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.