“…when Jesus also had been baptised…”

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Sermon for the Baptism of Christ, St Mary’s Whitkirk.

I want to start today with 2 questions:

“If there is a God – why does He let bad things happen?”

and “If baptism is to do with turning from sin…why was Jesus baptised?”

The first is often asked by people who find the idea of faith difficult, or ridiculous…but I guess it’s also one we may have asked at some point. The second comes out of today’s gospel – the baptism of Christ.

I put them together because in a way I think they’re both about the Christian experience of God, and how different this is to what the world expects. “If there is a God – why does He let bad things happen?”… this imagines an all powerful, loving but remote God looking in on our world and deciding to intervene…or not. It asks – if God is love – why doesn’t he sort out the bad bits?

“If baptism is to do with turning from sin…why was Jesus baptised?”…I wonder if this is still a question about a remote God. It seems to suggest a person on earth but untouched by the world around…a vast gulf between his life and ours because of his complete perfection. It asks how the sinless Son of God fits with John’s call to baptism for the repentance of sins.

Well in three of the gospels the problem is avoided by the voice from heaven…”this is my Son my beloved”. This isn’t Jesus turning from sin – but a revelation of who he is.

…but Luke tells it differently…only slightly…you could easily miss it…but reading and rereading it this week I found a very striking picture. Luke disconnects the heavenly voice from the baptism. He writes…‘Now, when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised…’ The baptism is almost just a passing detail…but it highlights that question – why? What did baptism mean for Jesus?

‘Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised…’ I’ve been carrying a picture of Jesus, patiently waiting in line with all the sinful, confused, desperate people moved by John’s call to repentance. And for me that said something about incarnation.

This isn’t the Son of God, within the world – but because he’s perfect still remote, untouched by the world around. No – Jesus, waiting in line for baptism, shows me the Son of God identifying with the world he came into…truly human because he was truly part of that broken world as we are.

I am, of course, talking about something beyond my understanding. Putting it into words probably means risking heresy…but it seems to me that being human means entering a world where there are no truly sinless choices…because every choice is made in the context of a sinful world. It’s impossible to live in this world without being limited by its sinful structures.

This was brought home to me as I watched the BBC adaptation of Les Miserables. If you haven’t seen it – do.

One character is a young girl named Fantine. In the course of one episode her life falls completely apart. The choices she makes are clearly in some way sinful…but it’s a vivid portrayal of a life hemmed in by evil.

As a poor, young seamstress she becomes the mistress of a rich playboy and has a child. When she’s abandoned she just wants to work honestly to provide for her child. She leaves the child, Cosette, with an apparently sympathetic couple who then extort money, exploiting her love for Cosette.

She becomes a liar – fearing she won’t find work if she admits to having a child. Found out, she loses her job. Desperate to support Cosette, she sells her hair, teeth, eventually her body…and is arrested for attacking someone who ridicules her.

Many wrong choices – but the story forces the question ‘who made her a sinner?’ Did the world leave her any choices that would not have been sinful in some way?

For me the revelation of this second Sunday in Epiphany has not only been Jesus as God’s Son…but Jesus joining the line of downtrodden and sinful people coming for baptism in the hope of a new beginning. Perhaps as an acknowledgement that like us he lives within a bent system. Sinless himself, he can still only make the best choices possible within the systemic injustice of his world.

For every person Jesus chose to heal or rescue…there must have been others he had to leave. His life of love and obedience to God demanded the same from his mother. The way of the cross condemned Mary to watch her child die in agony. Not a life of remote perfection – a life enmeshed with the lives of those around.

Why did Christ come for baptism? Perhaps by his baptism he brings not his own sins, but all the corrupt systems of the world for repentance. And that contains the good news that all of our sinful world, all our little attempts to do the best we can, make the best choices we can within warped structures…all of it, is redeemed by Christ becoming part of it.

‘Why does God let bad things happen?’ Why doesn’t God reach in and stop them? Because that’s just not who God is. Because that wouldn’t be good news, that wouldn’t change us, wouldn’t redeem us. This sinful world is the one we have to live in…Jesus’ baptism tells us God is committed to this world as it is. Tells us the Christian faith can be, has to be lived within this sinful world.

Christ showed us what a life of pure love looks like – when it’s lived in the mess and muddle of this world.

As one of my commentaries suggests…”If Christ was to lead people into God’s kingdom he himself had to enter it by the only door open to them.”

Not a remote God…Truly good news as we face the uncertainty and confusion of 2019 as his people in this place.

Of Epiphany, Pantomimes and revelation…

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Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s Whitkirk on the Feast of Epiphany.

Epiphany…season of pantomimes…(Oh yes it is!)

O yes it is…and underneath the slapstick and appalling jokes pantomimes often have the very Epiphany themes of transformation or revelation.

Think of Dick Whittington, or Puss in Boots, rags to riches stories where the poor hero is transformed into someone rich and powerful…and, of course, gets the girl. Actually I’m not keen on Puss-in-Boots. I’m uncomfortable for the hero constantly persuaded by the cat to pretend to be someone he’s not. To jump naked into a river and pretend he is a rich Marquis robbed of his clothes…I’d rather have stayed a poor miller’s son than spend the rest of my life expecting to be found out!

Our gospel tonight contains a transformation…water into wine. And one of its messages is that letting Jesus into our lives transforms us…just as the water was transformed.

Of course we know Jesus can transform lives, we know of inspiring stories of terrible lives completely, sometimes almost instantly turned around by Christian faith. But for me, they are so far from my experience that they might almost be a fairy tale or pantomime story.

It’s not that I don’t believe them, or think they’re wonderful examples of the transforming power of God. It’s just that I can’t really identify with them. Partly because, luckily, my life’s never reached such a low ebb; but also because that sort of transformation suggests almost becoming a new person.

When we say, “she was transformed” we describe a complete change. I hope encountering Jesus alters me for the better…but I’ve never felt suddenly transformed…overcoming my faults is a much slower process. If I expect something dramatic I’m afraid I’ll always feel I’ve failed.

And anyway, I want to be changed by God…but I don’t want to be someone else entirely…I hope God can use me as I am, even as he changes me.

So I’d like to concentrate on that other great theme of Epiphany – and pantomimes – Revelation. Think of Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince…here the character who seems the poorest, the most to be pitied or even despised, turns out to be special. Circumstances, past sins or the evils of others have hidden their real identity. Saved by true love, the show ends with them revealed as who they really are, restored to their rightful place.

In Pantomime land this means they’re royal, get the girl (or boy) and live happily ever after. But this idea of revelation, of becoming who we really are, is a common theme way beyond Pantomimes. There’s Oliver Twist conveniently related to the good people who take him in…Harry Potter…whose true identity as a wizard can’t be hidden. Do we perhaps return to it because of the truth it contains? Because we know in some way, there is a real us trying to get out?

Because it’s there in that great wrestling with identity…the story of creation and fall in Genesis. For the composers of that story, our sinful natures, our fear of one another and of difference, our lives separated from God are not who we really are.

The story of the serpent and the apple suggests that circumstances, our own sin, the sins of others, get in the way…but insists that we were created in the image of God, for life with God…for ‘walking and talking with him in the garden at the cool of the day’ as Genesis says.

Our circumstances, our sinful natures so often hide our true identity. We struggle with selfishness, greed, the need for power and status. At the same time we struggle to like ourselves, not to feel we’ve failed. We judge ourselves by the standards of the world.

But our faith story reminds us that beneath all of that we are children of God…created in his image…to worship him and enjoy his company. So when we encounter Christ he’s not transforming us into someone, something entirely different…rather he’s revealing who we really are.

The Christian story makes sense, even as we find it difficult to understand and explain, because it speaks to our true identity. Hidden by sin, by circumstances, by fear are the children God created. With Christ’s help we can scrape away the stuff that gets in the way…and, if you like, to reveal the Beauty beneath the Beast.

In the Pantomime, revelations are dramatic and instantaneous…a kiss from a princess turns the frog back to a prince. For me, and I suspect for many, revelation is much more gradual.

Each time I hear stories by or about Jesus, a little of the false identity I’ve built is loosened or chipped away. Time spent in prayer…or just in silence puts my concerns into perspective. Nature, music, poetry, the words of hymns, the Eucharist…they all give flashes of illumination. They give moments of recognition, of revelation. Not anything I could really explain…just encounters where the things of God uncover the image of God in me.

So as we tell again the stories of Epiphany – I offer you the thought that they reveal our identity as well as Christ’s. The Magi worshipping the Christ child show us we’re created by a God who wants a relationship with us. The story of Christ’s baptism tells us we too are God’s children with whom he is well pleased.

The story of the wedding at Cana shows the power of God to transform…but the Christian story reassures us this doesn’t mean making us into someone we’re not…someone we could never aspire to be. It means revealing the person God meant us to be all along by removing what gets in the way.