The Baptism of Christ: Isaiah 43, 1-7, Acts 8, 14-17 & Luke 3, 15-17 & 21-22
I don’t know whether you have had the experience of looking at a screen or a blank piece of paper and thinking that you don’t know what to say? Well this happened to me this week. I was really struggling to work out what I wanted to say about baptism and this, in a way, is really strange because I give lots of baptism homilies every year.
Now there is obviously a difference between giving a homily at a baptism and speaking to the baptised about baptism, even though I use the same gospel reading, and I think that this is where I got stuck. The event that, if you like, got me back on track was a tweet from + Steven in which he invited ‘clergy and LLMs preparing sermons inviting people to baptism and confirmation, to share our top 3 reasons for inviting people to come to the waters.’ So here we go: the three reasons that I gave:
First, baptism is a celebration of our individuality. In the reading from Isaiah we hear some of the most beautiful words in Scripture: ‘do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,’ and again ‘do not fear for I am with you,’ we are also told that we have been ‘created for glory…..formed and made.’ I would like to suggest that we grow into our fullest selves when we accept the basic premise that we are made, known, and loved. When we accept this the wonderfully good news is that we need no longer fear, for love has won. Baptism is a celebration of love, joy and God’s delight in us as his children. We need to hear for ourselves the words that the Father spoke to the Son: ‘you are my son / daughter, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Can you, dare you, imagine a world in which each and every person knew that they were individually and truly loved? I would suggest that such a world would be a world free from abuse, tyranny and fear.
Secondly, baptism is also a celebration of community. The sacrament of baptism brings us into the church and makes us members of the body or communion; the sacrament of the Eucharist keeps us and sustains us in church. And, don’t we live in a world where people are longing for genuine, authentic and loving communities? Baptism first affirms us as individuals and then locates us in community. Baptism is a celebration of individuality in community.
Thirdly baptism is a celebration of possibility. In both the New Testament reading and the gospel we learn that the Holy Spirit is given through baptism. Peter and John are said to have laid their hands on the people of Samaria – just ponder that for a moment: they laid their hands on a whole bunch of Samaritans; the ultimate outsiders – ‘and they received the Holy Spirit,’ whilst at Jesus’ own baptism the ‘Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.’ The Holy Spirit is the author of baptismal possibility. It is through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit that individual lives and church communities are transformed.
In the Church of England baptism is a once and for all time sacrament. If you haven’t been baptised but would like to consider it please do talk to me. If you have been baptised can I encourage you to reflect on what baptism means for you as an individual in community? On the pew sheet we have included a prayer for the affirmation of baptism. Can I ask you to take the pew sheet home with you and reflect on the readings over the course of the next week and also offer to God the words of the prayer provided. Let us pray:
‘Loving God, we thank you that at our baptism you anointed us with the gift of your Holy Spirit and called us by name. Help us this day, and always, to live lives worthy of our calling, that freed from all fear we may proclaim your holy name in word and deed, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.’
Epiphany: Ephesians 3, 1-12 & Matthew 2, 1-12
Did anyone here watch any television at all on Christmas day? Well I, alongside millions of others, watched the Queens Speech (after I had woken up from my early afternoon vicar’s nap) & Call the Midwife. The Queen, and the Sister Julienne, both display that most precious of virtues: wisdom. The Epiphany’s concern is also wisdom.
Wisdom is a complicated subject. In Christian terms, as I have said before, it involves developing the ability to see as God would have us see, to hear as God would have us hear, to feel as God would have us feel, and then to act as God would have us act. We can only do this of course when God, through the person of Jesus Christ, is in reality our Daily Bread. So the story of the Epiphany, first of all, invites us to renew our focus on Jesus and to make him the central character in the ongoing drama of our lives: just as those Wise Men did all those years ago. Christian wisdom boils down to this: growing into the very likeness of Christ, the Christ who ultimately always did the right thing, whatever the personal cost. Doing the right thing whatever the cost implies taking risks and making the right choices; a further attribute of wisdom. If wisdom begins with seeing, hearing and feeling as God would have us do, it ends with behaving and acting as God would have us do. Wisdom is God-centred and other-centred. Wisdom always means taking ‘the other road.’ The wise men do this at the culmination of Matthew’s Epiphany story, faced with the opportunity to gain earthly recognition and veign glory, by acquiescing to Herod’s tyrannical requests, they choose the ‘another road.’
In many ways the Queen and Sister Julienne are also exemplars of people who have chosen the ‘another road.’ They, like the Wise Men of Old, have made the decision to place Jesus at the centre of their lives and in so doing have come to realise that serving the needs of the other – constantly asking ‘who is my neighbour,’ - is the very essence, alongside praise and worship, of the Christian life. When we place Jesus at the centre of our lives we grow in wisdom and develop the ability to walk our lives along ‘another road.’ Christian wisdom is ultimately a commitment to giving our the best we have to offer to Jesus, just as the wise men did, and just as the Queen and Sister Julienne seem to have done. If we do this will grow in maturity and in love. As we learn to walk by ‘another road,’ guided by the ongoing and sustaining work of the Holy Spirit, our horizons will be stretched: we will start to see as God would have us see, hear as God would have us hear, feel as God would have us feel, worship as God would have us worship, choose as God would have us choose, and then, finally, serve as God would have us serve.
We will, if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and offer back to him the very best of ourselves become, like the shepherds, like the Queen, and like Sister Julienne, truly and gloriously wise.
Midnight Mass (John 1, 1-14)
Let me start by wishing you all a very Happy Christmas.
I know that for many here this year will have been difficult and challenging. I also know that 2019 will be a challenging year. In the political sphere we seem to be inhabiting a world characterised not by ‘glory,’ ‘grace’ and ‘truth,’ but rather by ego, ill-will and, falsehood. I think, and believe, that 2019 will be a year for the church to show her true colours and to offer to a deeply broken world a better story in which to believe and live by; not a new story but a better story, for our Christian story is an old and timeless story.
Our story begins and ends with the word of God: ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Of course by gathering here tonight to greet the Babe of Bethlehem and to receive him into our midst, through word and sacrament, we not only proclaim that God ‘was’ but that God ‘is.’ Our faith must always dare to proclaim, in word and deed, that God is a present reality and that His Son, Our Saviour, continues to live and reign supreme and that the only Christmas present we can give Jesus is to welcome him into our midst. The reading from John’s prologue makes it clear that people of faith – religious people – haven’t necessarily found it easy to truly welcome God – Jesus – into their very midst: ‘He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.’ Once again, the best, no the only, Christmas present we can give Jesus is simply this: to ‘accept Him,’ or to receive Him, and to learn from Him.
A few weeks ago I cited Archbishop William Temple’s observation that what the world really needs above all else is this: ‘more and better Christians.’ I truly believe this. In fact I have never believed it more. The Christian faith, as an active lived out faith, is a necessary good for the world and the one way in which Christians can truly honour Jesus. The Christian faith offers to a world starved of true virtue, and sickened by cheap and frequently unfulfilled promises, ‘glory,’ ‘grace’ and ‘truth.’ The miracle of Christmas is simply this: that God makes a free gift offering of himself. Our free choice is whether to accept or reject the gift. In reality we have only two choices as to what to do with the supreme gift. We can leave it unwrapped, alone, under the tree, or perhaps in the back of a drawer, or, we can lovingly unwrap the gift and place it somewhere where we can cherish it and nurture it. If we make the choice to accept the gift the place we must keep it, and allow it to live, is in our hearts. As Christians Jesus must always, for us, be at the heart of things. Keeping Jesus at the heart of things is good for us as a community, and as individuals, and for the world around us. The world needs a better story and the only people who can tell it are people like you and me. Our ability to tell a better story and to sing salvation’s song is contingent on one thing and one thing only: receiving him, and believing in his name, for this is the means through which we offer to the world real, divine, ‘glory,’ ‘grace’ and ‘truth.’
There is an old saying, one we are all familiar with, that ‘it is better to give than to receive.’ Christianity, in some ways, turns this ‘wisdom’ on its head and says instead: ‘in order to give that which is of the highest value you first need to receive it.’ Our Christmas duty and joy is to receive Jesus into our hearts as the Prince of Glory, Grace and Truth for our own sake and the sake of the world around us.
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