Reading Matthew 3.13-17
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
If you’ve seen the film you may agree –The Hobbit is good, but would be better if it were more like a hobbit; that is, a bit shorter. Martin Freeman is inspired, though, as reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins, finding reasons not to accept Gandalf the wizard’s offer of ‘an adventure’: ‘I can’t just go running off into the blue! I am a Baggins! Of Bag End!’ or simply, ‘Me? No, no, no, no!’ Bilbo is like Moses in the book of Exodus (this would not have been lost on Tolkien, the Roman Catholic creator of the original book), wriggling from excuse to excuse when God tells him to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites on their own adventure out of slavery in Egypt. This is the character of the God we worship, who does undreamt of things through unlikely people.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, and an unlikelihood of another kind. John the Baptist offers a new start with God. To those whose lives have become clogged and parched, and to a whole nation thirsty for change, John offers cleansing and refreshment through the waters of baptism in the river Jordan. Crowds flock to him, and among them is Jesus, the one person who does not need the fresh start John is offering. As the water is poured on him, however, he receives something different from what comes upon every other person. What Jesus receives is a kind of coronation: the Spirit comes down upon him like a dove, and there is a voice from heaven,
You are my Son, my beloved;
with you I am well pleased.
Let your imagination dwell on that picture: God, Jesus, the Dove descending; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There we see what no-one can explain but what Christians have always said about Jesus, that in him two worlds overlap: the world of human life, with all its hurt and inadequacy, and the world of God’s life, a sea without a shore, an infinity of hope and healing.
Like Jesus, I have been baptized and so have many of you. If you haven’t, or if you have never endorsed your baptism by being confirmed, then do think about it. In the Spring, we launch our course ‘Exploring Christianity’, designed especially for those among us who are trying faith for size, or who want to look at the fundamentals of Christian believing. And it can lead (though it doesn’t have to) to being baptized or confirmed, or to reaffirming the promises you made when you were confirmed, perhaps many years ago. What better time than New Year for resolving to take a new step of faith? It might be quite an adventure.
And if you have been baptized – perhaps confirmed too – then today, the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, is a perfect moment to renew the promises made then:
to turn to Christ,
to repent of sins,
to renounce evil.
Why come here at all, unless we want to turn to Christ again, after all the other things that may have turned our heads in the last week? and to repent of sins, after the things that have gone wrong since last we were all here? and to renounce evil, when the headlines show how much the forces of evil can achieve in seven days?
There are, of course, other reasons for coming to church: to meet friendly people, to have a good sing and hear good music, to see beautiful things, as you can in this beautiful place; or to be given ‘something to think about’ (as the cliché has it). Deep down, though, crossing that church threshold leads you and me to stand where Jesus stands; to come into his space, where two worlds overlap, where the longings of the prophets begin to come to pass, where our world, with all its wounds and hopelessness, is infiltrated by the life of God.
It is an extraordinary thought, as you struggle to get up (or get others up) for church, as you gulp the tea and gobble the cereal, that these humdrum preliminaries lead to here, to a place where two worlds meet. And it doesn’t stop when you cross the threshold in the other direction and go off to whatever awaits. To be in this place, to hear the voice of God in scripture and digest it, to take the life of Christ into ourselves in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, this helps us to remain in Jesus’ space wherever we go.
Back in the Shire, before he starts out on his adventure, Bilbo Baggins reads the contract. It includes this clause: ‘Present company shall not be liable for injuries including but not limited to laceration, evisceration, incineration…’ (they are, after all, going after a dragon). These are not things most of us are ever going to experience, and that is part of the point. Aristotle the Greek philosopher said that drama ‘purges’ us of emotions like pity and fear. He seems to mean that we can taste these extreme emotions by watching others encounter extreme circumstances rather than by encountering them ourselves. But we can also identify with what we see. Baggins’ ‘unexpected journey’ is perhaps one that you and I know. Ours may not be unexpected, and it may fell less an adventure than an ordeal, yet what we see on the screen may remind us of a journey we have to take, perhaps even in the coming week: the journey to the exam hall or the interview, the walk to the dreaded meeting, or the doctor’s surgery. It may be an ordeal because I am at fault in some way; or it may be that, like Baggins, you simply feel that more is about to be asked of you than you have it in you to give.
That will be a good moment to remember that we never walk alone, and to recall those words we just heard, and hear them now addressed to us:
You are my daughter, my son, my beloved;
in you I am well pleased.
Will God be ‘well pleased’ with us in that moment? Yes. Not because any of us is perfect – we have as much need of a new start with God as anyone who came to John at the Jordan – but because there, in that moment, will be a human heart that is open afresh to God, our God, who works in unlikely ways; because there, in that moment, there will be someone who wants to stand where Jesus stands, where two worlds meet. Then, when we face whatever awaits us, the Spirit may come down upon us, giving us the words to speak and the silences to keep.
Moses Exodus 3. 3.13-4.13
Exploring Christianity If you would like to know more, please contact Teresa Cross, Parish Adminisstrator: firstname.lastname@example.org
Aristotle See his discussion of tragic drama:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. Poetics 1.6