Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 10th January
So while we’ve dispensed with the customary decorations – the wilting Christmas trees, we still have our Paschal Candle and our Crib as a reminder that the light of the world – God incarnate - revealing what he’s like, has come amongst us – is amongst us now - in Jesus Christ. I love the fact that we have a faith that’s placed in One who has revealed what God is like ‘in the flesh’ – and by so doing has entered and made special our human, physical, material existence – One who understands our weakness – and loves to make us clean and give us hope. Jesus is all about restoring and making new.
The gospels introduce us to John the Baptist as a messenger who is preparing the way for the coming king - with a message for all the people, whatever their station in life that was simple. There wasn’t any fuss or ostentation; no clever gimmicks or manipulation – not even some kind of strapline dreamed up by the latest overpaid marketing company. It was honest & straight from the hip: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near”.
’Repent’ – metanoia – an idea
seemingly forever spoiled by the image of unsmiling guys wearing sandwich boards
or shouting through megaphones to make us feel bad – or those threatening
messages from dark chapel billboards. But the message isn’t about that – it’s
good news that says change your ways, turn right ‘round –– if you’ve been going
one way, do an ‘about face’ and start moving in a different direction. Change -
new life - is possible – the King is here!
Note that Luke tells us the people were ’filled with expectation’ when they were listening to John – and they had good reason to be:
Prophets like Malachi and Isaiah had closed out the Old Testament with the
prophecy that one of their kind would come before the day of the Messiah
happened. But the Jewish nation had experienced over 400 years of comparative
silence from such a message. God had always spoken in the past to his own people
through his prophets, but now that voice was silent. And to add insult to
injury, the chosen people of God were in exile again – only this time in their
own land under Roman subjugation!
And then John the Baptist finally arrives on the scene. The gospels don't give us much background on John because he would have been so well known. He was the Billy Graham of his day. And his ministry was to prepare the people for what Jesus was bringing to them. He was the one making the roads smooth and straight – like the servants who would go before the King to make sure the road he was going to travel was level - getting rid of all the potholes and obstacles.
And John cries out his simple message: “if the King is coming into your heart, make sure the road is smoothed out!” - Then as now John was pitching his message into a time of crisis – of darkness – of people thrashing about trying to make sense of it all.
Would they accept this king into their lives? Would they reject him in favour of the status quo? Would they say yes or no to his message of change?
Because it’s Jesus who has already said ‘yes’ to his Father in being willing to set aside his kingly glory and be baptised – and as the Epiphany events unfold it asks us to consider what kind of King is his birth - and now his baptism revealing to us?
Evelyn Underhill, that great Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, writing in the early 20th century says an important thing about our worship at this time of year.
The Christmas mystery has two parts: the nativity and the epiphany. A deep instinct made the church separate the two feasts. In the first we commemorate God’s humble birth into human life…and in the second its manifestation to the world…And the two phases concern our inner lives very closely too. The first only happens in order that the second may happen, and the second cannot happen without the first. Christ is a Light to lighten the Gentiles, as well as the glory of his people Israel. Think of what the Gentile was when these words were written – an absolute outsider. All cozy religious exclusiveness falls before that thought. The Light of the world is not the sanctuary lamp in your favourite church…(and)…Beholding his glory is only half our job. In our (lives) too the mysteries must be brought forth; we are not really Christians till this has been done. The eternal birth, she says quoting Meister Eckhart, “must take place in you (..me)”….human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their manger (their place) he must be laid – and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.
And the baptism of Jesus? Well it’s quite obvious that at this critical moment, with everyone watching what he’d do, Jesus chose what Henri Nouwen calls ‘the descending way’ – the downward direction. Just like a smelly stable to be born in; now it’s a muddy river that becomes the place where God chooses to tell us what he’s like and what he’s about – this was an epiphany – a revealing, this way of hiddenness – this ‘descending’ way.
He came to us - and comes to us still - in ways no-one would ever have imagined. No earthquakes, no sun falling out of the sky: just a tiny baby born into unceremonious surroundings, in a seedy part of a provincial, highly politicized, multi-cultural Middle-Eastern town – and now as a young man – never anything other than fully human - joining the ranks of sinners being baptized by John in the Jordan river.
At his baptism Jesus was aware that he had been anointed for a divine task. Serving God quietly as a carpenter in Nazareth was now a thing of the past. The Spirit had anointed him, and his messianic mission had begun.
Those watching see just an ordinary man going down into the water to receive baptism, as many others before. But as Jesus comes out of the darkness of the river, into the light, we see the One whom God loves, and through whom he shares his love with us.
This is the way Jane Williams sees it:
…We who have forgotten why the world was made – for loving communion with its maker – are given a new sign. God looks on the new creation, emerging out of the waters into the light, just like the first creation, and says to it – to him – ‘I love you.’…God is speaking his Word loud and clear, in flesh, living with you. This is the community that you belong to, the language you were born to understand, the language of God’s love for the world, now shown to you again in his Son. (As Isaiah says) ‘You are mine, I love you, you give me pleasure’. God speaks into the world, making and remaking it.”
So along with the wise men trekking all that way – and I read recently that Philip Yancey thinks they were probably from that region we now know as Iraq, rather than Iran (which makes it even more wonderful to me) – we celebrate Epiphany: the manifestation, the revealing of the very and only Son of an awesome God, who loves each one of us so much that he ripped open the heavens and sent his Son to die on earth.
And in all this revealing it becomes plain to us - that God has willed to show his love for the world by descending more and more deeply into human frailty
Do you remember that bit from Luke’s gospel, where Jesus announces what he’s all about in the Saturday morning synagogue service?
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Lk 4:18-19)
I wonder if we really understand how very radical this kingdom is; how subversive of conventional ideas of how power works; how at every turn all our categories of what God might look like are challenged? Clearly God is not saying “here’s a nice, safe, Jewish boy who’ll help us live nice moral lives and make sure we don’t offend anybody”.
No! What God was saying is ... “This is the Messiah - this is my Servant”, this is what my love looks like - and with him begins a whole new creation that will ultimately put to rights all we’ve messed up and spoiled...
The letter to the Hebrews says that God has, in these last
days, spoken to us through his Son. I often encourage people who are feeling far
away from God (ironically a God who is said by Alfred Lord Tennyson to be
‘closer than breathing, nearer than hands or feet’) to read this Old Testament
passage from Isaiah 43 quietly for themselves. (So do feel free to take away
sheet of readings - and find a time to be quiet – and to listen to God speaking
these words just to you. Insert your name instead of Jacob, or Israel):
I have called you by name, you are mine.