORK for them.  That’s what we are reminded of today.

That is why we have a lectionary cycle.  It is why the church asks us to consider the story of our salvation, and everything that entails, over three years’ of readings.  It helps us to look at all God has done for us; to remember that no matter what, God cares deeply for us and promises to be our strength.  Hearing again and again the story of John and Jesus at the Jordan should cement in our minds that we must keep the mission and ministry of Jesus alive.

So we know it’s through Baptism we are to share in this new life in Christ.  And all the gospels recount that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus.  Here is a new creation made possible by God.  And here is God saying to Jesus, and to us, you are my beloved.  Perhaps this is the most important message the church has to preach to our society.  We are loved more deeply and more intimately than we can ever imagine.  And the more we love, the more we reveal the glory of God.  I sometimes try and focus on this fact.  Walking down the street, travelling on the tube, sitting in the park – all this, all this abundance of life – is given because of love.  It can fill the heart with wonder.  The trouble is, most of us, most of the time, don’t even notice. 

In a society where makeovers appealing to our insecurities and doubting our worth, occupy the TV networks to an alarming extent, we need to shout out to people that they are beautiful in the sight of God.  Open your eyes and see the signs of glory in your lives.

Today, in churches around the world, people are still being baptized, still being washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God's grace and a word of forgiveness and life, still waiting to be included, to find their place in the story of healing and salvation, still longing for the chance to start their life again.  And there is that voice constantly speaking to each of us: ‘You are mine, and I love you.’

It’s easy to feel that things are getting worse and wonder what God is doing, but this Feast, together with last week’s celebration of the Epiphany, proclaims the manifestation of love.  Divine Love in the darkness.  Love actually, as the film maintained, is all around, creating, sustaining and revealing.  For all men and women – and the whole of creation – is God’s beloved.


No comments: