The Advent and Christmas rush means I’ve missed posting several sermons lately. Hopefully, I’ll post them soon, even though they will be rather ‘after the event’. At least they will be present here then nearer next December for those who search this blog and others for relevant sermons.
In the meantime, here is a sermon for this coming Sunday, when we mark the baptism of Jesus.
If you follow the movies, you may have noticed that in recent months Hollywood has had a bit of a religious obsession. Much of it has been poor, or at least contentious. God’s Not Dead caricatured atheists, Left Behind took up some dubious fundamentalist theories of the end times based on a questionable series of Christian pulp fiction novels, and Noah divided opinion.
Now Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods And Kings has caused a stir. Not just because any such film is bound to provoke polarised opinions (and that’s just in the church!), but because Scott engaged famous white actors to play dark-skinned Egyptians so as to generate box office income. And that’s before we get to the controversies about whether the script took liberties with history and scholarship.
But Hollywood hasn’t usually worried too much about the choice between truth and a juicy story. Coming from a family where my grandmother was a friend of Gladys Aylward, I am only too aware how furious Aylward was with the fictional romance that was invented for the film about her life, The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness (never mind the dubious morals of Ingrid Bergman, who portrayed her).
Let me come back to Exodus, though. Because Mark’s account of John baptising people, including Jesus, has Exodus themes in it. I’ve said before in sermons that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day commonly regarded themselves as being in a kind of exile, even though they lived in their own Promised Land, because they were occupied by Rome. So they longed for freedom. And as well as a theme that was like the liberation from Babylon, the Gospels also contain the imagery of freedom from their original place of captivity, Egypt. The Good News that Mark is beginning to tell is couched at the beginning in Exodus language.
Our problem is that we are so used to hearing these stories in the light of more recent Christian debates and themes that we miss this. Perhaps we hear the baptism stories and start thinking about what we believe about baptism. Is it for infants, or is it for committed disciples?
But we need to return to the Exodus theme. ‘Exodus’ is a Greek word. It is usually taken to mean ‘departure’, and so the second book of the Old Testament narrates the departure from Egypt. ‘Exodus’ as a word is a compound of two other words – ‘ek’, meaning ‘out of’, and ‘hodos’, meaning ‘road’ or ‘way’. This is the road or way you take out of somewhere. It is the escape route that you follow. And so an Exodus theme is a freedom theme. It is about liberation and liberty. I want to explore the baptism of Jesus, then, and its implications for us, under this theme of ‘freedom’.
Firstly, the baptism itself. It’s implicit in Mark what is made more obvious in other Gospel writers, namely that John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. Mark simply notes,
Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. (Verse 5b)
It’s therefore strange that Jesus embraces John’s baptism. Why does he need to repent? Again, the other Gospel writers are more explicit about this problem, but Mark characteristically keeps his account brief. Jesus certainly identifies with the people. He is the One who will lead people out of slavery – not, in this case, the slavery of Israel in Egypt, but slavery to sin. As the Israelites came through the waters of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) to freedom from Egypt and her powers, so Jesus leads his people through the cleansing waters of baptism to freedom from sin.
This is the good news of Jesus’ baptism: the Messiah has come to lead his people to freedom from sin. It begins with confession and forgiveness, but it becomes a whole pilgrimage from ‘Egypt’ to the ‘Promised Land’, as that initial setting free becomes a journey in which God leads us into freedom not only from the penalty of sin but also into increasing freedom from the practice of sin, until one day, in the New Creation, we shall be free from the presence of sin.
For Jesus, that journey will embrace what our baptism service calls ‘the deep waters of death’. His Red Sea will not only be the waters of the Jordan at John’s baptism, but Calvary and a tomb. But he will rise to new life and ascend to his Promised Land, promising that we will one day go with him at our own resurrection.
This is Good News that says to us, life doesn’t always have to be like this. It doesn’t have to remain a catalogue of remorse and failure. There is hope. We do not have to hate ourselves, because God loves us to the point of offering forgiveness and new life.
Thus begins our transforming journey, in a baptism that calls us out of Egypt and on the road of increasing freedom. It’s worth reminding ourselves of this from time to time.
One person who did that in his life was Martin Luther. He was a man prone to mood swings between elation and darkness. He could be the wittiest person alive, but he could also plumb the depths. But he said that whenever he was most tempted to doubt or to give up, he would remind himself of one fact: ‘I am baptised.’
I am not saying that baptism is some religious magic trick, but I am saying that to remember our baptism is to remember the promises of God to forgive our sins, and the power of God to change us and ultimately all creation, too. It is a sacrament of hope, as well as of beginnings.
Secondly, the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, John promises,
I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit (verse 8)
And on the other, we read,
Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. (Verse 10)
What does this have to do with the Exodus freedom story? It’s about the manner of God’s presence.
I’m sure you will recall that when Israel was being led through the wilderness, it was by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
But now, in the New Covenant, God’s people get an upgrade. Not only will the presence of God (cloud and fire) lead them, now that same presence will come upon all of them and dwell within them. For you frequent flyers, they have effectively gone from economy class to business class.
In Jesus’ case, there is something else. The descent of the Spirit upon him shows that he is the Messiah, for Messiah means ‘Anointed One’. He is anointed, not with the oil used to mark an earthly monarch, but with the oil of God, the Holy Spirit.
And if Jesus the Messiah is anointed with the Holy Spirit and we receive the Spirit too, then that confirms our Christian identity – we are to be ‘little Christs’. No, we are not Messiahs, and heaven deliver us from any more people in the Church with Messiah complexes, but the upgrade to the indwelling Spirit equips us for our pilgrimage to freedom. It is the witness of the Holy Spirit that confirms we are forgiven and loved. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us into increasing freedom from the practice of sin, thus making us more Christ-like. (Although we may more modestly feel it’s a case of becoming less un-Christ-like!)
We need not fear the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of freedom. ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,’ wrote the Apostle Paul. He brings God’s freedom to us, and empowers us then to be ministers of God’s freedom in the world. Through the Spirit’s work, we offer Christ and his liberating work to those in the chains of sin – the chains of their own sin, and the chains imposed by others upon them.
And not for us the limited distribution of the Holy Spirit in the Old Covenant. Now the Spirit is given not only to a select number of God’s people, he is given to women and men, young and old, privileged and poor – anyone who desires to follow Jesus the Messiah, the leader of freedom.
Those in higher church traditions than us have a liturgical symbol for this in the way the bishop applies anointing oil (‘chrism oil’) to the foreheads of candidates for confirmation. I came to like that tradition when I used to take part in ecumenical confirmation services with Anglicans, and concluded that we were missing out on that symbolism. I can offer something ad hoc, in that I possess a bottle of anointing oil, which has a beautiful smell of frankincense, and some people find it helpful to link the fragrant aroma of the oil with the presence of the Holy Spirit, who brings freedom.
Thirdly, the voice of God. The terrifying thunder from the mountain on the Exodus route now becomes the voice from heaven as Jesus comes up out of the water. Heaven is ‘torn open’, the Spirit descends like a dove (verse 10), and the voice from heaven speaks:
‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ (verse 11)
Tom Wright says that we should not see the opening of heaven as like a door ajar in the sky, because heaven in the Bible is rather the dimension of God’s reality that is invisible to us. So instead, this is like an invisible curtain being pulled back so that we see the whole of life in the light of this different reality. And in this case, when heaven opens the curtain into our life, we hear the divine voice that addressed Jesus addressing us, too: ‘You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
And certainly that is a totally different reality in which to live. Think about God addressing Jesus this way. Mark hasn’t recorded any virtuous acts by Jesus yet at all. His baptism is his first action in this Gospel, and even that is done to him. There is not even a reference to the humility of the Incarnation in Mark. What, then, has Jesus done to earn his Father’s pleasure here? Absolutely nothing. But he hears the voice of unconditional love. God loves him and is pleased with him.
Those of you who are parents, recall those times when you went into your children’s bedrooms at night when they were fast asleep. They might have delighted you that day, or they might have been utter pickles. But still you gazed at them and whispered words about how much you loved them. You had unconditional love for them.
So ask yourself this: is God angry with me, or does he love me? Can I really believe the Good News that God delights in me? This is the liberating news of our New Testament Exodus.
And that is a transforming insight. If God loves us like this, why do we not love ourselves? I don’t mean in a self-centred way. Rather, I mean something that the author Donald Miller has recently written about. In a booklet available online called Start Life Over, he lists five principles towards changing our lives for the better. The second of these is that – strange as it may sound – we are in a relationship with ourselves, so we should make it a healthy one.
What he says is this. To some extent, we all seek the approval of others, but what we don’t notice is how we seek our own approval. It is as if we are two people: one doing the actions of daily life, the other watching those actions in judgement. Miller noticed that a friend whom he deeply admired was always doing respectful things. And he wondered: if I start doing more respectful things, will I respect myself more, and thus change for the better? He writes,
And it worked. I would find myself wanting to eat a half gallon of ice cream while watching television and I asked myself “if you skipped this, would you have a little more respect for yourself?” and the truth is I would. So I skipped it. And I had much more self respect.
I liked myself more.
This sort of thing translated into a whole host of other areas of my life. I started holding my tongue a little more and found I respected myself more when I was more thoughtful in conversation. I found myself less willing to people please because, well, people who people please aren’t as respectable, right? (Page 9)
I suggest to you that this kind of transformation is open to us when we embark on our baptismal journey of freedom, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and hear God’s voice from heaven telling us we are loved unconditionally. It makes change possible.
So often, the way we seek to promote change in ourselves and in others is through threat. We are no carrot and all stick. But all that produces is fear and paralysis. We might see some change, but it is the change wrought by sleeplessness and night terrors, rather than love. Ultimately, it doesn’t achieve much, and it affects us badly as people.
God chooses the way of unconditional love to lead us into freedom.
There is only one time in my life when I have eaten at a Hilton Hotel. It was after my ordination service. Well, why not do things in style on an occasion like that?
Actually, the truth was more prosaic. We had pizzas in a lounge area. Two couples from my church had booked a cheap deal at the Leeds Hilton for the weekend of my ordination at the Methodist Conference, and they invited my parents and me back as a way of fixing something that had gone wrong. My sister and brother-in-law had booked into another hotel, but never turned up at the ordination service. Only later did we discover that my sister had been in A & E the previous day, having got a fish bone stuck in her throat. In those days, few people had mobile phones, so we weren’t able to discover what had happened until after the service, when we found a payphone.
So that is my abiding memory of my ordination – pizzas at the Leeds Hilton. Well, apart from a sense of relief that all the years of testing and suspicion from the church authorities were finally over.
You might expect a group of ministers to trade ordination stories, but why raise that subject in an ordinary sermon when the Church only ordains a few of her members?
Because we are all in some sense ‘ordained’ by God to minister in his name. We call it baptism. The baptism of Jesus, which we read about today, was effectively his ordination, his commissioning. And although we seem so far removed from Jesus’ unique status as the Son of God, there are sufficient similarities between the themes of his baptismal ordination and ours. In particular, let’s think about how Jesus’ baptism equips himself for the work of the kingdom, and therefore how God equips us.
The first theme is less obvious in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism than the other Gospels. It’s the theme of identification with sinners. Here in Luke, John lays out clearly that his baptism is a sign of repentance, and that it must be accompanied by a lifestyle that demonstrates such a turning away from sin. It’s therefore surprising that Jesus, who is universally presented in the New Testament as sinless, desires John’s baptism. The other Gospels record a conversation where John says to him, ‘It should be the other way round: you should baptise me.’ Jesus replies, ‘Let it be so to fulfil all righteousness.’ Luke omits that conversation, but still has Jesus undergoing a baptism of repentance, despite his sinlessness.
What are we to make of this? The classic Christian explanation down the centuries has been that Jesus received John’s baptism as a sign of identifying with sinful humanity. His baptism foreshadows the Cross, when he would die, representing sinful humankind as its substitute.
Jesus’ death for sinners was, of course, unique and unrepeatable. Unique, because only he as the sinless God-man could offer it, and unrepeatable because he accomplished everything at Calvary. So how could this be a model for us, when we can’t do that?
In a lesser way, is the answer. We too are called to identify with sinners. It shouldn’t be too difficult, because we are sinners ourselves! The temptation we have as forgiven sinners who are called to pursue a holy life is to lapse into a self-righteous attitude that looks down on others, disdains them and leads to us separating ourselves from them. It leads to situations where people think they shouldn’t attend a church, because they’re not good enough.
This has application for us, inside and outside the church. Inside the church, it affects the way we care and pray. There is more than one example in Scripture of people praying for the people of God, and not saying, ‘They have sinned,’ but ‘We have sinned.’ Daniel prays for God’s people that way, while in exile in Babylon, even though he was not responsible for the exile. He identifies with sinners in the family of God, rather than staying loftily above them. His prayer makes a difference.
Outside the church, identification with sinners is critical, too. It’s no wonder that the great Sri Lankan church leader, D T Niles, defined evangelism as ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’. The Gospel is of course urgent and essential, but as fellow sinners we need to remember that we are beggars, too. It’s just that we’ve found bread.
In every aspect of ministry, then, as Christians, both within and without the church, identification with sinners is an important principle enshrined here in Jesus’ baptism.
The second aspect of Jesus’ baptism that equips him for ministry is that he receives the Holy Spirit. So often we emphasise the fact that Jesus did what he did and said what he said because of who he was – the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God. If that is all we do, then we create an understanding of Jesus that says, he had an unique status which enabled him to do certain things, but we don’t have that standing and therefore we can’t begin to approach doing any of the things he did.
But look what happens here. While he is praying, heaven is opened (verse 21) and the Holy Spirit descends on him in bodily form like a dove (verse 22). Only after this does his ministry proper begin. Sure, there have been signs of what is to come with the incident in the Temple when he was twelve (2:41-52), because Jesus knows who he is, but the actual ministry of good news to the poor and broken only starts after this incident. Next, the Holy Spirit will eject him into the wilderness to fast and face temptation. Then he will announce his work in the Nazareth synagogue by reading Isaiah 61, beginning with the words, ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me’. Following that, he will conduct his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.
So whatever the difference between Jesus and us because he is the Second Person of the Trinity, eternally begotten of the Father, there is a strong connection between his ministry and ours. Jesus, for all his divine status, could not and did not begin his ministry until he had been empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus, the Son of God, conducted his ministry as a man in the power of the Spirit.
Exactly our call, in other words.
I find it significant that Jesus receives the Spirit while he ‘was praying’ (verse 21). As one American United Methodist minister puts it, ‘being on your knees can help you walk on air.’ He goes on to say:
The life and health of a church are directly proportional to the prayer life of the congregation. The praying church is the healthiest church. When parishioners spend time in prayer, they are a more compassionate and happier people. Their spirit permeates the congregation. When people spend time in communion with God, the sweetness of the Holy Spirit radiates throughout the church.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the early Pentecostals sought what they called ‘the baptism in the Holy Spirit’ at ‘tarrying meetings’ – that is, meetings where they waited prayerfully upon God. While the gift of the Spirit is a gift of grace, and I also do not want to suggest that the Spirit is absent from us, I think it is also true that the Spirit is more manifest among those who show the greatest seriousness and passion to receive and depend upon him. Too often we operate on auto-pilot, earning the old barb that ‘if the Holy Spirit were withdrawn from the church, ninety five per cent of activities would continue just the same as before.’ Jesus didn’t operate that way. He challenges us to be prayerfully dependent upon the Spirit.
The third and final aspect of Jesus’ baptism that equips him for ministry is an affirmation of who he is. Listen to what the voice from heaven says to him:
‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Verse 22)
Both the theological colleges I attended had weekly communion services. Often we had well-known guest preachers. Yet I only remember one sermon from each college. From my time in Manchester I remember Trevor Huddleston preaching on words from Romans 12, ‘Hate what is evil.’ From my time in Bristol I remember Tom Smail preaching on … the baptism of Christ.
He came to us at around May one year, just before the end of year exams, when many of the student body were fraught over revision or leaving college and beginning ministry. He was one of the few who did not treat the congregation in the chapel as a bunch of soon-to-be-clergy; rather, he majored on this verse: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And what he said about it was so healing I remember it to this day. He talked about being loved unconditionally by the Father as a child of God. There was no better message for a stressed group of people. You are loved. Period. It is the grace of God. You have been adopted into his family out of sheer grace. Jesus had not even begun his ministry here, but already the Father was ‘well pleased’ with him. The costliest acts of Jesus’ obedience were still to come, but here the Father is already ‘well pleased’ with him. He embarks onto his public ministry affirmed in his identity as the Son of God, who is loved by his Father and pleasing to him.
Now translate that into our lives. Could it be that God says something similar to us, and that it is the foundation of healthy ministry. If you know you are a child of God, you have an identity that will sustain you when people attack you or manipulate you, as surely they will. If you know you are loved unconditionally by the God of boundless grace, you will not measure your acceptability to that God on the basis of your performance. So if something goes well, all the glory goes to him. If you are judged a failure, by yourself or others, that makes no change to the love the Father lavishes on you.
Our security as Christians is not in our achievements or our popularity: both will wax and wane and are not to be trusted as accurate measures of our discipleship. No: our security as we launch out to serve God in Christ is in the fact that we have been adopted by the Father into his family as his beloved children, and his grace means he is pleased with us before we ever do anything for him. The call to identify with sinners is a challenging one; so is the call to depend prayerfully upon the Holy Spirit. But the security to walk this way is in the unconditional love of the Father.
 Royal Speidel, Evangelism in the Small Membership Church; title of chapter 7.
 Ibid., p 57.
Many of us will have heard all sorts of stories about baptism. A friend of mine, when he was an Anglican curate, really did baptise the wrong end of a baby! Me, I just worry about the baby grabbing the radio microphone – or, worse, my glasses. Or there’s the story of the minister telling the congregation before a baptism, “The water isn’t anything special or magic, it’s the same water we’ll use later for making the coffee.”
But what, in all seriousness, shall we say about baptism today on Holly’s big day? Early in the baptismal service, I read two passages from the New Testament. The second was from Acts chapter 2. I prefaced it with these words:
‘On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection. Those who heard the message asked what they should do. Peter told them:’ (Methodist Worship Book, p89)
And then I read what he said:
‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ (Acts 2:38-39)
I want to say this is all about anticipating the future. We anticipate future events. For example, later in the year we shall be conscious that Christmas is coming, and will make our plans. We shall ask people what presents they would like, buy special food, make arrangements to see family and so on – all because we are anticipating a future event. We want to get ready.
When Peter preaches ‘the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection’ he’s using that to make people think of the future. The resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the future, when God will raise everyone from the dead and he will reign unopposed over all creation. And what Peter calls his hearers to do is anticipate that future. In what ways?
Last Sunday morning I asked people how good their French was. It’s similar with the word ‘repent’. ‘Re’ means ‘again’ and ‘pent’ is from penser, ‘to think’ – like our word ‘pensive’. So to repent is to think again, and that’s what the New Testament Greek word translated here means, too. When Peter calls the crowd to repent, he’s telling them ‘think again’ – about the way you live your life, and change where needed.
I used to preach at a church that was on the ‘wrong’ side of a dual carriageway from the direction in which I lived. Every time I took a service there, I drove beyond it on my side of the road, to the next traffic light junction, where drivers were permitted to do a u-turn from the filter lane.
Repentance is like a u-turn. When we encounter Jesus, he makes us think again about the way we live our lives, and we do a u-turn in our lifestyle.
What does that have to do with anticipating the future? I think the point is this: when God raises us all from the dead, judges us and reigns without opposition, we need to be in line with his will. We need to start now – by doing a u-turn.
Last month, every class from Broomfield Primary School came here during the week to look at our building and ask me questions. One of the things I showed them was the font. They were intrigued by our small, portable font, in contrast to the large stone font at St Mary’s.
We talked about what it meant. They knew we put water in the font, but not necessarily why. So I asked them what we use water for in everyday life. Some said for drinking, and I could have made something of that answer. But I concentrated on those who said that water was for cleaning ourselves. I tried to explain that the water in baptism is a symbol of God cleaning us from sin.
That’s what the symbolism of pouring water on Holly has been about today. It has been to show that God wants to clean us from every sin. Have you ever felt dirty inside after doing something wrong? God wants to remove that from us.
And it’s done, says Peter, ‘in the name of Jesus’, because these gifts come to us from God through Jesus, and especially his death on the Cross, where he died for our sins, in our place. That’s why we need faith in Jesus – to receive this cleansing from all our sins that are a barrier between ourselves and God.
What does this have to do with the future? It means that at the Last Judgment, God will – amazingly –deliver a verdict not that we are guilty but that we are in the right with him, all through Jesus.
And that leads onto the third element:
I guess everybody knows that the central message of the Christian faith is about forgiveness. But what is forgiveness? Some people think it is pretending that a bad event didn’t happen. Others think it means excusing people’s actions, by explaining away their conduct. Others think it is about suppressing our anger when we have been wronged.
I don’t think it’s any of these things. True forgiveness looks the person in the wrong squarely in the eye, knowing where the blame lies, not excusing their actions, nor pretending we are not angry. But then, despite laying the blame where it rightly belongs, the one who forgives refuses to pass sentence on the wrongdoer.
And that is what God does for us in Jesus. He knows our actions are wrong, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. He knows we are blameworthy, but he refuses to sentence us to what we deserve, which is life and eternity without him. He discards the sentence and invites us into his family, which we do but handing our lives over to him.
Again, this is about anticipating the future. Trust your life to Jesus Christ and follow him, and you need have no fear of God’s verdict on you, either now or in the future. He knows where we are in the wrong, but he refuses to pass sentence. In fact, the Greek word used for ‘forgive’ in the New Testament means ‘to set free’. We are like prisoners, expecting to be sentenced for our crimes. But instead, the Judge sets us free by forgiving us.
Our call, then, is to receive that by giving ourselves over to Jesus Christ, and then to set others free as we forgive what they have done to us.
The Holy Spirit
So far we’ve had two commands – ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized’, plus one promise ‘the forgiveness of sins’. 2-1 to commands, then. But finally, we have an equaliser from promises: all who repent, are baptized and receive the forgiveness of sins receive God’s own presence in their lives – the Holy Spirit. Why?
At the secondary school we attended in north London, my sister and I had an English teacher who worshipped at a high Anglican church in central London. My sister once asked him why he went there. “I’m just a terrible sinner and I need to feel forgiven,” he replied.
“Don’t you feel that God can change you?” my sister enquired.
“No,” he said.
But the Good News is that change is possible. It isn’t just that God forgives us and cleanses us. As the saying goes, God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are.
And that’s why Peter promises the Holy Spirit to those who become disciples of Jesus. So that not only may God forgive us in Jesus Christ, he may also start the long work of making us be more like Jesus Christ. In that sense, God is anticipating us for heaven. The Holy Spirit fits us for the life of God’s kingdom, where everything will conform to his will.
Two thoughts as I close. Firstly, I don’t want our regular churchgoers here to think this doesn’t apply to any of them. Remember that Peter addressed these words to devout religious Jews in Jerusalem for a major feast. Sometimes, those who have been involved in religion all their lives need to hear the call to conversion as much as anybody.
Secondly, what does any of this have to do with one-year-old Holly? She can’t repent, she can’t understand her baptism yet as washing her clean of sin, she can’t appreciate the forgiveness of sins, let alone the power of the Holy Spirit to live a new life.
But today, Ruth and Mike make the promises for her, on the basis of their own faith. They do so, because they aspire to Holly making this kind of commitment for herself, when she is old enough to do so. Today, we promise to pray and prepare so that becoming a disciple of Jesus one day seems the most natural thing in the world for Holly.
What a beautiful day! Undoubtedly the warmest of the year so far, around 15°C or more here today. I’ve been walking without a coat for the first time this year, even without a jumper. (Don’t worry. It didn’t get worse than that.) So what better day for sitting in front of the computer and garnering a few choice links?
Allan Bevere is celebrating Lent with some jokes. Here is The Man Who Orders Three Beers and here is You’re Not A Monk. Special words for Allan – not only does he produce the weekly Methodist blogs round-up on a Saturday, he was also the first person to join my Facebook group, Christian Ministry And Personality Type. Thank you, Allan.
Some atheists want to rewrite history. Makes you wonder if they understand the baptism they’re decrying. Their point might make sense if baptism works automatically (‘ex opere operato’), without the consent of the one baptised, but for those of us who don’t believe that’s what baptism is about, this is more ludicrous atheist posturing.
If this doesn’t move, you nothing will: The 7 Life Lessons Of Craig Wong, 1972-2009.
Other than that, not an exciting day on the sabbatical front. More a time for some domestic jobs, like taking some old toys to a council centre to see whether they could be recycled. Buying a roasting chicken and some accompaniments before a church friend comes to dinner tomorrow: she’s going to babysit while we go to parents’ evenings for both children. Getting a repeat prescription from the surgery. Mark throwing a supersized wobbly, accusing me of stressing him (yes, he is really only four) when he wouldn’t change out of school uniform to play in the garden.
So it was good to discover Graham’s blog Digging A Lot with his Lenten series on finding grace in the smallest and most ordinary of things. Without his comment today on yesterday’s post, I wouldn’t have known about this blog. What a joy it is. Recommended to all my readers.
I’ve been dilatory in ordering the books I need for the rest of the sabbatical, but I have three vouchers from W H Smith, not my usual first choice for literature. Each offers £5 off books costing £10 or more if ordered by the 29th. They might just make the difference. So I’m off to surf there now; I’ll see you tomorrow, I hope.
On Thursday, I took two assemblies at our children’s school for the first time – one with Key Stage 1 (a.k.a. ‘infants) and one with Key Stage 2 (‘juniors’ to oldies like me). I am doing this as part of a team from two or three local churches. We are taking incidents from the life of Jesus this term. Last week’s speaker, Helen, used the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I couldn’t get anything together on the visit to Jerusalem when he was twelve. So, with the aid of Scripture Union‘s rather decent Big Bible Storybook, I looked at his baptism. I also purloined a doll of Rebekah’s, which Debbie dressed in the very christening robe she and her sister had worn as babies.
Further, I borrowed a portable font from church. It was interesting to hear the children’s answers when I asked them what I thought it was. Some thought it was an urn (wrong end of life, I guess). My favourite wrong guess was from the child who thought it contained tombola tickets.
Without going into the whole of my talk, I got to the point where Jesus asks John to baptise him and John protests, only for Jesus to say it’s what God wants. I took that as an early sign of Jesus identifying with sinful humanity (it’s OK, I didn’t use that level of language). Therefore, I said, it was a sign of what Jesus would do in his death on the Cross.
Thus I asked the children how they would feel if they had done something naughty and a friend offered to take the blame for them. In both assemblies, the answer was the same: ‘Kind.’ No worrying about whether it was just or ethical for an innocent person to be condemned in place of the guilty, they saw the heart of such an approach was love.
I couldn’t help thinking they might be further on than many of us who discuss the atonement as adults. There are crude statements of substitution that sound like Jesus was placating an angry God, that overlook the rôle of the Trinity or that forget the Resurrection. Some fail to see that the word ‘sacrifice’ is about more than a sin offering in the Old Testament. There are other images of the atonement in Scripture. (I owe use of the word ‘image’ to George Carey, who prefers it to ‘theory’.) Yet you cannot completely expunge some form of substitution.
And these primary school kids got the fact that it’s about love. Great.
For a more nuanced discussion, Tom Wright’s article for Fulcrum two years ago is always a good starting point. He is glad the church has not defined the theories of the atonement too tightly, yet he rejects both those who caricature and dismiss substitution and also those who hold onto it in a severe way.