A sermon preached online by Roger Wagner on 10 January 2021.
John’s gospel, as we read last week, begins with a poem. Mark’s gospel begins like a film. Before the first titles have faded you’re plunged into a huge crowd scene. People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem have come to the River Jordan. They are confessing their sins, gripped by a deep sense of repentance.
And then there’s a close up; a strange figure who has come out of the wilderness dressed in camel hair is (as we discover from the other two gospels) giving them a hard time. It’s not enough to say you repent you have to change your life because someone is coming – and then there’s another close up, Jesus of Nazareth is there, and he joins the people being baptised. And the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit comes down like a dove, and there is a voice from heaven.
It’s all incredibly dramatic, and it seems like a different world to the beginning of John’s gospel – but in fact, of course, it is doing exactly the same thing: it’s explaining to us what it means that God has come among us as a human being, in a way that no-one had expected.
The Greeks and Romans had stories of gods appearing in human form but when they did so they might aid you but they might destroy you or drive you mad. The Hebrew poets as we heard in the psalm talked of the voice of the Lord ‘breaking the cedar trees’ and imagined that when he appeared he would appear as a judge. But when Jesus appears among the crowds who are repenting and asking to be baptised, he joins them in the river.
In Christian iconography there are three moments when Christ is traditionally depicted naked. The first is at his birth – naked we come into the world and so did he. The last is at his crucifixion when the soldiers take his clothes. But in between his birth and his death, is this moment when he joins sinful human beings in all their vulnerability and shame. But as he comes up out of the water the heavens are torn apart – as after the crucifixion the veil of the temple is torn apart – the Spirit comes down like a dove – and the voice of the Lord is not breaking the cedars but saying: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”.
When Paul in his letters explains the Christian life he describes it as being united to Christ by faith. We are in Christ, and he says to the Corinthians, ‘if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has passed away; Behold the new is born’. ‘Don’t you know’, he says to the Romans, ‘that all of us who were baptised into Jesus were baptised into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead we too may live a new life’.
What does this mean for us? Well it means that the voice that spoke to Jesus ‘you are my Son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased’, is now speaking to us. It means that where it says ‘you’ we can now fill in our own names. You ………are my son , my daughter, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.
It means that the Spirit which descended on Jesus as a dove, now descends on us. ‘I baptise with water’ as John says, ‘but He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’- and as we are baptised with water, so as Paul explained to the disciples at Ephesus, we are to receive the Holy Spirit, to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and to go on being filled with the Holy Spirit.
The first time I preached in our zoom service at the beginning of the first lockdown, I looked forward to a time when the bells of St. Mary would ring out again, when the doors would be flung open and we would all worship together in the same building again. Well thanks to the vaccination we can perhaps see that time coming, but getting there will be desperately hard. The last lockdown happened at the beginning of spring. This one is happening ‘in the very dead of winter’ as T.S.Eliot says.
So what does it mean for us in this situation, that were are baptised with Jesus, baptised into Jesus as Paul says? Well read on through the book of Romans – from Paul’s explanation of baptism in chapter 6 to the end of chapter 8. It means that neither death nor life, neither Covid19 nor political turmoil, neither the present nor the future, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.