Baptism of Christ
Let me start with a question: ‘who here can remember their baptism?’
Well, I can. I was baptised, as an adult, in 1992 in a small village church in Rode, Somerset. My baptism took place on a Tuesday evening with just Sallyanne and a friend in attendence, prior to my confirmation the next day. I was confirmed in Frome by the then Bishop of Bath and Wells, Jim Thompson; a proper ‘old fashioned bishop.’ Now I need to be honest: I had been taking communion for some time prior to my baptism. The reason why is that I was blissfully unaware of church rules, regulations and protocols. My vicar, who was effectively later defrocked, had no reason to suspect that I hadn’t been baptised, so was somewhat shocked when I presented.
I think my own baptismal story speaks a little to the nature of the Kingdom and has parallels with Jesus’ own baptism, for indeed all of our baptisms should find their parallel in the Baptism of Christ. Jesus was baptised by John, the wild man of the gospels; a man who in his own words said of his cousin ‘I am not worthy.’ This is a crucial point of detail which reveals something very important about the nature of the sacraments, and the sacrament of baptism in particular. Please never, ever, think that the presiding minister is in any way different or uniquely worthy; we aren’t.
You see when it comes to the sacraments the only one who is worthy is God. The miracle of the sacraments is that God chooses to make himself real and present through the office of the unworthy. This is a very sobering thought indeed. Please do stop and think about it: the sacraments of the church are administered by the unworthy yet we sometimes place too much emphasis on the role of the priest or deacon; too little emphasis on the work of God. It is God who transforms water, bread and wine into life giving, life enhancing, spiritual nutrients. It is God who we the ‘unworthy’ meet in the sacraments.
If I am honest, I don’t know how I would feel about being baptised by the likes of John the Baptist. I suspect that in very large part I would want the person baptising me to look a little bit smarter and, well, more classically priestly. I am not sure that if I had known about the extra curricular behaviour of the priest who baptised me, I would have gone ahead with my baptism. It is, you see, so easy to either ignore or forget that the initiative in the sacraments is entirely, and only, God’s. The accounts of Jesus’ own baptism remind us of this. The initiative of God in cleansing us – the ‘unworthy’ - through the sacraments can in fact be reduced to one word: Grace. To receive and partake in the sacraments of the church is to open ourselves up to the grace of God – unworthy as we all are.
So, what else can we learn from the stories of Jesus’ baptism? Well, the first thing that I think we can learn is that baptism, as a sacrament, opens up new possibilities, new horizons, new ways of being and relating, for as we have heard ‘the heavens were opened to Him.’ Baptism opens the heavens up for us as well, and allows us to become the sort of people who strive to bring something of the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ into the here and now; baptism is the catalyst for a Christ-like way of life. Washed clean through the waters of baptism, we like Christ, become the sort of people who are capable in the words of the Prayer of Preparation, of ‘magnifying His Holy Name.’
Secondly, through baptism we acknowledge that we, like Jesus, are truly beloved of God. At and through baptism God says to each and every one of us: ‘You are mine, the Beloved, and with you I am well pleased.’ This is an utterly remarkable thought: that you, me, us are God’s very pleasure.
Can I ask you this week to meditate on this and let those words sink into your soul, for to do so is to pay due homage to God? Do, this week, perhaps every week, try to find some time to bask in God’s love for you and pleasure in you – for to do so is to recapture the very essence of baptism.
You see we might not be able to remember our own baptisms but what we can do is to meditate on Jesus’ baptism and own for ourselves the picture of the heavens opening and the very Spirit of God resting on us – the unworthy - calling us by name, and proclaiming His love for us, and his pleasure in us.
And if we do this surely we will be irrevocably changed for the good?
Sermon for 1st Sunday of Christmas
One of the problems with the Bible is that it doesn’t really do character development. Well they are not those sort of books. This means it’s often quite hard to get any real grasp on what a person is like and what makes them tick. Instead, we have to fill in the gaps.
Herod the Great, the Herod in our gospel this morning, is a monster. That much we can tell; for what kind of person orders the slaughter of innocent babies? Herod is a nasty piece of work. It was not just these poor infants that were killed at the behest of this King. Many others were - including one of Herod’s wives and some of his own children. It has also been suggested that Herod had plotted the murder of a crowd of leading Jewish dignitaries in order to coincide with his own death – thus making sure there were many people wailing and mourning at his funeral.
The problem is that when we label someone a monster, that is all they are. We can discount them as being so beyond our comprehension, so beyond what any reasonable person might do that we see no connection with them and who we are and what we do. Herod is paranoid and wants to keep his throne. This Messiah is a threat. This is what lies behind his murderous decrees. The evil that meets the arrival of our Saviour is devastating. What this story tells us is that we need to take sin seriously.
For while I may not be guilty of murder, how do I respond when my own status and power comes under threat? How do I feel when what makes me feel settled and comfortable is challenged? Is my reaction one of loving understanding or is it, which is far more likely to be the case, one in which I get defensive, or paranoid, or angry? I must protect: myself; my privilege; my position. So, I might not have an army at my disposal like Herod, but what do I do in such situations? Do I belittle, do I tear a strip off the challenger, do I answer with hatred?
Have a think about what really gets your goat. What makes you seethe. Recall a moment when you felt like that and what you wanted to do. I bet you wouldn’t want to admit that to the person sitting next to you this morning. When I start to see Herod in this way, I begin to wonder to what lengths would I go? Of course, I would never issue the kind of orders he did but I am sure that as we chipped away at how I would answer a threat to my own throne, I would be surprised at what I would be prepared to do - especially if someone else was paying and someone else was making them pay. Are we really so different from Herod - this very human king propelled by a very human instinct?
Sin is about falling short of the mark. The mark is the example of love that Jesus showed and commanded us to have for each other. However, when we care more about ourselves, our privilege and our position than we do anyone else then we fall short, far too short. We sin. We need to be vigilant – aware when we see ourselves in such a way - for we start to become little Herods of our own. Instead, let us, like the holy family, flee away from this kind of sin. Let us always remember Christ’s instruction to love.
Christ did not call us to be doormats. There are times we must say ‘no’. There will be times we need to resist and defend. Yet, we always need to ask ourselves at such points: am I doing this for the right reasons and in the right way? Is this something of which, in all good conscience, is Christ-like? If the answer you suspect is ‘probably not’ then we need to do something about it and choose another way. It seems to be that this is much more like what Christian life is really like. We won’t always get it right but somehow we ought to look at what we have done, what we are doing, what we intend to do and offer it to God: in that we try and do right by him. Remembering that God knows us, knows what we are doing, and loves us anyway. Nevertheless, God calls us to be more, to be better, to be the best person we can be.
And if what I have said is true of us, so it is true for Herod. Our Gospel’s author, Matthew, may have written Herod off as a monster but God never does. God never stops loving him. God never stops desiring Herod would draw nearer to the person God wishes him to be, the very best Herod he can be. For then he would be truly worthy of his title: Herod the Great.
Christmas Morning: Luke 2, 1-14
The lead up to Christmas is undoubtedly a time of ritual: buying the tree and dressing it, wrapping presents (in my case very badly), decorating the house and so forth. Watching a Christmas film or two is, for many families, a favourite ritual. Does anyone have a favourite Christmas film? A couple of days ago I watched a film, a very old film, that I had never seen before: ‘The Bishop’s Wife,’ staring David Niven, Cary Grant and Loretta Young. Has anyone seen it? David Niven plays the part of a bishop who has somewhat lost his way, both in his marriage and in his vocation as a bishop. Cary Grant plays the part of an angel who suddenly and mysteriously appears in order to lead the bishop back to his true vocation.
The bishop’s problem is that he has got so caught up in the finery and ritual of religion that he has lost sight of the purpose and rationale of faith. He has become all technique, technique which he is not even very good at, at the expense of virtue. He has forgotten that Christianity is a religion that stresses the importance of grace and charity. He has forgotten that generosity and love must always sit at the heart of all true Christianity, and before we pass judgement on the good bishop we should, perhaps, remind ourselves that we too can become so fixated on ritual and technique that we too forget that generosity and giving must sit at the heart of our faith.
The Christmas story is the story of God’s generosity. God, through the person of Jesus Christ, gives entirely of himself. He gives Himself to each and every one of us and this, surely, is the best of news?
So how should we respond to the good news of Jesus Christ? Well, as St. Luke rightly insists, with ‘great joy’ and generosity we should give him, as Christina Rosstti wrote, ‘our heart.’ The really good news is that if we do this we will grow in generosity and gratitude. We will become increasingly kind and compassionate. We will become good news. We will become the sort of people who bring a little of the Kingdom of God, in heaven, down to earth.
So, may I wish you a very Merry Christmas and as you enjoy the ritual of opening your presents, to spend just a short time making sure that you give back to Jesus the very best present that you can: your heart, Amen.
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