Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ: 13-01-2019
Isaiah 43: 1-7; Luke 3: 17-17, 21, 22I
There is a frightening rise in violence towards outsiders that seems to be happening all over the world. In this country we’ve seen everything from the extreme right-wing thugs of the English Defence League and such like, to supposedly respectable politicians calling for a ‘hostile environment’ towards refugees and asylum seekers. And it takes all sorts of forms from actual physical violence to ignorant language aimed at anyone who is ‘different’. You see the same sort of thing world-wide, and much of the unrest that results in wars and civil disorder is an expression of it.
Nothing can excuse bigotry and racism, but we’d better be careful before passing judgement. Most people who are tempted to this sort of violence feel threatened. Either they feel they have missed out on the comfort or security in life that they think is their due, or they are quite comfortable and well-off but think that others might be coming to take their security away from them. Maybe we just haven’t felt threatened to the same degree. If we did, we might be equally fearful and want to resist any changes to our way of life.
And that in a way is the background to today’s first reading. That beautiful passage from the second part of the book of Isaiah which has been turned into one of the most beautiful modern worship songs: “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine.”
It’s addressed to the Jewish community exiled in Babylon. Like many generations of Jews before and since, they have been persecuted, captured and driven into exile far from their homeland. But now, by the time of the second Isaiah, they’ve got used to their life as exiles. They’d had a couple of generations to settle down, build houses, plant vineyards and all the things the Lord had told them to do – they were quite comfortable really and didn’t relish uprooting themselves and making the long and arduous journey back to rebuild their ruined cities.
But the signs are clear to the prophet. And he proclaims God’s word of hope to the people he knows soon will have no option but to leave Babylon. “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine. Should you pass through the sea, I will be with you; or through rivers, they will not swallow you up”
Now why did he say that? If you look at a map you won’t find any sea between Babylon and Jerusalem. Well, it’s because crossing the sea has deep meaning for any Jew. Their memory goes right back to the time of Moses, when the children of Israel were led out of slavery to freedom in the promised land, and the waters of the Red Sea were held back for them to cross. It’s that event that they celebrate every year at the feast of Passover. That tremendous liberation when they learnt that God was on their side and God led them to their promised land. So the prophet we call second Isaiah was reminding the Jews of Babylon that this journey would be like a second Exodus: God would keep them safe.
But first they had to face the trauma of the journey. And if in this case they weren’t literally going to go through the sea, they knew that they would have to face some hardships and trials. It would not be easy, but God would be with them, and he would protect them like a father protects his child; God would call them by name, they would belong to God.
Fast forward 500 years or so to the banks of the Jordan. John, like Isaiah, is preaching about the change that will have to come if God’s people are going to survive and do God’s will. It’s not going to be easy, welcoming the Kingdom of God. You might as well drown yourself in the sea or fling yourself into the river Jordan.
So hundreds of people came to do just that. Well, not drown themselves, but submit to John’s baptism in the river Jordan, which must have felt as if they were being drowned. Certainly they were forced to abandon in that river any sense of security or comfort, and give up everything for the sake of the Kingdom.
And Jesus came, doing just that. He was baptised, and as ‘he was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ ‘Do not be afraid… I have called you by your name, you are mine’.
Fast forward another 2000 years, give or take half a century or so for most of us, to our own baptism. The Church – that means most of us, who shy away from uncomfortable truths – the Church has tried to take the sting out of baptism. It’s been tamed and gentrified (you can see that if you compare pictures of fonts in the very earliest churches: deep pools for immersion; or even early medieval ones which were big enough to plunge a baby in bodily; with the genteel birdbaths in genteel 18th century churches for the gentry. But the fact remains baptism is still what it always was – a death to the old life and a transformation into a child of God. The voice from heaven speaks to us at our baptism: “you are my son, my daughter, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ ‘Do not be afraid… I have called you by your name, you are mine.’
The people who leave most of their possessions, and often many of their loved ones, behind in order to strike out on a journey into the unknown must be terrified. Just so were the people of Israel who under Moses God led through the Red Sea towards the Promised Land. Their descendants hundreds of years later who were called to return from Babylon had to abandon the life they had grown accustomed to and strike out to re-establish God’s kingdom in their homeland.
And so Jesus. God speaks to him out of the cloud and declares his role: ‘this is my Son, the beloved’. But of course that is only the start. Jesus then begins his public ministry and faces his real journey. Which is not a comfortable one: it leads to the Cross.
God calls us by our name. In Baptism we are given the security of knowing that we are loved and known by God, just as he spoke to his people through the prophet all those years ago: “Do not be afraid; I have called you by your name.”
It’s in that security that we can face the journey. Each of us, in our baptism, are called to leave behind our narrow and limited security so that we can strike out on our pilgrimage. We know it’s not going to be easy. But if we don’t set out on that journey we will be forever confined to our narrow horizons.
Because it’s a terrifying, life changing thing to turn our backs on the cosy world we feel at home in, and face the unknown future. That’s why racists and xenophobes turn to violence – in their fear that accepting the stranger will change their lives. Well it will. And we need to face that fear too: our baptism calls us to strive for the Kingdom of God whatever the consequences to our security and comfort; whether it means literally welcoming strangers or welcoming any word from outside our closed world of set ideas.
But we always have the word of comfort from God. ‘Do not be afraid; I have called you by your name.’ ‘You are my son, my daughter, in you I am well pleased.