A sermon on Matthew 3: 13-17 & Isaiah 42: 1-9 by Nathan Nettleton
A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon is available here.
The beginning of a new year is a time when many people try to do some kind of stocktake of their lives, evaluating what needs to change and making resolutions for the year ahead. Birthdays are another time for such things. It’s my birthday tomorrow, and those of us like me and Yvonne and Jonny whose birthdays come around new year can get a double dose of life evaluation.
Anniversaries can also be such a time. It might be the anniversary of starting your current job, or the anniversary of a major health scare or of arriving in this country or something. Some married couples do an annual evaluation of the state of their relationship at the time of their wedding anniversary. What about the anniversary of your baptism? I don’t hear of people doing that very often at an individual level. People rarely mark the anniversary of their baptism.
Perhaps there is a good reason for this. Baptism, although it has a personal dimension, is not an individual thing. Every baptism is an event for the whole church. Your baptism began a committed relationship between you and us, and so it is the anniversary of that relationship for all of us. So perhaps it makes sense for us to choose a date and all celebrate our baptisms together. We can be a bit like horses which are all deemed to have the same birthday, regardless of when they were born.
And so, in fact, that is what we do in the church. Actually, not just once a year, but twice. The bigger one is at Pascha, or Easter. Every year in the Great Paschal Vigil, we recall and renew our baptismal vows, and the Lenten season that leads up to it is the time for the stocktake. The other one is today, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord.
On the first Sunday after the Christmas season each year, we revisit and celebrate the baptism of Jesus at the hands of the prophet John in the Jordan river. And in an important sense, this is the anniversary of our baptism. The baptism into which we are baptised is the baptism of Jesus. We are joined to him and baptised with him.
We say this at Pascha too, and the connection is also important. At Pascha and at funerals, we remind ourselves that death is the completion of our baptism, the final immersion into the deep mysteries of the Spirit of God. Our baptism begins when we are immersed in water by the Church in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and it is completed when with our final breath we place our spirits forever into the hands of God and are lowered into the earth in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there to await the final resurrection of the dead.
I was present as my dog died this week, and watching anyone you love and care about take their final breath and cross that line into death can trigger reflections on your own mortality and become another of those stocktake moments. Dusty of course, being a dog, hadn’t been baptised, but as I watched his final breath and wondered about my own, it didn’t seem like such a scary thing, and the sense of being finally and fully and permanently immersed into the deep waters of God’s love was very real.
So today and Pascha are not competing commemorations, but related. Today we contemplate not the end, but the beginning of our baptismal life. But of course, as I’ve suggested with new year and birthdays and anniversaries, our remembrance of the beginning is an occasion of reflection on the present and ongoing journey. And for me, I’ve got the triple whammy!
For me, reflection on my baptismal identity is always somewhat bound up with reflection on my ordination as a pastor, which may not be very promising in terms of finding connections to your baptisms, but bear with me. In baptism we are all ordained to participate in the ministry of Christ. I’ve been further ordained to a specific role as a pastor, but all of us are called to live out our baptism by ministering the love and mercy of Christ in the various vocations and situations in which we find ourselves.
I remember a few years ago going through a period where my reflections on my ordination were bringing up some feelings of loneliness and abandonment. It seemed that more and more of my pastoral peer group, pastors I was either ordained with or who are good friends and around my age, were walking away from being pastors. I started to feel a bit like the last man standing. And when you feel like the last man standing, its hard to avoid the feeling that maybe you’re next. Maybe the bell is tolling for me too, and I just haven’t realised it yet.
Some of them dropped out completely and no longer call themselves Christians. That was even more threatening. One who said he no longer believes the Christian story at all was claiming to be the happiest he’d ever been in his life. And I think he really was. So there was a part of me that couldn’t help responding to his enthusiasm by wondering whether maybe I’d be happier if I walked away too. And at that point, we are not talking about me as a pastor, but all of us as followers of Jesus. We are back with talking about our baptismal identity, and what it means to be true to it or to walk away from it. In baptism we committed ourselves to following the way of Jesus for life. But as we take stock at the beginning of a new year, how is that commitment holding up?
I’ve often said that baptism is a bit like marriage: it is a vowed commitment to a lifetime partnership. During that same period when several of my friends and colleagues walked away from pastoral ministry, I also had several friends walk away from their marriages. Most married people are familiar with the feelings that come if a number people within your circle of friends walk away from their marriages. As the numbers rise, you start wondering whose marriage is next, and could it be mine but I just haven’t seen the writing on the wall yet?
Part of what makes marriage work is the shared value we put on it and the solidarity we have with others who are committed to it, and that helps us get through the inevitable rough times or flat times. But when that solidarity breaks down in your peer group, it suddenly gets harder. And then some of those friends start turning up to social gatherings with devastatingly attractive new partners on their arms, and the nagging questions are always there in the back of your head. Maybe the grass is greener on the other side? Would I be happier too if I walked away?
These are tough questions, and when you go through a time when they come flooding at you, it can be a rocky time. But somehow for me, recognising that my niggling feelings about my baptism and ordination were really just the same sort of thing that happens from time to time in my marriage was quite helpful, quite reassuring. It reminded me that the feelings are normal and a bit cyclic. They just come around from time to time, and if I stay true, they pass again. It tells me not to take them too seriously and go running off and making impetuous plans. And it tells me that the difficult and doubting times are all part of the journey that leads to the life I really want to live.
I know that when I got married, I pledged myself “for better or for worse”, knowing that both would come, and that the better wouldn’t be realised if I wasn’t prepared to stick true through the worse. I know that the most wonderful depths of intimacy are only ever found by those who have the courage and faithfulness to persevere tenaciously through the obstacles and the flat patches and push on out into the depths together. There is no short-cut to that.
And so too it is with the baptised life, the life of discipleship. We may not have used quite the same words, but our baptismal vows were made for better or for worse too. Jesus knew this. If we read on from where we stopped at the story of his baptism before, we would have heard that the very next thing was that he was driven into the desert by the Spirit and there he was assailed by the devil for forty days. And when he got back from that, he heard that John who had baptised him had been dragged off by the security forces and was in jail, never to get out alive.
Jesus made no promises that it would be any better for us. If you want to follow me, take up your own cross, he said. In other words, sign your own death warrant. Follow me and you will be lonely and persecuted and disowned by your families. You will be denounced and ridiculed and locked up. You will receive all this and ten thousand blessings besides. But you can’t pick and choose. It’s a whole package. And just like the married life, the most exhilarating joys may only emerge after hanging tough through some dark days.
I’m not saying everything good is off in the future. Most married couples experienced lots of wonderful things together at the start. That’s why they signed on to stay the distance. And most of us were similarly baptised because we fell in love with Jesus and it was wonderful. But like a good lover, Jesus knows that the initial glow of infatuation passes, and the lifetime journey will have both joys and sorrows, highs and lows, adventures and boring lulls. And he knows that the discipline of fidelity in those flat and discouraging times is what readies us to fully appreciate and embrace the good times when they come again.
It is actually quite scary to take the next step into deep intimacy with God, and we develop the courage through our practice of tenacious faithfulness.
There is something of the wedding in the language and imagery of the baptism readings. We don’t do crownings in our weddings, but in the Eastern Orthodox churches they do, and the image of the Spirit descending on Jesus as he emerges from the water has a bit of that feel. He is being crowned, or anointed, chosen and claimed for life. And words of love and joy and commitment are spoken: This is my beloved, in whom I rejoice.
Our Isaiah reading too spoke the language of covenant and we heard God saying to us, “I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you.” Is it a wedding? Is it a baptism? Is it both? Either way, the really really good news is that God is unfailingly faithful. You can rest more secure in God’s love than in even the most perfect marriage. God will never fail you or forsake you or give up on you.
Even if all my friends walk away and I am literally the last man standing, still God will not abandon me. Would I have the courage to stay true if that happened? I can’t know. I’m not so strong or dependable or clairvoyant that I can predict with certainty whether I could stand alone. But I hope I would. And I pray that I would. And I pray that you would too and I hope you’ll pray for me, because that solidarity is part of how we make it.
But in the end, there is only one thing that matters: God is astonishingly loving, utterly faithful, and will never let us go.