Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 13 January 2013
A Sermon Preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp at Evensong & Benediction on the Baptism of Christ (Second Sunday of Epiphany), 13 January 2013.
Readings: Isaiah 55. 1-11; Romans 6. 1-11
A recent report by the American Space Agency (NASA) said that there may be as many as 17bn planets in the Milky Way that could be like earth. If they have water then they may have some form of life. It’s the stuff of science fiction. The sense of possibility: all those planets; all that life. Who knows what encounters may lay ahead or indeed may have happened. Once on a visit to California I saw an advert for some sort of counselling which began with the question: ‘Tired of being abducted by aliens?’
Water: it’s essential for material/physical existence. And what’s true for the body is also true for the soul. Baptism: washing/sprinkling with water is where it all begins. It’s how our Lord’s ministry started. It’s the origin of our Christian pilgrimage. Now water is simple chemically (H2O) but it’s very complex theologically. Modern rites of baptism have much longer prayers over the water than you find in the 1662 Prayer Book. If you read the Prayer Book the prayer at the font emphases the forgiveness of sins (washing away the dirt), being regenerate through the water that flowed from the Saviour’s side and the Great Commission to go and baptize all nations. It’s all true but ‘not enough’.
Modern liturgies recover the layers of meaning that the Orthodox churches have always cherished about. Water is a ‘gift’. All of us entered this world by our mothers’ waters breaking. According to Genesis the Holy Spirit ‘brooded’ over the waters at creation. There was comingling and cooperation. At the Exodus when the Hebrews fled from Egypt through the Red Sea water became a sign of freedom, liberation and promise. The parting of the waters was the passport to the Promised Land.
It’s a pity that the reference to Noah and the Ark is now omitted from our liturgy (although it’s there in the Prayer Book) because Noah’s Ark underlines not only the beneficial effects of water but also its terror. Water gives life but it’s also a destroyer. Ask anyone who’s ever been flooded. What’s so fascinating is how mercurial water can be: benign, attractive beautiful one minute; drowning us the next. And if water has a dark side then it’s indicative of a ‘far side’ to God himself.
Taking the story of Noah and the Exodus together we begin to see a pattern of water as the means by which election is carried out. We rejoice that Noah and his Ark were saved but what about those who perished? Lucky for the Hebrews that they passed over ‘dry shod’ but what about all the Egyptians, ‘the horses and riders drowned in the sea’?
Water‘s pointing us to something theologically not only quite dense and also quite tense: the tension between a God of love and life, a God who creates a world of beauty and goodness and a God who also sifts and appears to discard; a God who chooses – Noah and his family over the rest; the Hebrews not the Egyptians. As Desmond Tutu used to say: ‘If you think God doesn’t make choices then ask Pharaoh!’
Election is problematic in modern theology. On the one hand we shrink from the notion that God chooses one group over another because most of us have seen the ghastly consequences of that idea. Once people think that they have been chosen all sorts of destructive behaviour can flow. They can become both aggressive and defensive at the same time. People who assume that they are right and everyone else is wrong either start crusades or pull up the drawbridge. Not much Good News there.
But at the same time a too liberal approach can lack edge. I’m painfully aware that some so called ‘private baptisms’ (carried out at a time to suit the family and lasting around 15 minutes) have little depth and meaning. What sort of God is washing around as I pour water? Water: not much of it and tepid to boot? The parents have chosen to bring the child to baptism yet in this part of London being baptised in a parish church that just happens to have a flourishing parish school means that the choice could have been loaded.
And perhaps that’s where we might pursue the notion of election: in the experience of human choosing. We make all sorts of choices in our lives but we know that the context of our choosing is rarely neutral. We find ourselves pushed and pulled, drawn and repelled. Most of us at some point feel compromised, perhaps even sullied by our choices. Yet we like to think that our choices are for the best and our hardest choices are the best of all. It’s the most difficult choices that challenge us to use our deepest resources. We have to concentrate. We have to look at all the issues. We have to pray – ask for grace and for guidance. We find ourselves immersed. We want to swim not drown. And in the choosing we have to discard, let things go, move on, perhaps … and dare I say it… to ‘kill’.
People and animals were killed in Noah’s Flood. People and animals were killed at the Red Sea. But the God of the Christians is more than the God revealed in the Old Testament. The God that we proclaim is not the one who kills but the one who chooses finally to be killed: in Christ. His killing was not just the choice of those who wished him harm: Caiaphas, Herod, Pilate, Judas and the mob. It was also God’s choice: the Father’s choice because the God who elects elected to be killed: elected to be killed to show as powerfully as possible that the killing has to stop. Its over: the bullying, the ostracizing, the destroying – all has to end.
We are baptized as S Paul powerfully reminds us this evening into the death of Jesus. Those first Christians, finding a river in which to act out their faith were plunged below the surface. Held down they might have died: drowned. Yet they were yanked out gasping for air. They were alive again. There are still Christians who do baptism this way. Its messy and risky but it makes a point. And the point is that life is messy and risky and demands of us all that we make good choices; that we learn from past bad choices – ours, those known to us, those we’ve read about – so that our choices will finally be good.
Our choices, our elections will be for the best if we immerse ourselves in our faith’s understanding of death: the dying to self; deaths borne for others. Election and sacrifice go together and they only make sense if we have learned to repent- to turn not just around but inside out. That’s what God did. He stopped killing. That’s what he models for us to do. When we do what God does, when we live and die and live again in Christ then the spirit of Epiphany comes to fruition: water becomes wine.
17bn planets may have water. Think of the possibilities. But think too of all the possibilities and choices and potential for life that are given to us in our lives on this planet. To be baptized is not just about life for ourselves but life for others too.
Sermon preached by Fr. Gerald Beauchamp