Sermons from St Faith's     

The Baptism of Christ
Revd Sue Lucas, Sunday, January 11th, 2015

I wonder if you've seen  the pictures on TV this New Year – of Cornwall, and Blackpool and even Aberdeen of those brave souls, sometimes in silly costumes, who brave the cold and take the plunge for the sake of raising a bit of money for charity. Perhaps we've seen something similar last year with the ice bucket challenge. I did contemplate doing it for the roof – but only for a few seconds!

Swimming in open water is not perhaps immediately appealing – but those who do it say it has a refreshing astringency, a renewal and refreshment – the world scrubbed clean, at least, if not made new.

In today's Gospel, Jesus takes the plunge. There are many  images of this in art, of course.  One of the most famous is the Ravenna mosaic – Jesus is shown waist-deep in the water, eschewing divinity, and as it were by his divinity sanctifying the whole of creation.  It is at once a moment of transformation, and a forerunner of the Cross. - the divine nature enters into flesh, not half-heartedly, but fully, and committedly, and subject, fully, to the ‘shocks that flesh is heir to.’

It is, perhaps, as astringent and painful as a bucket of cold water.  It is perhaps as violent and shocking as the moment in labour when the waters break, and the process of birth accelerates. We are all, in this sense, born of water, and the plunge we take into the second birth of baptism is an echo – a loud echo - of this.

For even as it is an emptying out of divinity, it also takes place in the wilderness, the place where John the Baptizer appears; it is, that is, also a radical disassociation from all the structures of power that are at the ‘centre’ – in this case, the cultic, political, economic and social centre of Jerusalem.  But the wilderness is not far from this; nor is it an empty wilderness; rather, it is the place where those who are cast out, marginalised by the centre, find a home, a place of regrouping, re-evaluation, and, ultimately, opposition to the oppressive and dehumanising power of the centre.  It is, then, the place in which Jesus’ ministry is made manifest, and to which he periodically returns to renew and regroup.

It is then, in several ways, a radical, even a violent, break with what has gone before – with tradition, as we might say; it is a bursting through into consciousness of a new way of divinity manifesting itself, a new way of being human, ultimately, and the Ravenna mosaic strongly suggests this, it is a new creation, a new creation that bursts on the scene as violently and shockingly as a bucket of cold water, as the waters breaking, a  violence and shock that the status quo, the ruling powers cannot stand. 

And what about our own baptism, the baptism in which we shall shortly be renewed. In its own way, it is equally violent and shocking. For we are baptised into the death of The Lord – not any death, but the death of the Cross, the death of one against whom the powers of tradition and respectability  did their worst.
Is this Good News? It is good news with a strange astringency, with a sharpness. And it is good news that might not immediately be manifest in our lives and in our world; and so God operates in an altogether more cunning way, sneaking the astringency of our vocation past the conservative instincts of sinful human nature.

For the death into which we are  baptised, the waters in which we are, if you like drowned, is one in which the dehumanising powers did their worst; and in the resurrection, comprehensively lost.

So whilst, at one level, not much seems different, and life goes on being the same humdrum ordinariness, and we go on being the old Adam, with all our sinful cautiousness about reaching out to the other – we are, with the one, who in his incarnation, baptism, crucifixion and resurrection sanctified all the material world and all human experience – a new creation.

And perhaps, when we renew our baptismal vows  today, or whenever we make the signify the cross on our foreheads as we enter church, or when we witness a baptism here – we catch, sidelong, a glimpse of the wonder of the work God has done in Christ, and continues to do, perhaps sidelong, perhaps by stealth, perhaps quietly, in us, in each of us, in his new creation, his body the church.

Perhaps we will this day be touched anew with the shocking grace of our own baptism, given new hope, new energy, new lives for old – and the capacity to seethe world as tinged, shot through with the transforming love of Christ and the glory of God.


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