Baptism of Christ: heaven on earth

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Baptism of Christ – window in Peterborough Parish Church

January is a time of new beginnings and also facing reality. With the hopes of New Year resolutions this is the week when sandwich shops know that resolve weakens, so they buy in more stock and the more tasty stock at that. It’s also the week when those credit card bills start to pile in bringing home the reality of Christmas spending. New beginnings are not always as new as we like to think because the consequences of past actions come knocking. Even when we think we are reinventing, starting from a blank sheet, we aren’t. Last year I heard Archbishop Justin Welby refer to ‘traditioned innovation’, which means our fresh thinking comes out of where we are. It comes from somewhere in order to get somewhere. It’s a phrase I quite like, because it is rooted and reminds us that all those leaps of the imagination are actually from what we know and can see to what we can imagine is possible, or probable. 

The leap of faith is one of these leaps – jumping from the world we see, the hopes we have, the signs of awe and wonder, to what we think could be. This requires a degree of humility – we might be spot on, we might we wrong, and the test comes with the dawning of each new day. Does it stack up?

Our gospel reading this morning gave us Matthew’s version of the Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3: 13-17). This is the beginning of his public ministry. It is one that comes out of the hopes and dreams of all that has been and what could be. So Jesus walks out of the crowd, goes forward like everyone else to be baptised by John the Baptist. In doing this, Matthew says he fulfils righteousness. We might say he comes out of the tradition so that he can fulfil it. This makes what John the Baptist is doing a bridge between the old and the new. Jesus doesn’t just stand in line with the past, he also challenges it . The kingdom he brings is not quite what they are expecting. Humility will need to be switched on and this plays out in the coming pages. 

There is a dramatic moment with whatever is meant by Matthew’s statement that the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. It’s an image that sites heaven just above the clouds. It’s an image we might scratch our heads over, having penetrated the heavens, the skies, into deep space and there are no pearly gates up there with St Peter on the reception desk. This is an image that speaks to a pre-scientific age about the realm of God coming down to be seen on the earth. Another way of looking at it might be with ‘Dr Who’ special effects and the separation between this realm and another being ripped open so that the heavenly can be seen. The fabric of the universe is split and another realm crosses through. Or with Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ and the notion that you can go through a portal from one world to another – you need a gate. This echoes John’s gospel when it refers to Jesus as the gate, the way, the truth and the life.  Metaphor is powerful, we just have to find the language that speaks to our age.

The dove, which descends upon Jesus as he comes out of the water, takes us to the story of Noah, to his floating zoo and the longing for dry land, for a symbol of restoration and life. A dove is sent out and it returns with a twig. There is hope. A dove is sent out and it doesn’t return (Genesis 8:6-12). The dove is the messenger of peace, of hope of promise fulfilled. The tradition will move forward and the new beginning is one of blessing.

The voice that sounds echoes Isaiah’s in our first reading (42:1). There is delight in the child of promise. The Spirit is upon him to bring justice. and he will have resolve to see this through. This is no mere New Year wishful thinking. But there is resolve to make it happen. ‘The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this’ (Isaiah 9:7). Remember Matthew’s key theme, ‘God is with us’, so this resolution will happen. It will happen because God’s kingdom is here, ‘God is with us’, and it is his reign that is being announced. The heavens have opened and we see in him what we need to see.

In order to see this we have to look deeply into the story of Jesus. His call is to live as people who seek the kingdom of God, who aim to live in harmony with it. We are to be citizens of two worlds – the earthly but also with the barrier ripped open so that we live here in the light of God’s kingdom and heaven. This makes that word ‘justice’ become a much deeper concept than what happens in Law Courts, though these are heavily shaped by the Christian story. All judicial systems follow the principles of the culture which defines the laws, defines the rules of engagement. I am often very impressed by the reasoning whenever I read a  court judgement in full. Judges have a way of getting to the heart of the issue at stake; they weigh up the balance of the arguments using sound judgement.

There was an interesting post by the Bishop of Manchester during the week. He spoke about what we mean by the phrase ‘all things considered’. What he was arguing was that when there is a major weight of evidence, as with climate change, to give equal time to the deniers is ridiculous, it is to unbalance the evidence. The key question is to ask what is the evidence and  then to balance it so that the weight is given appropriately.  The Bishop of Manchester is the Episcopal Visitor for the Society of Ordained Scientists. Our concept of justice is based on a notion that it is something that enables all to flourish and this has a long history. If this is not the case, if we don’t all have a sense of winning through it, then in the often quoted phrase of Thomas Hobbes, life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. This happens when we lose our sense of balance, of what lies behind the principles of moral development, of what makes for justice. Justice needs to be based on who we are and how we understand that. This is shaped by our understanding of the kingdom of God, which we see in the story of Jesus, and our aim is to live in accordance with it. We are just when we do this.

When we want to see what this looks like, we have the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t drop from the skies, but grows out of the Old Testament tradition and the journey of a people whose grasp has at times been firm and at others flimsy. It is radical in getting back to the foundation of the universe and in challenging when we have misheard and  when we have corrupted it through false perceptions.  So ripping open the heavens takes form in the ordinary; it becomes embedded so that we can recognise it and live it.

As we mark the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist at the River Jordan, we mark a moment when the tradition was both affirmed and challenged. Heaven breaks through into earth , a gate is opened, and we are invited to live in harmony with that radical call. This brings hope for both the eternal but also a challenge to bring about justice, where the good of everyone is advanced. “This is my son, in whom I delight.” Pay attention and you will live in harmony with heaven on earth.

Sermon for The Baptism of Christ, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th January  2020

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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