Epiphany 1 – Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 10th January 2021

Genesis 1.1-5; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11

New year, new lockdown.

There are times when the readings given to us by the lectionary seem right on the money, speaking directly to our situation or the time of year. Normally, the start of a new year is the right time to be taken by our Old Testament to the start of creation, to the movement of the Spirit over the darkness, the formless void and the chaos; the Spirit who then brings forth light, and order, a new creation. The new year seems the right time to think about the baptism of Christ, the start of his journey, the event that propels him into an awareness of his calling and the task ahead. As the new year begins, we ourselves are often asking the same questions, making appropriate resolutions – what might I make of this fresh new year, what am I, are we, called to?

And yet this new year, the course of the pandemic makes it feel hard to turn over new leaves; the past is catching up with us again as we re-tread the lockdown of last year. Despite the shoots of hope from vaccines beginning to be rolled out, we find ourselves, this time in bitter winter weather,  back in lockdown, tired and jaded; anxious if we have the resources to see this through again. And meanwhile, over in America, we witness barely believable convulsions that threaten their transition into a new start, a fresh page. There doesn’t feel much new about this year so far. How might our readings, that invite us into fresh paths, speak to us today?

At the New Year, the Methodist Church often holds a Covenant service: a service of re-dedication, renewing the covenant, the relationship, between God and themselves. At the heart of the service the congregation renew that covenant in a prayer that can be traced back to John Wesley himself:

I am no longer my own, but Thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt:
Put me to doing: put me to suffering:
Let me be employed for thee, or laid aside for thee:
Exalted for thee, or brought low for thee:
Let me be full, let me be empty:
Let me have all things: let me have nothing:
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth let it be ratified in heaven.

On first hearing, it may appear almost shocking in the directedness of its language, and in seeming to hand all responsibility over to God – ‘put me to what thou wilt.’ Is that really what we want to pray, to offer to God in our hard times? Where is human action, our decision making in that? It could be read as a prayer that simply accepts our fate, accepts whatever God has in store for us. The Christian calling is to endure. Is that how we imagine God, however – as the one in control. deciding, almost cruelly, what happens to us. It’s a prayer that asks, very directly, what kind of God we believe in;  how God acts in the world.

In this hard year, in what sense is God in control, the pandemic God’s will? If that’s the case, what kind of God are we dealing with – at the very least, why doesn’t God do something?

In our reading from the book of Acts, Paul, on his travels, meets some disciples. Upon questioning them he discovers that they have received John’s baptism, but not that of the Holy Spirit. This is obviously an important distinction, one that can be traced back to John himself. In today’s gospel John is recorded as saying, ‘I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’ Paul describes John’s baptism as a baptism of repentance – a baptism that offers the forgiveness of sins. It’s an understanding that persists: baptism is often described washing us clean. But for Paul, in the baptism offered in Christ, there is something more: baptism with the Holy Spirit.

One way to describe that distinction is to say that in John’s baptism the focus is on the past; in Christ’s, it is the future. Repentance is about wiping the slate clean, having the past forgiven. Baptism in the Holy Spirit – picking up the language of our first reading from Genesis, where the Spirit moves over the face of the deep, over the formless chaos – that baptism is about re-creation, renewal, it is to be thrust into the future. For Paul, baptism is about recognizing the work of the Spirit of God within ourselves, and all the baptised; recognising the Spirit which guides our human decision making, offers hope and strength, brings life. Baptism celebrates God’s action in the world and reveals it as Spirit – not a controlling force, but coaxer, inner voice if we would but listen, uncoverer of hidden talents, bringing all creation, without undermining its freedom, into relationship with God, and therefore into relationship with everything else that is.

At his own baptism, Jesus hears the Spirit declare: ‘You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.’ Our own life in the Spirit begins here too, is grounded in knowing that we are loved: ‘You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.’ Here is hope, and strength; here is the voice of the Spirit  who nurtures our living, coaxes our freedom to be a little more loving, more hopeful, less fearful.

Our baptism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, is not simply some past event, but a reality to be reclaimed now, that points and directs us into an uncertain future. In a moment, as our affirmation of faith, we will renew our baptismal vows, re-commit ourselves to that God who has not got everything mapped out, is not ‘in control’, in charge of our fate, but is God because God does not give up, does not lose hope, but eternally invites us into the freedom of service of others, into a world bound together by the Spirit.

If God is not the great manipulator of events, but the Spirit of renewal, the creator of order out of chaos, then that Methodist covenant prayer powerful articulates a faith that, whatever the year ahead might hold – poverty or riches, action or patience, esteem or loneliness – we will not give up on God, because God does not give up on us. We will continue to hope because God continues to offer us hope. Events may throw us into confusion, suffering might come upon us; we will be newly aware that we are not in control as much as we would like; weariness is, at times, bound to be our lot; but none of this is the final reality, which is God’s inexhaustible love. In the midst of whatever the new year brings, we will listen for God’s Spirit, the Spirit that forever accompanies us and does not desert us. We will not give up on God, because God does not give up on us. A covenant indeed. Amen.

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