Sunday 9 January 2022 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Sunday 9 January 2022

Baptism of the Lord                           Fr Michael Bowie

 

One of the challenges of our faith is that it isn’t neat. Within the Bible itself there are many contradictions: that’s because it is not one seamless revelation sent by email to a computer but a collection of books written over many centuries, prompted by faith in God and variously inspired by the Holy Spirit, but written down by human beings. Since, even at our best and most conscientious, our lives embrace many contradictions, perhaps it is right that our faith is not too neat either. This season is all about God drawing near to us, taking on our humanity, understanding us from inside, so that we may draw nearer to him: the bible is a bit like the incarnation which we celebrate at this season, the word of God in human words.

 

Perhaps that human tendency to contradiction is one reason why Jesus so often taught in paradoxes and with arresting, extreme-sounding statements, which some Christians sadly mistake for hardline statements of morality and law: so often the opposite of what he meant. In this morning’s readings we’ve been given, if not exactly a contradiction, a tension between two views of God: between the noisy activist God of the appointed psalm and the quiet God whose baptism by John is related in our Gospel. The God of psalm 29 makes a racket. ‘The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice’. So powerful is his thundering voice that it shatters the cedar trees, strips the forest of its leaves, sets Mt Hermon skipping and makes startled goats give birth before their time. This psalm is chosen because, in talking about ‘the voice of God over the waters’, it nicely anticipates ‘the voice from heaven’, the voice which speaks as Jesus, baptized by John, emerges from the waters of the Jordan, but that voice is not exactly a thunderclap. In Mark’s version it seems as though only Jesus hears it; Matthew says everyone heard this; Luke, from whom we’ve just heard, leaves that ambiguous:

     ….a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’. 

 

No doubt Psalm 29 says something important about the sovereignty of God, but that is not what the baptism of Christ is about. Again, that psalm speaks of God who is ‘enthroned above the flood’ (29.10). But at his baptism, Jesus is not enthroned above anything, especially the flood; far from it. His baptism in the Jordan is one with his coming death on the cross, which he later described as another sort of baptism in which the apostles must also share. The God of glory thunders, sings our psalm. But that is not the God we meet in Jesus.

 

The imagery of water in Holy Scripture and Christian liturgy is also rich and complex. Water is the means of life and the symbol of all that is spiritually life-giving. ‘Everything shall live where the river runs’, says Ezekiel [47.9]. For John Jesus is the fount of ‘living water’; the one who drinks of him shall never thirst [4.14]. But waters, as Isaiah says, also denote the adversity through which we pass [43.2]

‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you’. 

That sense of God’s companionship with us is at the heart of this feast.

 

John, who baptized Jesus, passed through those waters of adversity. Our lectionary for today thoughtlessly omits the three verses of Luke’s Gospel which tell us what befell him. This leaves out a lesson that life never omits, a lesson that Luke means us to learn. Here are the missing verses, just after John has announced that Jesus will be greater than he:

3.18-20

 

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

 

But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done,

 

added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Luke doesn’t add that detail about John carelessly: he wants us to remember that testimony to the truth is costly, one way or another. All of us take on responsibility for giving that testimony in our own baptism and confirmation.

 

Which brings me to the font. Before joining you here I had already worked with two of William Butterfield’s fonts; in St Augustine’s Penarth, his 700 seater giant on the edge of Cardiff Bay, and St Peter’s Berkhamsted, where he’d been called upon to replace an elegant but modest 18th century font with a truly irritating giant which got in the way of coffins entering the church. By the time he got to Berkhamsted (where he also added a floor you’d instantly recognize to the medieval building) I’m guessing he was a bit of a celebrity, and he liked a font. In St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne stands his total immersion version. He designed them and placed them to make a point, to insist that the church has two poles – ‘the font and the altar’ in the words of the hymn – at either end: one at the point of entry, the other where we gather to be nourished for the continuing Christian journey. In here this pulpit makes a third competing statement, as you might expect in our dear old CofE.

 

Butterfield, a devout Anglican, wanted us always to remember the significance of our baptism, the gift of membership in the family of God. He wanted us to remember that gift whenever we enter the church building, and especially when we come for worship. The point is enhanced by the holy water stoup at the door, filled with baptismal water: we sign ourselves with the cross with water as we come and go, enacting a recollection of our baptism and first allegiance as Christians to which our font bears striking witness by the door.

 

Because baptism and confirmation are really one sacrament, most of us take conscious responsibility for that baptismal gift when we are presented for confirmation, whether as young people or adults: we are members of God’s family from our baptism, but most of us only step up to the implications of that relationship in confirmation. We look forward to some confirmations this Easter. Please do ask if you, or someone you know, would like to be confirmed.

 

Today’s feast and today’s gospel are reminders of why these sacraments are celebrated: not just following Christ, but identifying ourselves with him, becoming members of his living body here and now, in 2022 in London; a family which transcends our blood families. Today’s feast and today’s gospel also remind us that if we accept that invitation, take that responsibility and receive that membership, we are not promised an easy ride: this is real life, not magic. But we arepromised companionship, both human and divine, nourishment for the journey (in our communion at the altar), and a sense of deep peace in whatever confronts us, with the hope of glory as our goal.