2nd Sunday of Epiphany
I wonder how many of us can remember what it feels like to be a child. Those of you who know me will know that I have 2 daughters, and they are aged 4 and 9. One of the joys of having two children of that age is the sense of wonder that they have about the world around them. Everything is new and much of it is exciting. To be around them as they start to make sense of the world is just joyous. Every now and again I shall get summoned by one of them to come and look at something, it could be an insect in the garden, it could be a rainbow, it could be a picture that they have drawn. It is wonderful to behold.
And it is inevitable, as we get older, that we end up losing a little, (or a lot) of that sense of wonderment, the astonishment of what we experience gets diminished, through repetition, through cynicism or the grind of what it means to be an adult. Every now and again my children come to me and urge me to look at something, but I am too busy that I tell them, “Not just now, can I just get this done?” or, “Go and tell your mother.”
And then after I am finished whatever it is that I am doing, I then go up to them, I want to find out what they were interested in only to find that the moment has passed, that the opportunity is missed and that instead of experiencing what it is that they wanted to show me, instead of being engrossed in what it is that so intrigues them, I end up being told about it. My children try to tell me, they try to describe what it is that I have missed.
It is at moments like this that I go from the potential of a first-hand experience to a second-hand description. I had the chance to really get immersed in it but instead chose to miss out. In that brief moment of time something inevitably gets lost as a result, the moment has passed and any magic that could have been contained therein has fluttered away, never to return.
Now I talk about this because it is much the same as what Jesus was alluding to today in the Gospel reading. The disciples of John, (I have been told by someone quite close to me that one of those disciples was called Andrew) asked Jesus where he was living. Instead of just saying, further down this road, on the left hand side next to that house over there, Christ invites them into his story. He says, “Come and see”. Come follow me and I shall show you. I shall show you this and so much more. They get the opposite of what I sometimes opt for, instead of getting a second-hand description what they were given was a first-hand, full screen, technicolour glorious experience.
And part of the beauty of these readings is that they are just as true now as they were then. Nothing has changed in the intervening years, Jesus is still offering us a first-hand experience. The whole reason that we come to church is to get a first-hand experience. When we go up to receive the Eucharist, we are invited into a first hand experience. When we share Christ’s story we may think that we are getting a second hand story but what we are actually invited to do is to partake in that story. God’s grace is still at work, it is still changing people. This isn’t just a dry academic study, this is the endless opportunity to end up being transformed by this story - the most wondrous, exciting story know to man.
The Bible is a wonderful collection of books. There are none finer but just like John the Baptist, the man who went before, who signalled to the people of what was to come saying, “it is not me but someone who comes after me who is the important one”, the Bible’s purpose is not merely to tell a story. Its power lies in the fact that it points to Jesus as the way that we live our lives. He calls to us, he invites us to come into a relationship with him.
We are not asked simply to know about him, we are actually asked to properly get to know him, to be fundamentally changed by him, to be like him. The Bible is only the menu and our Lord Jesus Christ (in so many ways) is the meal and we are asked to tuck in.
Baptism of Christ
Let me start with a question: ‘who here can remember their baptism?’
Well, I can. I was baptised, as an adult, in 1992 in a small village church in Rode, Somerset. My baptism took place on a Tuesday evening with just Sallyanne and a friend in attendence, prior to my confirmation the next day. I was confirmed in Frome by the then Bishop of Bath and Wells, Jim Thompson; a proper ‘old fashioned bishop.’ Now I need to be honest: I had been taking communion for some time prior to my baptism. The reason why is that I was blissfully unaware of church rules, regulations and protocols. My vicar, who was effectively later defrocked, had no reason to suspect that I hadn’t been baptised, so was somewhat shocked when I presented.
I think my own baptismal story speaks a little to the nature of the Kingdom and has parallels with Jesus’ own baptism, for indeed all of our baptisms should find their parallel in the Baptism of Christ. Jesus was baptised by John, the wild man of the gospels; a man who in his own words said of his cousin ‘I am not worthy.’ This is a crucial point of detail which reveals something very important about the nature of the sacraments, and the sacrament of baptism in particular. Please never, ever, think that the presiding minister is in any way different or uniquely worthy; we aren’t.
You see when it comes to the sacraments the only one who is worthy is God. The miracle of the sacraments is that God chooses to make himself real and present through the office of the unworthy. This is a very sobering thought indeed. Please do stop and think about it: the sacraments of the church are administered by the unworthy yet we sometimes place too much emphasis on the role of the priest or deacon; too little emphasis on the work of God. It is God who transforms water, bread and wine into life giving, life enhancing, spiritual nutrients. It is God who we the ‘unworthy’ meet in the sacraments.
If I am honest, I don’t know how I would feel about being baptised by the likes of John the Baptist. I suspect that in very large part I would want the person baptising me to look a little bit smarter and, well, more classically priestly. I am not sure that if I had known about the extra curricular behaviour of the priest who baptised me, I would have gone ahead with my baptism. It is, you see, so easy to either ignore or forget that the initiative in the sacraments is entirely, and only, God’s. The accounts of Jesus’ own baptism remind us of this. The initiative of God in cleansing us – the ‘unworthy’ - through the sacraments can in fact be reduced to one word: Grace. To receive and partake in the sacraments of the church is to open ourselves up to the grace of God – unworthy as we all are.
So, what else can we learn from the stories of Jesus’ baptism? Well, the first thing that I think we can learn is that baptism, as a sacrament, opens up new possibilities, new horizons, new ways of being and relating, for as we have heard ‘the heavens were opened to Him.’ Baptism opens the heavens up for us as well, and allows us to become the sort of people who strive to bring something of the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ into the here and now; baptism is the catalyst for a Christ-like way of life. Washed clean through the waters of baptism, we like Christ, become the sort of people who are capable in the words of the Prayer of Preparation, of ‘magnifying His Holy Name.’
Secondly, through baptism we acknowledge that we, like Jesus, are truly beloved of God. At and through baptism God says to each and every one of us: ‘You are mine, the Beloved, and with you I am well pleased.’ This is an utterly remarkable thought: that you, me, us are God’s very pleasure.
Can I ask you this week to meditate on this and let those words sink into your soul, for to do so is to pay due homage to God? Do, this week, perhaps every week, try to find some time to bask in God’s love for you and pleasure in you – for to do so is to recapture the very essence of baptism.
You see we might not be able to remember our own baptisms but what we can do is to meditate on Jesus’ baptism and own for ourselves the picture of the heavens opening and the very Spirit of God resting on us – the unworthy - calling us by name, and proclaiming His love for us, and his pleasure in us.
And if we do this surely we will be irrevocably changed for the good?
Sermon for 1st Sunday of Christmas
One of the problems with the Bible is that it doesn’t really do character development. Well they are not those sort of books. This means it’s often quite hard to get any real grasp on what a person is like and what makes them tick. Instead, we have to fill in the gaps.
Herod the Great, the Herod in our gospel this morning, is a monster. That much we can tell; for what kind of person orders the slaughter of innocent babies? Herod is a nasty piece of work. It was not just these poor infants that were killed at the behest of this King. Many others were - including one of Herod’s wives and some of his own children. It has also been suggested that Herod had plotted the murder of a crowd of leading Jewish dignitaries in order to coincide with his own death – thus making sure there were many people wailing and mourning at his funeral.
The problem is that when we label someone a monster, that is all they are. We can discount them as being so beyond our comprehension, so beyond what any reasonable person might do that we see no connection with them and who we are and what we do. Herod is paranoid and wants to keep his throne. This Messiah is a threat. This is what lies behind his murderous decrees. The evil that meets the arrival of our Saviour is devastating. What this story tells us is that we need to take sin seriously.
For while I may not be guilty of murder, how do I respond when my own status and power comes under threat? How do I feel when what makes me feel settled and comfortable is challenged? Is my reaction one of loving understanding or is it, which is far more likely to be the case, one in which I get defensive, or paranoid, or angry? I must protect: myself; my privilege; my position. So, I might not have an army at my disposal like Herod, but what do I do in such situations? Do I belittle, do I tear a strip off the challenger, do I answer with hatred?
Have a think about what really gets your goat. What makes you seethe. Recall a moment when you felt like that and what you wanted to do. I bet you wouldn’t want to admit that to the person sitting next to you this morning. When I start to see Herod in this way, I begin to wonder to what lengths would I go? Of course, I would never issue the kind of orders he did but I am sure that as we chipped away at how I would answer a threat to my own throne, I would be surprised at what I would be prepared to do - especially if someone else was paying and someone else was making them pay. Are we really so different from Herod - this very human king propelled by a very human instinct?
Sin is about falling short of the mark. The mark is the example of love that Jesus showed and commanded us to have for each other. However, when we care more about ourselves, our privilege and our position than we do anyone else then we fall short, far too short. We sin. We need to be vigilant – aware when we see ourselves in such a way - for we start to become little Herods of our own. Instead, let us, like the holy family, flee away from this kind of sin. Let us always remember Christ’s instruction to love.
Christ did not call us to be doormats. There are times we must say ‘no’. There will be times we need to resist and defend. Yet, we always need to ask ourselves at such points: am I doing this for the right reasons and in the right way? Is this something of which, in all good conscience, is Christ-like? If the answer you suspect is ‘probably not’ then we need to do something about it and choose another way. It seems to be that this is much more like what Christian life is really like. We won’t always get it right but somehow we ought to look at what we have done, what we are doing, what we intend to do and offer it to God: in that we try and do right by him. Remembering that God knows us, knows what we are doing, and loves us anyway. Nevertheless, God calls us to be more, to be better, to be the best person we can be.
And if what I have said is true of us, so it is true for Herod. Our Gospel’s author, Matthew, may have written Herod off as a monster but God never does. God never stops loving him. God never stops desiring Herod would draw nearer to the person God wishes him to be, the very best Herod he can be. For then he would be truly worthy of his title: Herod the Great.
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