Epiphany 1 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 9th January

Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

The New year, despite the dark and cold – or perhaps because of the dark and cold – often begins with a burst of optimism. In the setting of new year resolutions there is a sense of turning over a new leaf, making a fresh start. But this year feels different I think: I’ve not heard much talk of new year’s resolutions, and that’s perhaps because after nearly two years of this exhausting and over-turning pandemic, we are all too aware of how optimistic endeavour can be undone by events. It feels hard to plan ahead and chart a new course, when we are so unsure what the next few months are going to bring. And yet, our readings on this Sunday, the first of the season of Epiphany, chiming with that new year, always invite us to the baptism of Christ – and that surely is about a new beginning.

It’s certainly true that at the heart of the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ baptism is the declaration that this is where the re-creation that is enacted in Christ begins. The baptism of Jesus by John on the banks of the Jordan is the beginning of the story of Jesus that all four Gospels share: we have heard, of course, the stories of the nativity from Matthew and Luke; and John’s beginning in the Word existing before time; but those different ways of describing the coming into being of Jesus converge with Mark’s telling in this event: this moment of baptism. And the language that is used to describe it is rich with symbolism drawn from the biblical account of the first creation. In the account of creation in Genesis, the Spirit moves over the face of the waters, so that life and order emerge out of those waters that symbolize chaos and disorder and death.

So perhaps in our time of exhaustion, when hope seems in short supply, we need to first dwell on that entering into the waters that is the first movement of baptism. Jesus, at the start of his ministry does not set himself apart, but enters the waters along with everyone else, enters those waters of chaos and death. And actually, our present sense of things being out of control, disordered, is not something new to most of humanity most of the time, but a description of the human condition. This is what God coming alongside us looks like – an immersion into what life is.

The American writer Anne Lamott puts it well in this description of baptism: ‘It’s about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.’

Jesus baptism begins with an entering into, a drenching in, the human condition in all its chaos. And we know all about that chaos, a sense that things are out of order, even as we long for things to be otherwise. And in that longing we hear of God’s purposes. As Isaiah put it in our first reading this morning:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

And so Christ rises from the waters; and as Luke beautifully describes it, receives, in prayer, the gift of the Spirit, as he hears those words of the Father that will underpin and ground the life and ministry to come: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Jean Vanier, who helped create the L’Arche communities, told the story of Pierre, a learning disabled resident of one the communities, who was asked if he liked praying. ‘Yes’ he answered. ‘What do you do when you pray/’ he was asked. ‘I listen.’ ‘And what does God say to you?’ ‘He says, ‘You are my beloved son.’

Today we are not asked to make fresh resolutions that we might well fail to keep, but are reminded that we too have been baptised into that divine life of the Father, that names the Son as the loved one in the power of the Spirit.

We are reminded that we are baptised in to the baptism of Christ, who rises from the waters of chaos, into new life, that new creation which is God’s will for all.

And we are reminded, as we shortly re-affirm the promises that we made, or that were made on our behalf, in response to the gift of baptism; we are reminded that that baptism is not ours alone – we are baptised into the death and life of Christ, and we are baptised alongside and together with Christians throughout the ages. Baptised together into that new creation that Christ enacts and makes possible.

This last year, in the face of the climate crisis, and CP26, we began to talk about what it might be to be a Regenerative Cathedral, a Cathedral whose mission was to live in that new creation that is found in Christ. And there is no better place to start that exploration and journey than here, in the baptism that sees Christ plunging into the depths of our need and chaos, to rise into that new creation which is founded on the relationship of love that is held out to each and all. And as we re-affirm our baptism into that new creation, so we begin that journey, once again, with Christ as he shows forth what that new creation, the kingdom, looks like and asks of us. Amen.

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