Saturday 7th January 2017
(Day prior to the 1st Sunday of the Epiphany)
Church of St Mary Magdalene, Bailgate, Lincoln
Congregation: Staff & Students of the Lincoln School of Theology,
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.
A very good morning to you all – and may I say how wonderful it is to be invited to preach within this beautiful and historic church of St Mary Magdalene.
My chosen text this morning is the Gospel according to St Matthew 3.13-end, which I shall first read.
In 2006, I was in the habit of subscribing to a writer’s periodical called Writing Magazine. On one occasion, it carried a competition with the task to write a synopsis of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, in no more than 50 words. It was indeed a significant challenge, but one that I rose to, though, I must admit, not sufficiently well enough to win the prize.
Judging by today’s Gospel text, I sense that St Matthew would have fared much better than me in respect to the challenge from the Writing Magazine, and would definitely have been in the shortlist of finalists, if not declared the outright winner. For, within 5 verses of text – essentially 6 short sentences - he manages to pack a veritable panoply of richness that defiantly challenges the sermon writer constrained to a 15-minute oration.
In the Gospel you have just heard, we joined Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, at the River Jordan. So, before I move on, let us just imagine that scene for a moment...
From the preceding verses to today’s reading, we know that John is probably standing in the water. On the bank is a small crowd clamouring and jostling to be next in line for John’s baptism for the repentance of their sins. To those he baptises, John issues a warning as to the coming of the Messiah, declaring that the Messiah will ‘baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’, and in the process, sort out the ‘wheat from the chaff’. In other words, there’ll be no messing about - the coming Messiah will sort the truly repentant from those who falsely repent.
Amidst this slightly chaotic scene appears Jesus, who has travelled a long way from Galilee with the specific intention of seeking John’s baptism. His arrival within the crowd of sinners is to John’s utter surprise and, at first, he tries to deter Jesus from partaking in the process of baptism because he perceives that he has no sin to repent. Jesus, however, insists and is thus baptised by John in the water of the River Jordan.
Then, as he surfaces from the water, there is this remarkable moment when the sky opens and the Spirit of God descends like a dove upon Jesus, accompanied by the voice of God, who declares that Jesus is his son, and that God is well pleased with him.
And that is it!
Within 6 short sentences, we have John baptising people in the Jordan, Jesus arriving and taking John by surprise, John baptising Jesus, following which the Heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends, and God speaks, declaring Jesus to be his son. The next verse in the gospel, unread today, simply flips the scene away to Jesus entering the wilderness to do battle with the devil…
Now, I don’t know how you feel, but this is blockbuster movie stuff. This is a good story… Just as one action-packed scene is over, and before we have a chance to draw breath and consider what we have just seen, we are off to the thrills and excitement of the next enthralling encounter...
But let us not go on for a moment. Instead, let us press the pause button, rewind and replay what we have just witnessed in almost a blink of an eye.
For, within this passage of just six sentences, are contained many of the raw constituent values of Christianity, including meekness, repentance, the sacrament of baptism, salvation, peace, and love, – to say nothing of leadership, preaching the gospel, the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and the existence of the triune God.
To illustrate this, let us start with John the Baptist.
John is quite famous. He is well known as a preacher and has established a name for himself as something of a prophet. Many people - rich and poor - those with status and those without - all flock to him to hear what he has to say. He preaches the importance of repentance - of seeking God’s forgiveness, and starting life anew. This he demonstrates through the process of baptism – the use of water as a symbol of cleanliness and purification. And there is no doubt that he is good at it. Indeed, he is very good at it – and the scriptures show that he is most certainly a charismatic leader.
But despite all this fame and popularity, he is also humble. As we are told earlier in Matthew’s gospel, John dresses and lives frugally; but he is also very quick to diminish his own importance: ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to carry his sandals’, he says in Matthew 3.11. Despite being successful and famous, he has a firm grasp of his ego, his sense of self-esteem or self-importance, and is quick to recognise others who have greater value than himself.
So, there we have leadership, preaching, repentance, baptism and humbleness.
And then there is Jesus…
At this stage, Jesus, like many of us here today, is right at the start of his ministry, and if we set aside the magnificence of the nativity, he is yet to become well-known amongst the wider communities of Galilee and Samaria, let alone in Judea where he has arrived to meet John. That said, he is aware that he has a mission to fulfil on behalf of God: ‘Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’, he says to John in respect to his request for baptism by John. But he makes this request not as someone who considers himself to be important, but by humbly taking his place amongst the throng of sinners on the bank of the Jordan. In this respect, he certainly takes John by surprise, for even if John does not know at that moment that Jesus is the Messiah John has been prophesying, he certainly recognises him as someone who is without sin, and makes his case for the baptism to be the other way around: ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ he equally meekly exclaims.
Can you imagine what this moment must have felt like to John?
It was probably something akin to how I once felt as a GP when a consultant cardiologist appeared in my consulting room as a patient and asked me to treat his symptoms, which were quite clearly those of heart disease; and it is most certainly akin to preaching from a pulpit to a congregation of scholars from a local school of theology, and finding that amongst them is that eminent preacher, the Reverend Alex Whitehead!
… you can genuinely sense the palpable astonishment and even embarrassment of John when he realises who is next in the queue…. He knows Jesus as a good man, better than himself, and seriously thinks their roles are the wrong way around. He expresses this, telling Jesus ‘no, no, this is all wrong - I need to be baptised by you…’
Indeed, the scene is almost one of comedy in respect to who can be the humblest – ‘after you’ – ‘no, after you’ – ‘no, I really must insist, after you’…
But Jesus is making two important points here, apart from showing support for John’s ministry. First, he is showing solidarity with those who are known to be sinners; choosing to stand shoulder to shoulder with those whose lives have been blighted by misdemeanours of all sorts, and not electing for some form of preferential treatment. Secondly, by confessing sin on behalf of all people (just as Isaiah, Ezra and Nehemiah had done before him), he was commencing his ministry of teaching that salvation is available for all people, and that, after repentance, baptism is of central importance to attaining God’s salvation.
Meekness, repentance, baptism and salvation - they are all there, right at the start of Jesus’ ministry, such is their importance.
And then we come to that remarkable moment that occurs as Jesus is coming out of the water.
Now, I want you to use your imagination again for a moment. I want you to bring to mind the last time you dived or jumped into an open air swimming pool – your hearing becomes muffled by the water; your vision is likewise affected – you see just blurry distorted images; and just as you cannot hold your breath any longer, you burst through the surface into the open air – the water runs off your face, the sunlight is dazzling in a vivid blue sky, and you take great lungful’s of air – you feel so alive, so joyful, so invigorated – you see so clearly the great splendour of the sky above you; a scene so vividly clear that the sky appears never ending, and you might even see a dove flying above you, and you rejoice at the splendour of it all…
And then imagine if, at that moment of exhilaration, you hear the voice of God saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.
Words which echo the prophetic Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 42.1: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’; words that will not be heard again until the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17.5.
‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
In Biblical terms, this is a truly amazing moment. Not only is it the first occasion on which God publicly affirms Jesus as his son, but it is the first time when the triune God is present – God the father is speaking, God the son has just been baptised, and God the Holy Spirit has just descended like a dove – not as fire, or storm, or lightning, or a fierce wind – like a dove.
And there, contrary to the powerful and fearsome God portrayed in Psalm 29, we have God demonstrating his true nature as a peaceful, loving and tender God – showing absolute benevolence to his son as any parent might when the child’s action pleases the parent.
God is demonstrating love…
So, there we have it. In a passage of just six sentences, the raw constituent values of Christianity – a demonstration of strong leadership, inspirational preaching, meekness, support to sinners, repentance, the sacrament of baptism, salvation, peace, the existence of the triune God, and a demonstration that God is love. (Indeed, the only significant bit that is really missing is the detail of the crucifixion and resurrection, as covered in today’s other New Testament reading from Acts 10.34-43).
And thus, regardless as to whether we are here now as ordained Priests, or potential Readers, Deacons or Priests of the future, we should remember that it is those same factors which are the core elements that we are required to possess and profess; the same elements that should form the basis of our ministry as Christians and the good news that we, as members of God’s Church proclaim to others.
And so, we pray that, as we leave here today, we might remember those six simple but powerful sentences of St Matthew’s gospel, and all that is contained therein; and we also pray that, by doing so - as we try to walk in the path of Jesus Christ - we might have our own eyes and ears opened to the glory of heaven, and the power of the Holy Spirit…
… and that one day we might give such good cause that, just like Jesus standing in the river Jordan, we will also hear God’s voice identify each one of us as someone…
with whom he is well pleased.
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