Sunday, 10 January 2016

Baptism of Christ: God in the queue

We’re now in the season of Epiphany. It’s not just one day, the day when we remember the coming of the wise men to Jesus, but a whole season – part of the greater season of Christmastide. Epiphany means revelation, shining forth. We’ve probably all had “lightbulb” moments in our lives, moments when the penny drops, when a new idea strikes us, when we see something for the first time that was really there all along. That’s what epiphany is all about.

Each week during Epiphany we hear another story of people having that lightbulb moment, spotting God at work in the midst of their own lives, right under their noses in the person ofJesus.

So, last week we heard about the wise men finding God in an ordinary family in Bethlehem, rather than in Herod’s palace.
Next week we’ll flip forward to the adult Jesus preaching in his home town of Nazareth, the local boy suddenly seen in a new light.
Then there’ll be the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana, a revelation of God’s transforming power at work through a seemingly ordinary wedding guest.
And finally at the feast of Candlemas we’ll go back to the baby Jesus, and to Simeon and Anna, who’d seen thousands of babies come through the Temple gates, yet somehow recognised this one as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel.”

These are all Epiphany moments, moments when the boundaries between heaven and earth seemed to dissolve. The Celtic Church called some special sites “thin places” – shrines, churches, holy wells – places where they felt the light of heaven shining through. These Epiphany moments are “thin places” too; places of revelation where God seems to break through the veil of ordinary life. They are times when people see God in an unexpected way, an unexpected person, an unexpected event.

And in some ways the most unexpected of them all is the story we heard today, the story of the Baptism of Christ by John in the river Jordan.

To understand why it’s so surprising we need to be aware of what this baptism was about.  Forget the baptisms you might have seen here or in other churches, like baby Elliot’s last week. The baptism Jesus went through wasn’t a joyful family occasion, with a white christening gown, and friends and family coming to celebrate a new birth. It wasn’t even like an adult baptism would be today, a time when someone who has made a personal commitment to Christian faith is welcomed into the Church with rejoicing.

Tintoretto: Baptism of Christ 1579-81 

There were no parties, no gifts at this baptism. It was a baptism of repentance, a baptism offered to people who felt grubby, at rock bottom, desperate for a new start. Luke sets the scene in the passage immediately before the one we heard today.  The crowds came flocking to John in the wilderness, but his message was a tough one. “You brood of vipers” he started off, which is not how I’d start a baptism service! It must have rung true, though, because they stayed for more.  The truth is that sometimes we do behave like vipers – all of us. We are venomous to others, toxic and destructive. It’s never easy to hear it, but it can also be a relief when someone speaks the truth to us, and that seems to have been the case with those who came to John.

“What then should we do?” they asked him. He replied “If you have two coats, share them with those who haven’t got any. If you are tax collector, don’t defraud people. if you are a soldier, don’t throw your weight around, extorting money by threats or false accusations. Be satisfied with what you have.” And then he dunked them in the water. They came up, spluttering, drenched, but ready to start again.

That’s the context for the story we heard today.  We need to imagine a long line of desperate people; people who knew their lives were a mess, collaborators, oppressors, people whom others had shunned.  They came and they lined up and they slid down that muddy river bank to be pushed under the water by a wild preacher who’d come out of the wild desert, because there was no one else who held out any real hope for them.

And in the midst of that line of desperate sinners was Jesus. What was he doing there? Why did he, who was love and goodness personified, think he needed the baptism John was offering?

That’s a question which was as baffling to the early church as it is today.  In some of the Gospels, John tries to argue Jesus out of his baptism. Jesus should be baptising him, not the other way around. Luke just implies that awkwardness in his Gospel – “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” says John of the coming Messiah.

Wherever it was that people expected to find the Messiah, it wasn’t in a place like this, in a crowd of sinners waiting to be baptised. But Jesus insisted. This was how it had to be. This was what had to happen. In him, God came to stand in line with the rest of us, to take on our imperfect, flawed humanity, to go down into the water with us, and be drowned, and rise to new life.

So this is a story full of surprise, just like those other Epiphany stories. They ask us, “Can God be found in a baby born to ordinary, poor parents, whose mother wasn’t even married when he was conceived? Can he be found in the village carpenter, or in an ordinary wedding guest? Can he be found in the man next door, the person you’ve passed in the street a thousand times without a second glance. Could this be the one of whom God says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”?

Christian faith proclaims that God showed up in the world, in a way he hadn’t been seen before, in a particular man, in a particular place and time. It’s something people have always struggled to get their heads around, though. Theologians call it “the scandal of particularity.”  What’s so special, they ask, about first century Nazareth, about Mary and Joseph? Was this a uniquely holy time and place? Were these uniquely holy people?  If they were, does that mean that other times, places and people are somehow less special?

We tend to make matters more complicated by putting the Holy Family on a pedestal – quite literally -  painting them with haloes as if they really glowed in the dark. We call the ground they trod “the” Holy Land, as if it were somehow different from all other places, the only place Christ could have been born. But the Gospel writers don’t do that. In fact, they seem to go out of their way to stress the ordinariness of the situation into which Jesus was born.

Their message was that God had chosen what was ordinary, or even despised and rejected, and had proclaimed it blessed. They wanted to open our eyes to the possibility that God might be found at work anywhere and at any time. He might be next door in Nazareth or next door in Seal. He might be standing in the crowd at the Jordan waiting for that baptism of repentance, or in the crowd in the migrant camps at Calais or the queue at the foodbank. 

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”, said John’s Gospel. Amen, we say, joyfully. It is much harder, though, for us to believe that he loves the family member we don’t get on with, the co-worker who let us down, the neighbour who behaves unreasonably towards us, the particular  people with whom we have to deal. It can be hardest of all to believe that he “so loves” us with all our faults and failings. It is easy to love in the abstract and to believe in a God “out there” who also loves in the abstract; it is when love gets specific, when it is about us and the people we know that we struggle.

But that is the message of Epiphany. God stands in line with us. He immerses himself in our lives, even in the bits that we would rather not acknowledge. He came to us in a particular person, in a particular place and time, not because they were special, but to show us that he could be found in anyone, anywhere at any time, including the here and now, the particular circumstances of our lives.

There is an old folktale that puts it in a nutshell. It tells of a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Abbot who were great friends and often talked together. The Abbot used to share with the Rabbi the troubles and frustrations of trying to hold his community together. Like all communities there were tensions and resentments now and then. But what could the Abbot do about it?  The Rabbi offered to help. He came to the monastery and met with the monks and told them that he had a message for them., “The Messiah is one of you” he said.

What did he mean? Who did he mean? The monks had no idea. They looked around at each other and thought, surely the Messiah couldn’t be him, or him, or him  - those irritating brothers who drive me up the wall.  But then they started to wonder. Maybe it was that annoyingly pernickety monk; at least he helped the rest of them see what they needed to do. Or maybe it was that infuriatingly dreamy monk; he had the imagination that the rest of them lacked. They each looked at their fellow monks, one by one, and realised that each one had a unique gift.  In each one they could see God at work. They even looked at themselves and wondered, “could it be me?” By the time the Rabbi and the Abbot met again the fractious monastery was thriving and at peace. The Rabbi’s words had opened their eyes to God’s presence among them.

I don’t know whether the week ahead for you will be easy or difficult, mundane or extraordinary, but the promise of today’s gospel story is that God will be in it with you. Maybe he’ll be next to you in the bus queue, or ahead of you in the traffic jam, or behind the checkout.  Let’s pray that our eyes are open to see him, so that every place can become a “thin place” where we can find the God who transforms us. 

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