Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 29: Matthew 3.13-17
In the olden days, by which I mean the late 1980’s, the height of technological advance at Theological College was the use of a video camera. This was to help students see what they looked like when preaching. We were all expected to ‘perform’ to camera on at least two occasions: the first was to write and deliver a funeral address, the second was to find some words to say at a christening, a baptism. We were given imaginary names, families etc to speak to…and then, once we’d written our piece the camera rolled and we had that rather humbling experience of seeing what we looked and sounded like to others.
I remember the general gist of my ‘baptism talk’. I based it on New Testament passages that speak of us dying and rising with Christ in our baptism. It didn’t go down well. It was not that the theology was ‘unsound’ or ‘wrong’. It was more that with mum and dad and family and guests dressed up to the nines for the christening of their beloved child a talk that focussed on ‘dying’ with Christ was likely to end up ‘swimming against the tide’ of bonhomie and joy. But we’ve already had a touch of judgement in today’s service, ‘mild threat’ as the cinema Board of Censors call it. ‘Drown sin in the waters of judgment’ was a phrase that cropped up in our thanksgiving prayer over the water and Psalm 29 seems to describe at the very least some great upheaval. So, in the absence of a cute baby to baptise this morning firstly a few words about water as a symbol of chaos and judgement.
For one of the key images of baptism – of your baptism and mine- is of being drawn out of the water, saved, rescued like a drowned rat pulled to safety on the shore or God’s love. On the other side of our baptism there is new life, a new way of living, a Promised Land. But the way to that new life, that new way of living, that Promised Land is by no means easy: we have to cross the flood, sink beneath the waves, know that all is lost and (like Jonah in the belly of the whale) seek help from God alone. For the people of God escaping out of Egypt there came that moment of crisis and choice at the Red Sea. Water ahead of them, Pharaoh and his army coming up behind them and then the instruction to make their way through the water. Water that could overwhelm them. Water that could sweep them away, suck the breath from them. The water of chaos that God set within its bounds at Creation and which He allowed to burst from the skies and rise from the earth at the flood when Noah and his family escaped with nothing but their lives: Israel had to go through that water. Each time we gather with a family at the font that dangerous choice is made – to trust God with every ounce of my being. Can I trust Him to bring me safe (not just through the Red Sea) but through Jordan into His Kingdom? Fonts are dangerous places.
Christians believe that our lives are in His hands, always, not just at the moment of baptism. For all our self-sufficiency, for all our gifts and abilities we cannot save ourselves. Sometimes it is by being put in the most extreme of positions that we realise this: for some it is guilt, for some it is grief, for some it is illness, for some it is despair (you’ll find all these echoed in the stories of the first disciples). Most of the time we feel invulnerable, we ‘manage’ or ‘get by’ but actually life is at one and the same time incredibly strong but also remarkably fragile… which perhaps is why those who know they have nothing (no inner or outer resources of their own) find trust in God so much easier than we who have so much. Were there any other way I wouldn’t wish it on anybody but we have to come into the kingdom of God with nothing but our faith in Christ, everything else washed away from us like so much wreckage. God’s faithfulness towards us is enough.
But on the other side of the flood, after the Spirit has brooded over the waters of the new creation and the heavens have been opened to allow heaven and earth to come together in our hearts then we enter a new world.
We see some of the characteristics of those who have been baptised in the description of the servant of the Lord given to us by Isaiah. Who was Isaiah describing when he penned these words? we don’t know. What we do know is that for centuries (and from the earliest years) these words have been interpreted as speaking of Jesus and we, as Christ’s ones, those who have been ‘Christened’ are to model our lives on His life.
So this servant, what can we say of Him that also applies to us?
Firstly, he is marked out by God’s approval. In the Gospels we see this at Jesus’ baptism (‘this is my Son, the beloved’) and at the Transfiguration (‘This is my Son, listen to Him’). But God’s approval of Jesus is most surely seen in the resurrection on Easter Day. The first Christian sermons highlight the great reversal witnessed between His death on Good Friday and His being raised on the third day. ‘You crucified Him’ said Peter to the crowds (after all, Jesus was thought to be a blasphemer, a false prophet) but God ‘raised Him up.’ For us I suppose this is a reminder that it is God’s opinion of us that matters: no other. Who I am before God? is the central question. Of course, we all love the good opinion of others and we are counselled not to be too hard upon ourselves (for heaven only knows that many folk lack confidence and have low self-esteem) – but my true identity rests in God adopting me as His child, everything else flows from that.
And then, the Servant’s work (our work) is bound up with creating new relationships between people: ‘he will bring forth justice to the nations.’ This is often thankless work: who’d be a UN diplomat? But even at our own local level how hard it is to bring people together. (Did your family survive Christmas? …many don’t). How often I sit with families that carry some great divide, some rift within them that cannot be healed. The apostle Paul tells us that we have been given a ministry of ‘reconciliation’: that seems to fit with being followers of someone who could hold together a Jewish Zealot and a tax collector for the Romans amongst his closest followers. It seems to fit with having a God centred sense of self definition that can help us to provide a faithful, persistent presence for good in a broken world.
That persistence seems to be a third characteristic of this servant. After God’s approval and working to restore right relationships between people, communities and even nations, the Servant (we are told) does not give up. Not for Him waving a big stick and cracking heads – no, instead he shows faithful, gentle but unswerving, rock-solid devotion to the task. ‘O Jesus I have promised to serve thee to the end’: the end really does mean ‘to the end’. You don’t retire from Christian discipleship so that you can head off on a cruise into the kingdom and God’s closer presence. Sometimes the path gets steeper and harder and the sense of His presence seems to falter. Don’t give up. Stay true. Hold on and keep on keeping on. Persevere. Stay faithful.
And a final characteristic? The servant is given as a covenant to the people. That’s a strange phrase. I wonder what you think it means? For me I think it means that He (and we) are to stand as a constant, faithful reminder to men and women of God’s desire to transform everything…absolutely everything. The church does this in spades: we take it for granted. In its work with those who are struggling the most; alongside the homeless and the poor; with those who are ill or dying; with youngsters who are in trouble; with young mums and dads; and with folk who struggle with their mental health or addiction; in creating welcome and community for those on the edges of society; in prisons; with those seeking asylum….you can add so many more examples. ‘A covenant to the people’ that God can do a new thing and we can be part of it.
All this: a new identity, a new task ( to remake relationships) a reminder to persevere and to be a people that speak (through what we do) of the undying, redeeming faithfulness of God – all this flows from that moment when we were brought to baptism and we plunged beneath the water entrusting ourselves to God and to His purposes for us. Who would have thought? – but what a privilege to be counted amongst those who have been baptised into Christ. Would we really have it any other way?
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