Baptism and Transfiguration (Matthew 17, 1-9)
I wonder how many of us feel particularly attached to our names, or in some ways think that our names capture something of the essence of our personalities; names you see have meaning. Does anyone here know the meaning of their names?
I like my name for apparently Andrew means ‘manly.’ So, there you go! In the gospel reading we have heard just now Jesus isn’t actually called by name, instead he is called ‘Son’ and ‘Beloved’, the one with whom God, the Father, is ‘well pleased.’ These words replicate the words heard at Jesus’ own baptism. The notions of baptism and transfiguration are therefore closely related. The whole purpose of baptism, and indeed the sacrament of the Eucharist, which we will be sharing in later on in the service, is to both affirm us and change us, or transfigure us, so that we like Jesus might shine, or, in the words of the Prayer of Preparation, which I increasingly believe to be one of the most majestic prayers in the liturgy, might ‘magnify His Holy name.’
In baptism God calls us by name, assures us that we too are ‘His beloved’ in whom He is ‘well pleased’ and invites us into what the Prayer Book refers to as ‘newness of life.’ Felicity is shortly going to be baptised into such ‘newness of life’ in the hope and firm expectation that she will come to ‘magnify His Holy name.’
The reason that Gwen and Robert have brought Felicity for baptism is very straightforward: they want her to know that she is loved and cherished by both themselves and the family and by God. They want her to know that her very name, like yours and mine, is held in God’s hands and inscribed in the Book of Life. And what a name Felicity is. It is a name full of nuance and meaning. I think that it is also the only name used in the Book of Common prayer as a common noun; more of this in a second or two.
Felicity means joy and happiness and as I baptise Felicity today, I know that we will all be praying for her joy and happiness. But the name Felicity also has connations of faith and hope. Felicity is a profoundly Christian name. In the prayer for the Queen in the Book of Common Prayer we pray for our sovereign lady’s ‘everlasting joy and felicity.’ I think this is a wonderful praise!
My prayer for Felicity is that as a baptised Christian her life will be grounded in the surety of love, lived with infectious joy, grounded in faith and hope, in the sincere belief that she will, therefore, live a transfigured life; one that truly ‘magnifies his Holy Name.’
Come to think of it that is my prayer for each and every one of us here today, Amen.
I have a confession to make, I love the Book of Isaiah, I mean properly love it! I love it in a slightly nerdy sort of way. I do understand that it is not good to have favourites, that all of the books are divinely inspired and that just cherry picking the parts that I already agree with or enjoy leads to all sorts of problem in theology and the way that I end up perceiving the world with but deep in my heart I have to say that some bits of the Bible leave me cold whilst others really do float my boat.
For instance, I have been known to eat shellfish, I have been known to eat a cheeseburger and I am probably wearing mixed fibres as I speak (all of which are prohibited in the Levitical laws) but Isaiah shines like a beacon amongst all the other books around it. I love its poetry, I love its message, it points more directly to the coming of Christ and is staggering in its range and scope. It was written at a time when the nation of Israel was in exile, dragged from their homeland by the Babylonians. The nation of Israel was looking for deliverance, for some sort of divine intervention to rescue them from their captivity. What I find staggering is that although the Israelites were suffering the book is not merely blind fist shaking in blind fury, blaming everyone else for the mess that they are in.
It is instead full of contrition, readily accepting that much of their misfortune they have brought upon themselves. They fully understand that they messed up, have strayed and they are looking for solutions, to resolutions to their predicament and how they can reset their relationship with God. It is miles away from the book of Genesis, when God asked Adam, “Who told you to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge?” and Adam, like any toddler does, points straight at Eve and says, “It was her, she told me to do it!” And so it continues with this passage, it is asking God, how do I get this right? What can I do to get back on good terms with you? And we have the answer to hand.
On Thursday I joined some school children to a visit to Keach’s meeting house in Winslow. It is the oldest Baptist chapel in the area. If you haven’t been I really do recommend it. It is a small building, tucked away, hidden. Inside it is stripped bare, no stained-glass windows, no altar, aside from the pulpit the only other hint to its use is a very simple candle holder suspended from the ceiling which holds 3 candles. Those candles, as well as being the only source of light in the building, are there to represent the Holy Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit, the 3 parts of God that are in constantly changing, dynamic relation with each other. The way that they interact with each other is sometimes portrayed as an equilateral triangle. And it is that where the importance lies. Our faith is all about relationships.
Every time that we look up to heaven, we are also invited to look out to others. We instinctively, just as the Israelites did, want to look vertically up to God and God, in his turn tells us to look horizontally, towards others. The simple fact is that everyone wants to be blessed, but not everyone wants to be a blessing.
God tells us in this passage and in this whole book, “When you reach out to others, I’ll reach out to you”. We believe not just in a God who loves but in a God who IS love, and by loving each other we bring ourselves into his presence.
If we are ever in any doubt the answer is simple. We need to ask ourselves are we the conduit to the blessing that we are asking for, does it reside in us and the relationships we have with our neighbours throughout the world and the entirety of God’s creation?
Do God’s blessings flow through us or do we expect them to just flow to us? It is a big difference and that difference could mean the world.
If we took all the different stories of how we managed, individually to be here will be as many different tales about coming to faith as there are people, no 2 people will have the same story, they will be almost infinitely variable. One of the stories that you get asked quite a lot as soon as people find out that you want to be a vicar is “How on earth did you end up doing this?” And during the course of my training I have often stopped and pondered the same thing. “How on earth have I ended up doing this?”. It isn’t the most obvious choice it has to be said, I don’t sound like Derek Nimmo for a start, but the fact remains that I am now here, doing this because I couldn’t keep on ignoring that niggle that refused to leave me alone.
But enough about me, we have all these other stories in the room about people coming to God or maybe you are just simply wondering, “What is this all about?” Those stories that people have could be big. In the Bible we have Jacob wrestling with the Angel or Jonah doing what he can to run away from God, but for most of us it is a much less dramatic affair, I have not heard of too many people being swallowed up and regurgitated by a Big Fish…thankfully. Unless anyone has anything to share now….
What most of our lives comprise of is a series of small decisions that gently guide what it is that we become, and our faith is no different. We love stories of dramatic conversions like Paul on the road to Damascus but it is not usually a finally and forever kind of thing. We find that being followers of Christ means that our entire life consists of being converted, of being converted in increments. Even if we have some drama in there, we are mostly shaped and formed into the likeness of Jesus in the small things that we do. As we talked about last week, over and over again Jesus comes to us saying “Follow me”, and we decide if and how we will follow.
This resonates with the Gospel reading. The first interaction between Jesus and his followers is only that, a first interaction. Our relationship with Jesus is grounded and experienced in the people and events of our lives and our world. It started off dramatic, downing tools and following, but that wasn’t the last decision that they made. They continually chose to keep following, usually getting things wrong but following nonetheless. We see that through the remainder of Matthew’s Gospel the writer doesn’t just describe the life and ministry of Our Lord and Saviour but also the ongoing shaping and forming of the Disciples' lives. That shaping and forming happened in Jesus’ teaching of the beatitudes, in his healing of the sick, in his parables, his feeding of the 5000, in Peter complaining that they had left everything behind, in James and John arguing with the others about who would be at Jesus’ right hand and his left. In Jesus’ crucifixion, his resurrection and his ascension, and in the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Every moment that they and we have a choice to make echoes with Jesus saying “Come and follow me”, every one of those moments is a turning point. The turning points in our lives bring us face to face with Jesus and they come in lots of ways, they can be planned, they can be surprises, they can be joyful, they can be filled with sadness, they can affirm, they can confuse us. But each turning point gives us the opportunity to have Jesus refashion our lives. He tells us, just as he told Peter, Andrew, James and John “I will make you…” He makes us more than we are. He changed them using the same sailing boats that they always used, on the same lake as they always were on, using the same nets.
As we look at our boats, our lakes, our nets, the circumstances of our life. What is the turning point that we face today? What is happening? What do we see? Maybe we are ignoring it, not recognised it or maybe we know exactly what it is.
Regardless, there is Jesus beckoning, calling to us, longing and desiring for us to listen. There he is standing there saying “Follow me, I have picked you”.
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