This Sunday was the feast of the Baptism of Christ. As it happens, both Mother Anne-Marie and I were preaching. I was playing at home at St John’s while Mother Anne-Marie was playing away at the church of St Paul in Woldingham, another church in our team. So, this week you get two sermons for the price of one. At St John’s, immediately after the sermon we go down to the font and give thanks for the gift of baptism, following which everyone is sprinkled with water from the font, hence the end of the sermon.
Here’s what I said.
Did you get everything you wanted for Christmas? Or did you, perhaps, get what you needed rather than what you wanted? When I was growing up what I got for Christmas was far more often the latter than the former. It reminds me of the Rolling Stones song “You can’t always get what you want”, which Rolling Stones fans among you will know only too well – though I wonder how many actually know the last line of the chorus:
No, you can’t always get what you want
No, you can’t always get what you want
No, you can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need
For all of us there are things that we want. Things we’d prefer to have rather than things we might actually need. And, of course, those things might not just be the kind of things that you might have wanted for Christmas. We all have dreams, desires, yearnings – and hope that one day those dreams will come true. Sometimes, of course, it’s not a good thing if all your dreams come true. There’s an old Chinese curse: May you get what you wish for. Sometimes the things that we want are not necessarily good for us. And sometimes, we don’t get what we want or what we need but what we deserve – and that can be even worse!
Oscar Wilde once said: In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants – and the other is getting it.
Most of you will know the story of king Midas. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses tells how Midas, a king in Ancient Greece, does a good turn for the god Dionysus. In return Dionysus agrees to grant Midas a wish – any wish. Midas does not need any more power. His kingdom is at peace. He has a beautiful daughter. But however powerful you are, you can always find a use for more money. So, the story goes, Midas made his wish — that everything he touched would turn to gold. Soon there were gold leaves on all his trees, and gold flowers in his garden. He was rich beyond his wildest dreams. But the foolishness of his wish began to dawn on him when he tried to eat his supper, and found the food turned to inedible gold in his mouth. And then his daughter ran in to say goodnight and … even if you don’t know the story you can imagine the rest. Midas had to get his gift removed. He had learned that you have to be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.
Oscar Wilde again: When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.
The people of God wanted a Messiah. They had been wanting a Messiah for many centuries, particularly since their land began to be attacked and overrun by the armies of more powerful nations. They told the stories of the glory days of the great King David, and longed for a new David, even more gifted and powerful, to rule them wisely, to fight off their enemies, and to bring in God’s own reign of justice, righteousness and peace. Their king would once again rule from Jerusalem, their wicked oppressors would be punished, and they would live in prosperity.
They had been warned. Their prophets had consistently told them what the Messiah would actually be like, and that God’s judgement was not partial, that the day of reckoning would be an unpleasant experience as much for God’s own people as for their enemies. The coming of God’s reign would involve a judgement on injustice wherever it could be found. But through long centuries of foreign oppression the people had kept their hopes alive by looking always for the coming of God’s anointed king, and it was natural that they should imagine themselves restored and vindicated in the kingdom of God, and their enemies judged and defeated.
And along comes John the Baptist, who seemed a likely candidate for Messiah. He preached repentance, and talked about judgement. He spoke of God’s coming to his people. Amid all the fervour and unrest of Judaea under Roman occupation, the rumours began to spread. Perhaps he was the one they had wanted to come for so long.
John, though, was quite clear that he was the forerunner rather than the Messiah. He talks about someone else, someone who is coming, someone more powerful, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Is this person, then, the longed-for king, who will rescue his people and punish their enemies? They were so desperate for the Messiah to come and sort things out! Ah, but be careful what you wish for. Luke tells us how John describes him: “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This is not the kind of Messiah that many wanted, even though it is the kind of Messiah that the prophets had been promising for centuries. Neither is it the kind of Messiah that so many people today think that Jesus should be – people who think of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” – a Jesus who is nice to everyone. This Messiah promised by John the Baptist is a Messiah that will rouse people from their complacency and judge those who have been found wanting – whoever they may be.
Like the prophets before him, John reminded people that the coming of the kingdom of God is not an easy experience. The Messiah, when he comes, will challenge injustice wherever he finds it. He will judge everyone, God’s people included.
And then Luke tells us how Jesus steps forward to be baptised. And from the river the Messiah finally appears, baptised by John and ready to begin his public ministry. And from these quiet beginnings will come a revolution, a coming of God’s kingdom in ways no one had expected, and in ways which would continue to reverberate down the centuries.
The people had wanted a Messiah – but the Messiah they got wasn’t what they expected. And it’s one of the reasons why in the end the religious leaders wanted him out of the way. He wasn’t on their side judging the Romans, but judged them along with everyone else. The people got what they were wishing for, but it certainly wasn’t what they wanted. It most definitely was what they – and we – needed.
It is always easy for religious people to assume that God is on their side. That’s not how it is – rather, we must be on God’s side. Today we hear how the forerunner promises and then makes way for the Messiah, the one sent from God to usher in God’s reign. And this story of Jesus should warn us that the reign of God is both much simpler and much more complicated than we think. Simpler, in that it straightforwardly demands justice. More complicated, in that we can never be sure on whom its judgement will fall. For the Messiah doesn’t come to be nice to people, but to bring righteousness and peace and justice – and judgement for all who fail to live according to God’s laws, and that means each of us as well. Is this what we truly wish for? Do we fully understand what it means to welcome Jesus, the promised Messiah, into our lives?
Well, those who are baptized – even those who are too young to know – make promises, promises made in response to a wish to know Jesus and to see his mission fulfilled. It is our response to the call of Jesus, for Jesus has called each of us by name to follow him. That is why we are given our name as we are baptised. And today, on this day when we remember the baptism of Jesus, as he begins his public ministry, and we recall how each of us is called by him, we re-affirm our commitment as his people.
I’m going to go now to the font for the next part of the service – the Thanksgiving for Holy Baptism and an opportunity to recommit ourselves in the service of Christ. We are going to bless the water which symbolically represents the water that will be used at all baptisms – and we recommit ourselves to his service. And to help us remember our own baptisms and the promises we made, we are sprinkled with the water, just as we were at our own baptism. Please turn and face the font.