Sunday 24th January
Baptism of Christ
Revd Helen Mitchell
More rain this week. And yet of course we have got off so lightly compared with the north of England. Their misery seems to be without end.
Have you noticed that when television commentators wish to describe a particularly dreadful flood they always say that it is of biblical proportions?
That has always seemed to me to be a little unfair as there is much more in the Bible than floods.
However I must admit that there is an awful lot about water and much of it is about its dangerous and destructive potential.
Right at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis, before God acts to bring light, chaos is pictured as untamed waters.
Then of course there is the ancient story of Noah and the flood, where I am sure the “biblical proportions” bit comes from, when the whole earth was covered in water, and only the ark and its inhabitants survived the deluge.
There is the dreadful storm at sea in the Old Testament parable of Jonah and the whale.
The experience of God’s people is that water can be dangerous and disturbing and destructive.
But we should perhaps also notice that in all these stories, the action of God is to bring salvation in the face of the threat posed by the water. The order of Creation is brought from the water of chaos, Noah is saved from the flood, Jonah is saved from the sea.
And along-side these stories there is another set of traditions, where God’s people are brought safely through the waters.
There is the story from Exodus in which God holds back the waters of the Red Sea so that Moses can lead the children of Israel safely through the water, away from slavery in Egypt and into freedom.
And after their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, there is the parallel story of the children of Israel crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land; from the wilderness, through the water, into a land flowing with milk and honey.
These stories are not just stories of being saved, they are threshold stories.
Stories about great change. Something is being left behind and something new is up ahead.
The slavery of Egypt is being left behind and freedom awaits, or the wandering in the wilderness is being left behind and a new home and a new future in a new country is up ahead.
And the crossing of the water is the sign and the symbol of that threshold.
It is a place of danger, of risk and dread. A risk of losing everything or being completely overwhelmed, but it is also a place of opportunity, a place where we may be open to God’s presence and from which new life may spring.
The Mediterranean is acting as such a threshold at the moment for so many desperate refugees.
They have left behind all that they know and have trusted themselves to dangerous waters in hope that there will be a new life on the other side. Although for most of them at the moment that new life must seem an impossible dream.The news is pretty grim right now. There seems to be little of good news or salvation to be drawn from the waters. But there are glimmers of light.
There had been a generous response of giving from many ordinary people to help the refugees.
There are also heart-warming stories of help being given to those affected by the flooding.
I read a lovely story of a bank worker called Mark Slade whose flat was destroyed and everything he owned lost on Boxing Day, but who was overwhelmed by the generous response of strangers to his plight. He said ”it took a tragedy to bring a dawning of a new year with more hope for myself than I have felt in a long time, all thanks to a community I didn’t believe existed. ……. It’s really, really affected me. It’s almost like I’ve been given a clean slate” For Mark, the flood really has been a threshold experience.
It had undoubtedly been traumatic but it has washed away his old life of isolation and given him a new life in community.
It reminds me of the storm in Shakespeare’s King Lear in which Lear loses everything and is battered by the elements but finally comes to know himself and gain peace.
We are so fortunate that most of us will not have had that experience of losing all that we have through war or flooding. But threshold experiences are a part of every life.Sometimes they are chosen. We leave behind one life in order to start something new. A new job, a a move to a new place. Even when these changes are chosen they can still be very difficult, even traumatic. And sometimes they are not chosen at all. Redundancy, divorce, bereavement, serious illness, ours or a loved one’s. Times in our lives when our old life seems to have been cut from under us and we flounder and life threatens to overwhelm and even drown us.
But, if that is where we are at the moment, our readings today are full of comfort for us, because they promise the presence of God with us through whatever it is we are going through.This reading from Isaiah is one that it is good to keep always at hand, where you may read it often.God says to us:“Do not fear for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine, When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers they will not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you will not be burned and the flame shall not consume you, …… because you are precious in my sight, and honoured and I love you”. Know that these words are for you, in your prayer time, hear God saying them to you.
And then the story of the Baptism of Jesus. This is the story of a threshold experience.
It is such an important, foundational story for all who follow Jesus, that we hear it every year on this day, the feast of the Baptism of Christ.It was important and foundational for Jesus. The foundation of his ministry.It is important and foundational for us as the source of our own baptism into life with Jesus.
This baptism would have been a full emersion baptism. Jesus would have gone right under the water, a symbol of drowning and death.So as Jesus goes down into the water he leaves behind his old life of comfort and obscurity as a simple carpenter at home in Nazareth and as he emerges from the water, he begins an entirely new life, as an itinerant preacher with nowhere to lay his head.
But much more is going on here.
Jesus has passed through the water and as he comes out, Luke is the only gospel writer to tell us he was praying, and as he prays, the veil between heaven and earth is opened for him and Jesus receives an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and hears a voice of love and affirmation from heaven, “you are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”. This experience is the foundation of all that follows.
It confirms for Jesus his vocation as God’s Son and it gives him a unique gift of the Holy Spirit for that vocation. Without that gift, how could he have endured the challenges and the difficulties of his ministry, or the suffering that was in store? He will hear this voice only once more just before he turns for Jerusalem and his coming death.
Until then he will pray often and I am sure that as he prayed he must have received strength again and again from this experience at his baptism, he must have dug down deep to remember and re-live that moment, so that even in the midst of disappointment with his disciples and despair over those who did not understand his message, he could be comforted and energised by that knowledge of God’s love, and inspired and renewed by the Holy Spirit.
It may be that in our lives, at times of particular significance, we have had similar experiences of God’s love and affirmation. Experiences which have accompanied or created threshold moments for us.
And if we have had such experiences, we need, like Jesus, to keep drawing strength from them even when God might otherwise seem far away.
But even if you think, “that’s not me”, be assured that Jesus has given to every one of us the gift of a baptism like his. Baptism is the primary threshold experience for every Christian. In it we are baptized with the Holy Spirit, which brings us into the same close, loving relationship with God that Jesus has. Because of Jesus, we too are God’s beloved children.So that voice from heaven is for us too, even if we think we have not heard it for ourselves.
This is the fact.So we can practise hearing it. Read it again and again and hear God speaking to you through these words, put your name in and hear God say to you “your name, you are my Beloved Child, with you I am well pleased” This in itself is prayer and one of the very best prayers.
And as the baptised people of God, filled with the Holy Spirit and secure in God’s love, we are in the very best place to reach out to others. Part of this new life in Christ that we have received is the call to be Christ to others, to find Christ in others, to show to others the love of God in countless different ways.
Especially to those who are themselves going through the trauma of an unchosen threshold experience, those who may be in danger of physically or emotionally or spiritually drowning;
to demonstrate the love of God, the truth we have found that God is with us and them and that there will be a new beginning, a new life on the other side of the waters.
“When you pass through the waters I will be with you and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you, ….. because you are precious in my sight and honoured and I love you”