Sermon for the Baptism of Christ
10th Jan 2021
Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ
“He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him”. Matthew 3.12b.
The Church’s calendar beats to theological time, and this morning as we behold the Baptism of Christ we seem to be a long way from the Magi and the Bethlehem stable. Things then felt ‘Christmassy’. But now, within the space of a few days, all is changed. The Baptism of the adult Christ and the inauguration of his ministry reveals a God-shaped destiny.
The appearance, the manifestation of Jesus, leaves no time for further star-gazing. It’s now a case of ‘first things first’ The Gospel writer Luke makes it clear that Baptism is what comes first. The Gospel account of Jesus’ Baptism has him coming out of the waters and of the Holy Spirit coming upon him. The scene offers an icon for the Holy Trinity. This is a very significant emphasis because in Baptism God is leading both Jesus and all of us in the one call. This call tells us that we are Baptized not only for ourselves and our lives alone but in relation to others too.
One of the most beautiful paintings in the world is hung at The National Gallery here in London. It is Piero della Francesca’s ‘Baptism of Christ’, painted in about the year 1448. The painting is not at all straightforward, and we see that the Baptism does not take place in first century Palestine but in fifteenth century rural Italy amid Tuscan hills, and with a small town, San Sepulcro, in the background. Baptism is always contemporaneous. The painter Piero was interested in placing his figures in a strict geometry and we see that John the Baptist is painted with his right arm and left leg balanced precariously over the waters. In doing this the painting shows us lines of energy which run from the water through the Baptist, who acts as a bridge and a conduit through which the life-giving waters convey a Christ whose body is dazzling white. John's precarious balance allows us to see that the step beyond the water is the one which takes us in a new direction. The comparison with Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for a man, but a giant leap forward for mankind’ is apt. The action is immediate and urgent and specific.
How is our own Baptism to be known and expressed? The first observation is that in Jesus Christ our life is no longer ‘any old life’. Great grace was given in our Baptism and in the blessing with water came the mark and a seal of the Holy Spirit. Now The Church invites us to see our lives in the light of Christ. In St Paul’s phrase we are for all time ‘in’ Christ. What is being asked of us is not that we strive for a whole lot of impossible perfections, but that, in the ordinary course of our lives we go on in a loyal way, and within the confines of our own particular lives and their demands, to do our own bit in the way of being generous and helpful, listening and praying and aiming to stay true to the Jesus who is the patterning for our lives.
But of course the great danger is that we fall into a complacent notion of what constitutes the Christian life 'so long as it doesn't get in our way'. The Baptism of Christ, coming as it does so abruptly, coming as it does as a kind of intrusion, keeps that tension with the ‘quantum leap forward’ or ‘the leap of faith' which it signifies. For we are Baptized into Christ’s death. The waters are the waters of a kind of descent. The re-emergent self is the one which is now readied, in the ordinary things of life and in the emergencies to come, to own that, whatever may befall us, ‘we will be true to God ‘til death’. This is quite a challenge. Here are some words from The Rev’d Prof. Leslie Houlden:
The explosion that was Jesus’ coming and being among us echoes still – and echo it must for each of us: not just rubber-stamping the way we are, but disturbing us and forming us more and more, with sensitivity and love, and even with revolution when the need arises.
The explosion that Prof Houlden speaks, the explosion of Jesus’ entering in on the human scene, is the one which has us live as agents of transforming love. The abruptness of the Baptism of Christ is the reminder we need that the Epiphany glory is not one of fantasy, but one which would set us on a very particular course. I know this, Matthew knew it and no less than the Holy Trinity agrees with us!
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
3rd Jan 2021
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
Today is The Feast of the Epiphany - that great festival on which Christians have celebrated the manifestation, or showing forth, of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
Just as the showing forth of the glory of God in Christ takes many different forms, so our season of Epiphany commemorates many different things. First, the coming of the wise men from the East to worship at the cradle of the Infant Christ; then The Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, with the voice from heaven declaring that this Jesus is the beloved son of God; then the visit of Jesus, at twelve years old, to the Temple at Jerusalem, where the learned doctors were astonished by his understanding and his answers; and then, a series of Jesus' miracles: the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana; the healing of a leper, and the centurion's palsied servant; and the calming of the troubled sea. Then, at the end of the season of Epiphany, we have prophetic lessons about the final coming of the Son of God, in power and great glory.
Many different things - a great diversity of commemorations; yet they are tied together by one common theme. They are all aspects of the showing forth, the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the divine glory of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, the Eternal Word of God, made flesh. Thus these many commemorations of Epiphany make up a continuing meditation upon the meaning of the Christmas miracle - the miracle of God with us, God in our flesh, Emmanuel, God visible to human eyes, God audible to human ears, God tangible to human touch, God manifest in human life, judging, restoring, and transforming our world by the grace and truth he brings.
On the Feast of Epiphany we commemorate the coming of the wise men. Those learned travellers - perhaps Chaldean scientists, astronomers (actually, we know very little about them) - came first to Jerusalem, the Royal City, the obvious place to look for the new-born Jewish King. But, instructed by the Scriptures, they were directed further on, to Bethlehem, and it was a strange sort of King they found there: they found a little child there, with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. There, at the stable in Bethlehem, they offered their symbolic gifts; gold, acknowledging a king; incense, the symbol of God's presence; and myrrh, the ancient funeral spice, recognizing the mortal human nature of the Son of God, destined to suffer and to die in sacrifice for all mankind.
What was there, after all, about the humble manger scene to suggest the divinity, the kingship, and the sacrificial destiny of the Infant Christ? How was divine glory shown forth there? Surely, it was a glory visible only to the eyes of faith: faith, to see in a helpless infant, who cannot even stutter, the Almighty Word of God; faith, to see the King of Kings, and Lord of all the worlds, in a swaddled baby, who cries for mother's milk; faith, to see the Very Son of God in the poverty of a cattle stall, exposed to all the bitter winds of human indifference and disdain and the arrival of impending danger.
It does seem unwise of the wise men to come to Bethlehem and to seek after a helpless babe born of Jewish artisan parents. But this is their wisdom: a restless wisdom which seeks to find something previously unknown, something that will change their lives and the lives of others for their own good. This is a reminder that faith ever calls us back, to work out our salvation in the common, everyday life of the Christian fellowship, the disciplined routines of Christian worship, prayer and study, and in works of Christian charity. And yet faith also beckons us forward, is a point of departure, and our response to the given-ness of God’s grace is to accept it and to follow our guiding star, wherever it will lead us…
Christian life is not about emotional excitement: it is rather the careful, thoughtful learning of the Word of God, day by day, year by year; the nutriment of the Christian sacraments, and the deeds of love and mercy which flow from Christian charity. In the normal, everyday things of the Church's life - the words of Scripture, prayers and sermons, the outward signs of sacraments - the world sees only human words, only poor and common things: halting human speech, a bit of water, bits of bread and wine, and so on. But faith has eyes to see in all these things the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the Son of God, the miracle of God with us, Emmanuel. And faith has gifts to offer him; not much, perhaps, in worldly terms, but by his own grace we have that one best gift, acknowledging his divinity, his kingship, and his sacrifice, the gift he treasures most - the gift of adoration, the gift of the humble obedience of mind and heart.
Epiphany is a time to go with the wise men and “to see what things have come to pass”. It is a time to follow our deeper instincts and to go for that which has the power to make us whole. And our response is one which finds us here at worship, in this place and at this time each week we kneel before the God who appeared to the wise men as an infant child and who comes to us now as our life’s true nourishment and with it the experience and the promise of the glory which was and is and is to come.
"Fear not to enter his courts, in the slenderness
Of the poor wealth thou canst reckon as thine,
Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness,
These are the offerings to lay on his shrine.
O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness
Kneel and adore him; the Lord is his Name!"