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.
Quite a difference this week. Last Sunday I was invited to preach in a Baptist church and was given half an hour for the sermon. You may have noticed the sermon was longer than usual. Tomorrow it’s an Anglican church where a friend is the priest in charge, and my limit is fifteen minutes.
When my sister left home for college, she went to study in York. It wasn’t very long before her North London accent gained a North Yorkshire twang. We seem to have a knack for picking up other people’s accents in our family.
Then one summer she went on placement to Ipswich. One Saturday afternoon I took a phone call. There was a strange-sounding young woman on the other line. It took me a minute or two to realise this was my sister. London plus Yorkshire plus East Anglia made for a confusing accent, further magnified by the telephone line. Perhaps my sister above all exemplifies this family trait of picking up accents.
As Christians, we are called to pick up an accent, too – the accent of Jesus. Not that I mean we should speak in a first century Palestinian dialect – as if we could know what that sounded like anyway. But rather, our calling as disciples is to pick up the accent of his life. The New Testament says we are to imitate him.
So I want to take today’s Gospel reading and ask about the ways in which we might imitate Jesus.
Firstly, Jesus is filled with the Spirit. He has come out of the wilderness temptations and the first thing we hear is that ‘filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee’ and that created a stir (verse 14). When he enters the Nazareth synagogue, he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and begins reading from what we call chapter 61, with the words, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ (verse 18).
And if you’ve been reading Luke not in little chunks like we do on Sundays, but from cover to cover, you’ll get this message even more clearly. Jesus has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, and at his baptism he has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. You just can’t get away from Luke telling us an important point: whatever Jesus’ special divine status, he conducts his entire ministry dependent upon the power of the Holy Spirit.
And if he does, how much more do we need to do the same. If the Son of God needed to live this way on earth, what price us?
But what does this mean for us? After all, the Spirit of God dwells within each of us from the time our faith in Christ begins. We cannot allow that fact to lull us into complacency. Too many churches and Christians work on auto-pilot. So much of what we do and how we behave is little different from any other organisations or individuals.
So certainly we should all make it a matter of prayer that God would fill us with his Spirit, again and again. None of us can trade on past glories. As has often been said, the church is always just one generation from extinction.
Yet also we cannot sit around simply waiting for a powerful spiritual experience before doing anything for the kingdom of God. What strikes me about Jesus and the Spirit in this passage (and generally in Luke) is that, having received the Holy Spirit, Jesus gets on with what the Father wants him to do. There is no bargaining. He knows he has received the Spirit, and he sets to work. Perhaps some of us know perfectly well what God has called us to do, but we keep employing delaying tactics. Yet if we have received the Spirit when we found Christ, why are we doing that? Truly Spirit-filled people make a difference for the kingdom.
Secondly, Jesus has a message of freedom. It seems to me that ‘freedom’ is a major theme of the verses Jesus reads from Isaiah. The obvious examples are ‘release to the captives’ and ‘to let the oppressed go free’, but ‘good news to the poor’ and ‘recovery of sight to the blind’ are kinds of freedom, too. (Verse 18)
We know that Jesus put this manifesto into action. He dignified the poor by proclaiming the good news to those beyond the pale. He set the captives and oppressed free when he commanded demons to go. He healed the blind and the sick. His was a wide-ranging message of freedom that was proclaimed in word and deed. He evangelised. He healed and delivered. And while he wasn’t directly political, the implications for social justice are present in his ministry.
Our imitation of Christ, then, is to be bearers of a message of freedom. It comes in the gospel theme of forgiveness. The Greek word translated ‘forgive’ in the New Testament means ‘set free’, and that is what forgiveness is. When we forgive somebody, we set them free from the obligations they are under to us. They are no longer bound to us. Not only that, when we forgive, we set ourselves free. For the alternative is bitterness, and that binds us tightly.
We bring freedom to others when our hearts are moved with the compassion of Christ for their plight. For some, that may involve the ‘miraculous’. For others, it may mean trailblazing a way forward in care for those in need. Why do we have hospitals today? Because Christians of earlier generations invented the infirmary. Why does Karen, your priest, conduct funerals for all and sundry in the parish? It isn’t simply because the Church of England is the Established Church in this country. It’s also because in the earliest days of Christianity, disciples of Jesus took pity on those who could not give their loved ones a proper burial.
Or what about this? The other day, our six-year-old daughter discovered that some of her friends wouldn’t play with another girl, because she was black. Our daughter set out to be the black girl’s friend. Even at six, she knows racism is wrong in the sight of God. Now if a six-year-old can do something in Christ’s name for justice, what about us? Ours is the precious message of freedom, as we imitate Christ and anticipate God’s new creation by showing glimpses of God’s kingdom.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus brings the fulfilment of God’s promises. In just over six months’ time, we shall be leaving Chelmsford for a new appointment. The profile of the appointment is very close to what I feel I can offer as a minister. My wife can see where she can get involved on behalf of the church in the community. The schools look quite promising. The manse (which being translated to Anglicans is ‘vicarage’) is more suitable than the one we live in here.
So there’s a level of excitement I feel – but we have to wait until early August when we move!
The Jewish people had been waiting, not for six months, but for centuries, for the promised Deliverer, the Messiah. Now Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). You don’t have to wait any longer, he says.
We imitate Jesus by bringing a message of fulfilment, too. All around our communities and across the world are people waiting for something or someone that will give them hope. They may be damaged by the hurtful actions of loved ones. They – or someone they love – may be bound by dreadful illness or bereavement. They may be victims of injustice. There may just be an aching emptiness in their hearts, because they have believed our society and bought one possession after another in pursuit of happiness, only to find they might as well be chasing the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.
And we have the privilege to say to such people, you don’t have to wait any longer. Your emptiness, your pain or your brokenness can be healed, because there is a God who loves you. He loves you enough to give up his only Son for you.
Now that is exactly why we hear calls to be a ‘Mission Shaped Church’ – because unless the church is about mission, she is not truly the church. It is why our two denominations – and now also joined by the United Reformed Church – co-operate on the Fresh Expressions project to reach out to people within their own cultures. It’s why although not every Christian is an evangelist, every Christian is a witness. Each one of us can speak about our experience of Christ.
Because that’s what happens when – like Jesus – we are filled with the Spirit and have a message of freedom. The time is now.