This is a sermon for the baptism of our Lord, given in the “church up the road.” The Scriptures it references are Luke 3:15-22 and Psalm 29:5.
I wonder, have you ever felt that you heard the voice of God?
Today’s readings give us echoes of what that voice has been like for other people. In the gospel, we heard of the “voice from heaven” telling Jesus that his father was truly pleased with him. That’s something we all might well yearn to hear.
But the psalm hints at a different sort of experience, when it tells us that the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. And while it’s uncomfortable to think about being broken by the voice of the God who’s supposed to love us, it’s also true that many people of faith have found that in being confronted with their own weakness, their own foolishness, dare I say their own sin, they have had an experience of a kind of brokenness. Not one from which it is impossible to heal or grow – indeed I think that’s the point – but brokenness nonetheless.
Either way – whether in affirmation or correction – both of these kinds of encounters with the voice of God have something to do with the question of who we are. Who we are as individuals, and who we are in relationship with our creator. And this is where it is helpful for us to reflect on the experience of baptism.
Because it is baptism above all which marks us, which gives us Christian identity, and which admits us to the fullness of Christian life and worship. In this day and age, where we encourage people to come to church and hope that the experience will allow them to encounter Christ, we forget that in the persecuted early church the practice was completely different. A person did not join the Christian community in worship, was not present for communion, did not even hear the gospel read, until after being baptized; baptism was the watershed encounter with God which made all of the rest possible. Long periods of formal preparation – up to several years – were the norm, and high ethical standards were expected of those preparing for baptism. For example, soldiers in the Roman army were expected to resign and leave their way of life before being considered ready to be Christian.
We’ve come a long way since then, and perhaps we are more confident of God’s grace and more humble about our own potential for perfection. But a look backwards at the early practice of the church can remind us that baptism is not a feel-good event, but a crisis moment which shapes everything that follows.
With this in mind, I’d like to draw your attention to the attached Eastern Orthodox icon of the baptism of Jesus. Most of it will be a familiar scene; there’s John the Baptist on the on the left, crowds on the right. Above Jesus’ head we see the Spirit of God descending like a dove. But what I particularly want to draw to your attention is the little figure in the river by Jesus’ feet. In the water, holding a trident, is a representation of the Greek pagan river god. What’s he doing there, in a Christian icon?
This image of the Pagan god is often used to show that Jesus is descending into chaos, into death, disorder and a place not regulated by God. But then he ascends into life in the Spirit. In the meeting place of chaos and the Spirit, there is the beginning of a new life, identified as the life of God’s beloved child.
This is as true for us as it was for Jesus. Living out our baptism means being confronted with the chaos, the ugliness, the sin in our lives, and facing that honestly. It means welcoming the presence of the Holy Spirit into that mess, and celebrating that presence in our brokenness as the beginning of new life, and the new identity to which God calls us.
The chaos of our lives isn’t resolved by a distant and detached God, one who is too holy and fearful to have anything to do with the darkest corners of our heart. St. Augustine put it as crudely as to say that Christ was born between feces and urine; but we forget that, and try to hold Christ at a distance from the grotty bits of our lives. We let our sense of shame at our mess override any ability we might have had to yield to him.
If baptism has anything to do with our identity as Christians, then, it tells us that the baptized person is aware of chaos, of the impossibility of being perfect by sheer good will and hard thinking. It means that I must not pretend that my inner life is tidier than it is, or be afraid of confronting sin and chaos. We live amongst the mess of this life, out of which God calls us and forms us. We live on the cusp, as it were; able to look in joy at what God has done, and in hope to face honestly the forces of darkness, looking for what God will do.
To live out our baptism, then, is daily self-examination and conversion, daily turning into the darkness which we have not yet understood, away from the comforting emotional patterns that we can devise for ourselves and use to keep ourselves safe; the social structures which justify our individualism, our selfishness, and our complicity in injustice. This vision of what baptism means is not warm and fuzzy; it doesn’t cuddle up to our culture or make us feel good. Rather, it calls our habitual ways of life into radical question.
Another part of what it means to live out our baptism is that although baptism gives me identity, it isn’t the sort of identity which sets me apart from others. As well as my own inner darkness, I may expect my baptismal calling to take me into the neighbourhood of other kinds of chaos. The chaos of other people’s lives, the chaos of suffering, the chaos of doubt, the chaos of a real world in which people are ground down and oppressed and denied by others who don’t understand what it is to face their darkness.
Baptism means that my identity is the identity of the Christ who was not afraid to identify with any and every human circumstance and share absolute solidarity with our fellow human beings. We are called not to be apart from the struggles of the world, but to be involved.
So if we want to take our baptism as foundational to our identity – and I hope that we do – we need both aspects of the voice of God. The part which affirms and praises us when we do well, and the part which has the power and clarity to cut through and break down everything in us which stands in the way of who God would have us be.
I wonder, if we were to truly stop and listen to God today, which aspect of the voice we would most need to hear?
Let us pray:
Lord, take my heart and break it: break it not in the way I would like, but in the way you know to be best. And because it is you who break it, I will not be afraid, for in your hands all is safe, and I am safe.
Lord, take my heart and give to it your joy, not in the ways I like, but in the ways you know are best, that your joy may be fulfilled in me. So, dear Lord, I am ready to be your beloved child.