Epiphany Sermon-the baptism of Christ

Another “guest post” from my husband.  By the way, he’s not twisting my arm to post these, it’s more the other way round; I feel they need to be read by more people than the average congregation holds.    

Isaiah 42:1-9 ¶ Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5 ¶ Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Acts 10.34-43 34 ¶ Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Matthew 3:13 ¶ Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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Do you remember your baptism? I don’t and I suspect most of you won’t. You were probably a baby at the time. But whether or not you remember the water, the effects are with you now. The power of baptism is eternal. It’s batteries never run out. It never needs re-charging or re-doing.

This was a big thing when I was at college training for the priesthood. Some of my fellow students wanted to remember their baptism like those who are baptised as adults can. They also wanted the experience of full immersion baptism.  

The college though was against this. The previous principle had even promised to expel anyone that had themselves re-baptised. 

You see this isn’t an issue about a good spiritual experience. Something to strengthen the faith. This is about trusting in God’s promises and in His eternal power. 

By being re-baptised they were in effect saying that their first baptism hadn’t worked. That God’s action was somehow deficient because they were not aware of what was going on at the time. It was about a lack of trust in God and a complete lack of faith in His Church. 

But that leads to the question of why so much fuss over a bit of water or a quick dip in a swimming pool?

Well by our baptism we are full members of God’s church. All of God’s promises are claimed by us, or for us if we are a little baby. From that moment onwards God is with us, working in us. We are part of the Church everywhere. And not just the Church of England, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches also accept your baptism. Sadly, that can sometimes be one of the few things we end up agreeing on! 

In baptism you are spiritually joined to Jesus. You share in his baptism, crucifixion and resurrection. 

So God is in you and with you; a part of you. But let’s get back to those fellow students of mine at theological college, good people, that wanted an experience. They were wrong – but I can sympathise. 

They were committing their lives, and those of their immediate family, to the service of God’s church. They had given up their jobs, careers, home and familiar church family. They were in a strange college. They had faith but they were weak, like all of us and like me. They were also anxious, and in need of reassurance. They wanted some sign or at least some experience that would calm their nerves. A powerful spiritual experience that would help see them through the years to come. 

They, like me and I suspect like you, had faith but also like each of us, they probably had doubts, sleepless nights and worries about the future.  

I know this is true for me, all of the time. I have faith, I trust but I also have doubts and fears. And the more important the situation the greater my temptation to doubt. 

I believe, (Lord) help my unbelief”! This should be my motto! It is the words of the father of a sick child to Jesus, recorded in Mark 9:23: “I believe, (Lord) help my unbelief”!  

This is what the experience of the Christian faith is about. What it is really about. It is a struggle between belief and unbelief. Sometimes it is easy to believe, things may be going well. Church is good, people are getting along and life feels good. 

Then without warning our belief seems less solid. We are tempted to stop our illogical belief. This is particularly strong when things go wrong. When we are ill, lose someone close to us, or our job… the list goes on and on. We are knocked off balance. All our sure belief seems to vanish like a mirage. But God is there. Like with baptism, He is eternal, all powerful and he never gives up, even with us; even with me! 

Now this is not to say that doubt is a bad thing. I think it is essential for the growth of a healthy faith. But that is for a different sermon on another day, perhaps the Feast of St. Thomas.  

Doubt may not be wrong but unbelief, the feeling of our faith crumbling, can be destructive. It can destroy us. Particularly when we pretend to ourselves that it isn’t happening. That is why that cry to God, “I believe, help my unbelief!” is so important. We admit our weakness. And turn to God for strength. We turn to him even when it seems as though he is not there at all.  

When I resigned my living 4 ½ years ago. I left because I was disgusted by the way the church organisation was treating people. I had given my life to the church but I could no longer continue to serve it. It was a dark time. But facing my unbelief in God’s ability to work through an, Oh so fallible church, was a first step to seeing how I may be able to serve again. I may be coming out the other side again.  

And you are part of that. Bishop Graham, bishop Richard, Fr. Roger, the people at Corton and you here in this Church, have all helped. You were one of God’s answers to my cry, “I believe, help my unbelief”. 

That simple cry is one small step out of our unbelief, our fear and our doubts.  

So, “I believe, (Lord) help my unbelief”.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

What if?

What if I am wrong about everything? About every thing that makes my own life meaningful and productive? About every single “given” I’ve always believed in, that my parents love me, that I’m an intelligent woman, that God(whatever you name him) exists and cares about us as a species and me as an individual? That all the events of my life have combined to shape me as the person I am today and that no experience however unhappy is actually wasted?

What if I am wrong about everything?

I’ve been here before, poised on this brink of the vast cravass of unknowing, peering into the darkness and finding the darkness has eyes that look back at me, that the darkness is the Smoking Mirror that reflects first what exists and then shows what may.

I’ve been here before, aghast at the prospect of a life spent without meaning.

So have others, many others.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things- trees and grass and sun and Moon and stars and Aslan himself, Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem  a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours IS the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there inst any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and settting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”  

Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, from The Silver Chair by CS Lewis.

Wherever you are today on your journey, rest assured, some one else has probably been here before you.   

Belief(or lack thereof)

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with belief. I’ve stopped believing in things most people believe in and I hang onto beliefs many folks have long given up on, for far longer than you’d imagine. I believed in Father Christmas long after everyone else had decided it was definitely your mum and dad; I still do, to tell you the truth. It’s based on some fairly complex metaphysics these days, but back at age five, it was based on the empirical evidence of my own ears. You see, I heard the sleigh bells on the roof, one Christmas. The fact(eagerly pointed out to me by my older brother) that we lived in a Victorian house with a system of interconnecting chimneys, and I surely heard the sound transmitted from downstairs fireplace to my bedroom fireplace, where my father sat wrapping a jingly toy by the fire, and not from the roof as I thought, simply didn’t dent my belief that father Christmas was a real entity. I still believe it, now aged almost 43.

I don’t for example believe in Red Nose Day or Children in Need, Sport Aid or any of the other media fuelled charity blow outs this country seems to delight in. My bus driver today wore a red curly wig and a red nose; I suspect he wasn’t happy about it but you can’t go against the mass without jeopardising your place by the fire. I fully accept they raise a massive amount of much needed money for great causes. But I don’t believe they are the best way. They actually create charity fatigue; people get fed up with it and it’s a fair bet many give out of guilt and a fear of looking mean. I also have a cynical concern that a vast amount of the money raised vanishes in costs and administration.

I also don’t believe in the essential goodness of people, despite plenty of evidence experienced personally. This is based largely on statistics; in short, the sums just don’t add up.  If people were basically good, then the world would not be in the mess it seems to be in right now.

My current belief in God wavers; I suspect God not only exists and I’d also be willing to bet that He/She is basically benign. But also mainly unknowable. If you haven’t ever read “Mister God, this is Anna,” I’d highly recommend it; I think it ought to be required reading at every Bible college, vicar factory, theological college and seminary in the world. In one section, Anna, the eponymous heroine(an eight year old orphan) is watching some ants and tried to explain to Fyn, the author, that however much she loves the ants, there is no way for her to ever convey that love to the ants. Too much of a gulf exists for her to be able to make the ants know of her love. For me, in many ways, this is how I feel, a slightly enlightened ant, knowing that God is unknowable to me in my ant state but having a dim idea that he/she exists and probably loves me.

But, being me, the biggest thing I don’t and cannot believe in, is simply myself.

I have tried. Endlessly. And without success. Others do; others tell me I should believe in myself. I am told I have plenty to believe in, but when I try, nada.

I understand that faith is a gift, a grace if you like. I had a friend who was dying, some years ago. I spent a lot of time with him, massaging his feet and listening and talking. He wanted to believe in God, he really did. He envied his wife and her faith, but even though he wanted to, he simply never reached a point fo faith. I went to see him up until five days before his death, when cellular breakdown meant I could no longer touch his feet without causing serum to leak through his skin; he was the first person who I saw after death. I stood in the room while my husband said the prayers for the dead, holding hands with the family and friends and I could feel him in the room, a peaceful presence. His shell looked very peaceful and it no longer looked even remotely like him. I had the very strong feeling he knew now what he had been unable to believe in life, and it was good. His spirit appeared a few days later to a family member who had been unable to get to visit in the last days; he told her he was surrounded by light, and that it was just wonderful and then he vanished.

I’d like to be given a gift of faith, not just in God, because I have that to some extent, but in myself.