Minister's Sermon - Friday 18th January 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenFriday 18th January 2019

Isaiah 43:1-7

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

We’re in the season of Epiphany. In some Christian traditions Epiphany continues until Lent begins. In others - including ours - this is the beginning of “Ordinary Time.” A time when we learn again from Jesus, what it means to be his disciples, as we allow his life and ministry to shape our own. And it begins with Jesus’ baptism. Yet his baptism is also an epiphany. A moment when God revealed something of huge significance, for him, and for us. In Jesus’ baptism, the epiphany comes in the form of a dove, and as a voice. On Sunday we’ll read about water being turned into wine. But epiphanies can happen to anyone. At any time. In any place. The difficulty many of us have is understanding what “what 21st century epiphanies, should look like.  [Since most of us] have never seen the heavens part, or heard a divine Voice thundering through the clouds…” (1)

Each of the Gospels tells the story of Jesus’ baptism differently, because each of the Gospel writers, is writing for a particular community. In Luke’s Gospel we don’t actually have a story of the baptism. So, we have to assume that John the Baptist, baptises Jesus. All the Gospel says is, that after Jesus was baptised as he was praying, “the heaven was opened, and 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.’” And that’s it. There’s nothing about why. Or how Luke understood it. For that, we have to look at the wider context of his Gospel. Jesus’ baptism, takes place at the end of a long chapter about John the Baptist, and his work. We heard about John’s ministry in the 2nd and 3rd weeks of Advent. Luke tells us, he “proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It’s a phrase that worries many people, because it’s become so loaded with negative connotations, that in some people it triggers self-loathing or guilt. Yet that shouldn’t be so. The Greek word for “repent” is “metanoia,” and it simply means, turn around. Turn around and face the other direction. Thomas Keating was a Cistercian Monk who died last year. His teaching on prayer has had a huge impact in some parts of the church. He said, “Repent means - change the direction in which you’re looking for happiness.” (2) I find that really helpful in understanding what was happening in Jesus’ baptism as well as for us, ‘though for now, we’ll stay with Jesus.

There’s no suggestion that Jesus needed to repent, or be forgiven, for anything. But his baptism is the moment when John’s work is complete and his begins. Jesus emerges from Nazareth - years in which Luke has already told us he “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favour” - to begin his ministry. The years of being hidden come to an end, and what he has come to earth for, is revealed. Yet none of this, and neither the dove nor the voice, seems to be noticed by the crowd that has also gathered at the Jordan. This epiphany, it seems, was for Jesus. An epiphany that “affirms both his identity and vocation.” (1)   There’s one small word that confirms this. One word, that’s repeated twice, in this phrase. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” You. You are loved. I am well pleased with you. We us understand “you are my… beloved.” We do not need to do anything to be loved by God. That is a given. God loves everything, and everyone, that God has created. But what are we to make of “with you I am well pleased?” For me, this speaks of something Jesus has done, and I think it’s the decision he has made to emerge into the world from Nazareth. To accept his divine vocation as God’s son and the saviour of the world. If humans have free will, then as a human being, Jesus did too. He chose to embrace what would come. And as Debie Thomas reminds us, neither his identity as someone loved, nor accepting his vocation, “immunizes Jesus from spiritual struggle.  His temptation in the desert lies ahead.  Gethsemane lies ahead… And all four Gospels make it clear, that Jesus never outgrows his need to seek God in solitude and prayer…” But this “epiphany is a glimpse.  A moment that comes and goes,” which affirms all of this. (1)

There are two things about Jesus’ baptism that are matter for us. The first, has to do the affirmation of his identity, and the second the affirmation of his vocation. I’ll begin with identity. “For Luke, the ‘you’” addressed to Jesus, anticipates the “‘you” that God, in Jesus, says to all” of us. To everyone. To all humanity. Including those “we don’t see, [those we] overlook. And those we don’t want to see.” Karoline Lewis reminds us, “This is an essential theme in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus sees those no one else does - the widow of Nain. Zacchaeus up in a tree. Jesus tells stories of people whose goodness is defined by coming near and seeing those whom most refuse to see. The Samaritan is good because he draws near and truly sees the guy in the ditch. The priest and the Levite? They see, but do not see everyone Jesus came for.” (3) Everyone, every person here, every person we meet today and acknowledge, and every person we meet today and don’t acknowledge, is made in the image and likeness of God. Each is loved by God. And being loved by God, being seen as beloved, should enable us to see others as God sees us. This being loved by God, isn’t something we earn, it is given to us because love is God’s very nature. And God’s greatest desire for all humanity is “to embrace the core truth that we are deeply, deeply loved.” (1)  For this is the identity at the heart of humanity.

A couple of weeks ago some of you heard me speak about Kate Bowler. In 2016, Kate discovered she had an advanced form of cancer, when she was 35. She tells her story in “Everything happens for a reason - and other lies I’ve loved.” She was invited onto a drug trial which combined three powerful chemicals, which were adjusted, as the treatment continued. The expectation was that, her outcome would be best, if she stayed on all three. So, she tried, for a lot longer than everyone else thought was sensible because it gave her a feeling of control and she thought it would make her and her family happiest. But there was a moment when Kate recognised that clinging on to all three drugs wasn’t making her or and her family happy. And that really living, living well, meant letting go of two of them. What she describes is a significant moment – we could also call it an epiphany – in her life her vocation. For our vocations don’t only have to do with the job we’re called into. They’re also about what is revealed – what we allow God to reveal - through our lives. And it happens when she accepts that happiness – for her and her family – involves a change in direction. Instead of trying to control her future, she accepts what’s possible, and surrenders all that is unknown to God. And this surrendering becomes part of her vocation.

Kate could change direction because she knows God loves her. But like Kate, most of us struggle to learn this truth, because we find it hard to believe God’s promise. The promise we heard in our reading from Isaiah.

“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.” 

This does not say that God promises to save us from illness or poverty or any other kind of trouble. What it does say, is that God will not abandon us. I will be with you, says God. For God makes God’s presence known in many ways. Especially through the love of the family, friends and strangers who see us through the eyes of Christ. And in prayer. Especially the prayer in which we are silent and we listen to God. For it’s this prayer that’s at the heart of Jesus’ baptism. And allows him to hear God’s voice.

The invitation Jesus’ baptism offers us, is to remain open to God’s love, and to God’s invitation to change the direction from which we seek happiness. And we can be this open, because contrary to some traditional teaching, God’s love does not depend on us changing direction. God loves us regardless of whether or not we ever reciprocate God’s love. For when we can take the risk of accepting God’s love, all sorts of things become possible. Debie Thomas says, “We’re meant to receive love with open hands, release it back to God, and keep our hands open as we do.” (1) The way to keep our hands open is through prayer. So, I want to end by reading Thomas Keating’s words about the importance of silence to changing direction. Silence, he says, opens us up to “not only of our spiritual nature [but also] to the even deeper level within us: the divine indwelling which is our true centre. We can try to change the direction in which we’re looking for happiness, but we will not succeed without the grace of God. For a long time, we will think that we will succeed” if we put enough effort in. Yet “effort is designed not for success, but to find out that it doesn’t work. [And] as soon as we let go of this effort, even a little bit, some of the divine presence insinuates itself.” Silence allows “the longing for God to break through our defence mechanisms so that we can be motivated by love. From this perspective, it’s easy to negotiate the entire spiritual journey, because all you have to do is accept it. It already is. It’s been done. It’s accepted. It’s put into our hands. It’s poured into our souls by the Holy Spirit. And the only thing to do is to let God love us this much with this much absolutely free and undeserved and unmerited grace.” (2) Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen