Sunday 12 January 2020 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
Baptism of Christ – 1st of Epiphany
(Isaiah 42.1-9 Acts 10.34-43) Matthew 3.13-17
Last Tuesday night the sky was lovely and clear. As I went out with the dog to close the gates, I looked up at Orion in the south, in particular at the red star Betelgeuse on the hunter’s right shoulder. Until last month it was the eleventh brightest star in the sky. And then it suddenly dimmed, causing a ripple of excitement among astronomers. Is it about to explode into a supernova? Probably not yet, but when that does happen – and it will one day – it will be spectacular, because Betelgeuse is both massive and near, and it will appear as large and bright as a full moon.
I say near, but I mean near for a star. Betelgeuse is 642 light years away, so what I looked up to see was an event from the time when this church was being built. Similarly, if you were able now to stand on Betelgeuse and look in our direction, you wouldn’t see modern Nantwich, but a town recovering its prosperity in the decades after the Black Death.
I say all that partly because it’s wonderful, but primarily as a direct example of how the past is still with us. We sometimes speak of putting the past behind us, as though we can forget certain events or live as if they hadn’t happened. But that’s not so easy. Events from the past make their presence felt today in all kinds of ways.
We’ve just come through a week of great uncertainty following the killing of Soleimani, the missile strikes on US airbases in Iraq, and the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner over Tehran. And the more you try to understand the Middle East, the more you are taken into the complex histories of Persians and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites, West and East.
In better news, yesterday the Northern Ireland Assembly reopened at Stormont after three years, but the legacy of the Troubles and the longer history are far from being put behind.
The current environmental challenges we face are a result of the waste products of a century refusing to go away. The stuff we want to get rid of, and put behind us, stubbornly hangs around.
This is a world where the reverberations of historical events remain with us now, like a long echo. Or to change the image, the connecting threads between us and all the peoples of the world go back and to through all the hurt and conflict of the deep past. It’s a tangled up mess. And you can’t just put it behind.
If only the world were as simple as your computer or phone. What do you do if they get their memories or processes scrambled? What procedure works nine times out of ten, not just for computers, but for many devices? You switch off and then back on again.
Imagine if you could do that with the world? Wouldn’t it be wonderful, as long as we didn’t lose any data? We want to be still here, but with all the bitterness, hatred, prejudice and vengefulness removed.
The good news doesn’t make it so easy, though sometimes it can come across like that. God just forgives us. We just have to forgive and forget. Let’s all be a bit nicer.
But if we want to know how easy or not the good news is we must look at Jesus. Matthew understands that Israel has got itself in a mess, but his Gospel is not about removing that mess, in the sense of making things as if Israel’s failures had never happened, but about the arrival of a positive presence which gathers up all that history and opens up the hope of a future freedom. It’s not so much a restarting of the world but a kind of re-run of its history.
Matthew shows this particularly in these early chapters where we read of the baptism of Jesus. Like the people of Israel, Christ’s genealogy is traced back to Abraham. Like the people of Israel, Jesus is shown as having been taken out of Egypt. Like the people of Israel who wandered for 40 years in the desert, so Jesus fasts for 40 days in the desert. Like Israel who crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, so Jesus comes up out of the Jordan to declare the kingdom is near. Like Moses who went up Sinai to receive the law, so Jesus goes up to deliver the Sermon on the Mount.
Very deliberately, Matthew shows that Christ in a sense repeats the history of Israel, but this time in complete faithfulness to the Lord. He lives out what it means to be chosen and called by God. So as Jesus leaves the water, the voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We see Christ revealed as both fully Israel, and fully divine.
In Lent, as indicated in the notice sheet, we will run a course on Tuesday afternoons and evenings. We will study the book ‘Being Christian’ by Rowan Williams. It has the rare quality of being short, simple, comprehensive and profound all at once. It’s a pure diamond.
In it he makes the point that baptism isn’t an initiation into a superior society, removing us to a level above other sinners. It is the very opposite. To be baptised is to be placed with Christ into the mess, to be more present to the chaos of this world. And it is to be placed into Christ’s life, to share his goodness.
The image of baptism as cleansing is helpful but it can make us think that the problem with the world is like a layer of dirt to be removed. More deeply, sin is a lack, an absence of the good. Christ came not to be a heavenly washing powder, but that nothing less than the divine life might be present in history, a life with reverberations sounding across all time past, present and future.
A new Israel, or as St Paul puts it, another Adam. In the words of John Henry Newman:
O loving wisdom of our God!
when all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.
Following Jesus is no easy option. It’s about facing up to the struggles of this world. Being baptised is meant to make you both more dirty, especially your hands, and more holy.
We can’t put everything behind us and look pure. Jesus didn’t, even though he was without sin. He looked like a traitor, a blasphemer, and a law breaker.
How much do you worry about decisions? About what people think of you? About what’s the right thing to say? About whether to get involved in a situation or offer yourself for service? Is there someone you should be speaking to but the past is complicated?
Are you on the edge of the Church, looking at a flawed institution, not the sacred people you think it should be?
Well be baptised, live as if you are baptised, plunged into the compromised, messy, tangled depths of the world and of the church. If you’re up to your neck in it, you’ll rarely have the luxury of knowing you’re right, being certain about your opinions and actions, avoiding being misunderstood, saying and doing things which cause both good and harm.
But you’ll be doing God’s work of redeeming history, not escaping it. You’ll be in the right place – in touch with Christ, and in touch with the pain and sin of our lives and of our world.
So next time we have a clear night – and sadly they are quite rare – find Betelgeuse. Look back across the centuries. Look out to all of time and space. Face the reality that the past can’t be erased. And rejoice that 2000 years ago the Lord of years, the potentate of time, became incarnate, and the waves of his Spirit continue to ripple around the universe drawing all things past and present into his life and love.