Reading Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
Preacher The Reverend Alan Sykes
Perhaps I should preface at least my initial remarks today with a health warning as they may not tie in completely with traditional Christian teaching. So feel free to disagree – not that you have ever felt the need, or should feel the need, of my permission to do that.
It has always seemed to me to be radically unfair to condemn human beings for being sinful when, it would seem, they can’t help it. Of course we have free will and so can choose to commit a particular action or not, or to cultivate a more loving state of mind or not.
But we are all sinners one way or another, Christians unanimously agree on that. It’s the way we are made, though I’m sure we do have some choice in the degree of sinfulness or imperfection that we embody.
So, you could say that being sinners isn’t our fault. It’s the way we are made. It’s the way we happen to have evolved in this universe that God has created.
Now, I’m not sure that the view I’ve just expressed is actively heretical, but the traditional view has certainly been that our sinfulness is due to the wilful disobedience of Adam and Eve, which we have in some sense inherited and which we wilfully perpetuate.
The bit of disobedience that I’m referring to is the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God had expressly told them not to eat.
I, and I suspect most of you, have difficulty in believing that the story of Adam and Eve – certainly that part of it – is true in any literal sense. That doesn’t mean of course that it isn’t profoundly true in a deeper, more spiritual sense.
Spiritually we truly have eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That is just an obvious fact. We know the difference between good and evil.
Over the millions of years of human development we have become aware of the moral dimension of life. We have come to see that we live in a moral universe. That may surprise us in many ways but I think in our hearts we all know it to be true.
Some people claim that good and evil are social constructs, that our apparent knowledge of good and evil has evolved and so it must be an illusion – as if taking a long time to realise something must mean that that something is false. A moment’s reflection will tell you how cock-eyed that line of thought is.
I’ve always liked the comparison that C.S. Lewis made between morality and mathematics. It has taken human beings many millennia to discover, to realise the truths of mathematics. Does that mean that these truths are therefore false or lacking objectivity? Obviously not.
Now, morality can be a cold, even off-putting word. It can congeal into a barren judgementalism, that is all too true. But the essence of the thing is much warmer. It’s the codification of the law of love. That which is loving is good, that which is unloving isn’t. It’s debatable, I suppose, whether you can codify love – but that’s a discussion for another day
You don’t need to be very perceptive to see that none of us live in a state of moral perfection. The older we get, the more we’ve been betrayed and hurt and disappointed. The older we get, the more we have betrayed and hurt and disappointed others.
Now, and this definitely isn’t heretical, the purpose of God is – and always was – to bring all things, the whole of creation, into union with himself. All things into complete union. It isn’t emphasised often enough in my opinion but that is the fully orthodox Christian view. Nothing less will do.
I don’t know why God created the universe the way he did and therefore human beings the way they are. This really isn’t the sort of information that we’re privy to. But let’s bear in mind two facts:
Firstly, we are alienated from God, we are separated from God, we fall short of his glory. However you want to express it, there’s something not right in our relationship with the ultimate reality that we call God.
That something is our lack of love, which you might call our sinfulness. Sin is simply a deficiency of love. God is perfect love and we are not. That is really all we need to know on the matter.
Secondly, it is God’s deepest desire to do something about our alienation, our separation, our falling short, our lack of love.
And that’s where Jesus comes in.
Today we remember the baptism of Christ by John. One of the great mysteries for the early church was why Jesus felt the need to be baptised at all. After all, he was the embodiment of perfect love, so what was the point, since the purpose of John’s baptism was to cleanse from sin, from our imperfection?
Well, I’m convinced the answer goes something like this. Jesus’ baptism shows his identification with the human predicament.
He’s not the representative of some colonial power – however benevolent – sent to in to save the natives from themselves. He is one of the natives.
Jesus isn’t some self-important, high-powered chief executive with a magic, perhaps ruthless wand who is hired from outside to rescue a failing business. He’s one of the employees working it out from the inside.
To be those things – the colonialist, the imported, self-important chief executive or something like them – will be one of the temptations that Jesus will reject when he goes – as he will do shortly after his baptism – into the wilderness and is tempted.
It’s that self-identification with his fellow human beings that receives the approval of God. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved’, says the voice of God. ‘With you I am well pleased’.
This affirmation from God is one reason why Jesus is able to reject that temptation to put himself outside the ordinary human situation that we are all in.
God is always reaching out to bring us closer to him, but he does it from the inside. Nothing is imposed. He works with what there is. We never lose our freedom.