On the first Sunday following the feast of the Epiphany the Church keeps the feast of the Baptism of Christ. Here’s what I said.
I’ve always felt it important to keep up to date with all the important news stories – so part of my daily routine is to read a daily newspaper and listen to or watch the BBC News. And recently there has been much of what to expect in 2019.
And it appears that given the coverage it got one of the most important and newsworthy events of 2019 will be – no, I’m not going to mention Brexit – one of the most important and newsworthy events of 2019 is – the Spice Girls reunion tour. Yes – the Spice girls, or at least four of them, are getting back together.
And already my heart is sinking – how many times this year will I be forced to listen to them singing:
tell you what I want, what I really, really want.
So tell me what you want, what you really, really want.
I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want.
So tell me what you want, what you really, really want
Over and over! And for those of you who would like to know what it was they really, really wanted – and I only found this out yesterday when I looked it up:
I wanna, I
I wanna, I wanna, (who writes this stuff?)
I wanna really, really
really wanna zigazig
No – I don’t have a clue what that means either!
A far, far better and more profound view about getting what you want came from the Rolling Stones with their 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
You 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 that’s what Christmas is all about – at least it was when I was a child. You want Scalextric – your mother decides what you need is socks!
We all of course have dreams, desires, yearnings, cravings – and hope that one day those dreams will come true, that we’ll get what we want, and as soon as possible. We’re not always very good at deferred gratification. Sometimes, of course, it’s not a good thing at all 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!
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.
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 who would sort out their enemies and make everything all right for God’s own people.
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’s message, though, was uncompromising and even more severe than the prophets before him. And he 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 or expected, 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. Jesus wasn’t meek and milde – he was often critical of people, sometimes angry with them, and on one occasion resorted to physical violence when he made a whip and whipped the traders and moneychangers of of the Temple. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? Far from it. The Messiah promised by John the Baptist is a Messiah who will rouse people from their complacency and judge those who have been found wanting – whoever they may be, however religious 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: “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.”
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. 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 Jesus 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 thought they wanted, but it certainly wasn’t what most of them actually 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 he will somehow look after us and give us what we want if we live a ‘good’ life. 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 salvation – and judgement for all who fail to live according to God’s will, 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? Because as he comes into our lives he gives us not necessarily what we want but what we need.
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 – again if we already have one – as we are baptised, however old we are. 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. This is something that Churches around the world do on this feast. We are going to bless the water which symbolically represents the water that is used at all baptisms – and we recommit ourselves to his service. And to help us remember our own baptisms and the promises we made (and for those of you preparing for baptism a looking-forward to what is to come next month), we are sprinkled with the water. Please turn and face the font.
At this point we gathered around the font. The water was blessed, we confessed the ways in which we have failed Jesus and then recommitted ourselves to his service. And then, to recall our baptism we were all sprinkled with water.from the font.