Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Baptism of the Lord

It might have seemed an ordinary day when Jesus was baptized, Maybe John the Baptist had gotten used to it, routine does that, and the riverside ritual drowning of the old life and rising to the new in hope of God’s promise to Israel had turned into a somewhat routinised wash and wipe. But then he sees Jesus; and knows him to be the one: The faithful servant, who will embody God’s spirit in a human life, bringing forth right justice, bringing forth new life. He must have remembered the amazing insight of the prophet Isaiah as he looked to see this Jesus beginning to live out his life in righteousness, as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to all who sit in darkness, opening blind eyes, bringing out prisoners from whatever dark dungeons of isolation or judgment bind them. What a sight for John! “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.” And now to see Jesus face to face, to know that greater presence, purpose, hope is finally here. “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And to know in addition, perhaps dimly, that the beginning of the life of Jesus following his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist marks the beginning of the end of John’s own life. And still he rejoices!

It must have been true as well for good St Peter, who so often got it wrong in his earlier pilgrimage with the Lord, now full of the conviction in speaking by the spirit to a noisy crowd, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.... preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” He might have looked ahead from that moment, that day and seen the coming martyrdom, the waiting cross, as well as the unbelievable glory that would be his in taking up that ministry, that service, that end. And he, perhaps by grace, rejoiced as well.

For most of us it is not quite that dramatic or that clear-cut. I was baptized, became a Christian, put on Christ, a bit over 42 years ago a the age of 21. Part of it was the need for connection, respectability, community; part of it a desire and need to say both “Thank you” and “I am sorry” often and in the context of a community which would take those duties with due seriousness; to ask for pardon and to allow some potential for graceful growth, that brought me here, along with some shy hope of the heart to unfold in a kind climate of grace and growth. There was a prayer by WIlliam Temple that spoke to me at the time, gave me great hope. It speaks to me still.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord  and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is often not easy to keep hope alive. Two years ago, when I was working in Chaplaincy in higher education, a young student, a single mother with a little boy, came to me with some depression, a muted quality rather than desperation, and sat in my office and said, “my life looks nothing like what I see on the web and in the mall and I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” and I listened, and I let her have room to consider and think and mourn and start to grow and risk and again. And what I wanted to say, and what I hope she heard eventually somewhere else, was “Get a life, get a life with creativity, with a call to justice and community, with inspiration and some height and depth and breadth to it, get a life in Christ! Not to take you elsewhere, not to make you someone other than who you are, but to let you be you, fully and wholly and exactly where you are!

Because that is, I think, where Baptism drops us. It might be dealing with a new baby or with old age, living with disappointing relatives or sore feet, it may be enduring bad luck or a sad heart, it may be moving to new work in a new town that is exciting and demanding and lonely and lovely. It may be looking down a well worn old road or a brand new prospect and seeing a corner up ahead that signals a turn into a place you never thought to visit. But Christ’s call to baptism, to be part of the community of faith, the body of Christ called to be the church, takes you right where you are!

A friend of mine went to see a renowned spiritual leader and said, “How do I know where God is calling me?” The woman’s response was quick, “Go where the tension is in your own life. He will be there!”.
He will be there on Christmas morning or Good Friday, the wedding feast or the solitude in the desert, the great Eucharistic feast or the solitary times when you are asking that the cup might pass; wherever you go, Christ has been, will be, is there with you, will be with you always. “For there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

Our baptism, our immersion into the way of Jesus, plunges us into the depths of our real life with God: makes us companions with Christ in the deepest part of the human journey, washes us up with the most unlikely people and teaches us the surprising lessons of love, and contingency and humility and hope in the heart of all places and all things.

That is the gift of Christ, that is our heritage as children of God, where Christ calls us to follow, by his baptism and by our baptism. And that is a message and a pilgrimage that cannot be approximated by the mass markets, by the merchants of desires who rent their spaces on the web and at the mall, God is bigger and smaller than that, God goes farther and comes closer than that. And that is maybe why we’re here; alive, in this world at this time. To take that chance, to live this life!

We come to be baptized to find out where we end and where we’re for and where we begin, and it is in Christ! In Christ’s whole-hearted embrace of humanity we feel God hugging the whole of the human race, all life and death, all powers and principalities, the whole creation, into the call of love, the call of community, the command to follow, so that there is and shall be no place where we are safe, in life or death, thing past or things to come, here or in heaven, from the love to God.

Here are some words to end from the Baptismal service in our Prayer Book:

Be made one with Christ in his death and resurrection
Die to sin, rise in newness of life
And continue forever in Jesus Christ.


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