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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

My Child, My Beloved: a Baptism Sermon

I sometimes think that going into the new-year, facing the January blues, is a bit like travelling into a strange country. We had got used to 2013. We were at home in it: it felt familiar even if we didn’t always like what it brought. January means a doorway. I know it’s only turning a page on the calendar. Yet it does feel like crossing a threshold where we have to learn to navigate a landscape that will take time to read and understand.

Throughout life there are thresholds to negotiate. Some like new-year are common to us all; some – birthdays, marriage, a new job, retirement, bereavement - are personal to each of us. But each time we face one of these threshold experiences, when we cross over and glimpse something different on the other side, there is to begin with a kind of exile. It is new, and a bit strange.  It’s like being away from home where habits are different and no-one quite speaks your language. And when exile is forced upon you against your will and you have to make your own way on alien soil, it is deeply painful. Listen to the displaced of the Central African Republic or Syria, to refugees and asylum-seekers anywhere.

Our first reading envisages just such a situation. The Hebrew community had been in exile in Babylon, struggling, as they put it, to ‘sing the Lord's song in a strange land’. For half a century, they’d had no reason to think their exile was coming to an end, or that their desperate longings to see their homeland again would be fulfilled.  Prophets like Jeremiah had warned that exile would be long and hard, and the people should learn to accept that this was the will of God, settle down and establish themselves in Babylon and more even than that, pray for the welfare of this godforsaken place.  But then along comes another prophet whose name we do not know though his writings are found in the book of Isaiah. He is full of hope for the future. He foretells that the time is coming when the people will return home, and glory will fill the land. Indeed, not only Israel but ‘all flesh’ shall see it together. The land will resound to songs of celebration as all the nations inherit the blessing once promised to Abraham, and the world is rebuilt on the foundations of truth, justice, freedom and love.

And this prophet of homecoming has something specific to say about Israel’s vocation as the people of God. What are they to do and be when they return home? ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified’. Or as the Greek version has it, ‘you are my pais, my child’. It’s a lovely phrase, but not a new one to Hebrew ears. Two centuries earlier another prophet had declared on God’s behalf in a moving moment of divine self-discloure: ‘When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I brought my son’. He went on to record the wayward behaviour of that child. ‘The more I called them, the more they went from me. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in arms but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness; I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.’  What parent or grandparent does not respond to the deep feeling in those words? So now, says Isaiah, the moment has come for the people of the covenant to realise in a new way this vocation to be God’s child, to be those through whom God opens his arms wide and embraces the world. ‘I will give you as a light to the nations’ he says, ‘so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’.

Our Christian hindsight looks back across the centuries to those words. It looks back and recognises that only one person has ever truly embodied that vocation. That truest of Israelites, we Christians say, is Jesus of Nazareth, the one who fulfils the ideal of the Lord’s Child, the infant who lay in the manger and whom shepherds and magi recognised as Immanuel; the one who called God Abba, Father, who learned to see himself as the child who must be about his Father’s business. So we are not surprised that at his baptism, when the sky is torn open and the dove descends, the voice echoes these ancient words of the prophet and cries: ‘This is my Son the beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

Today, as we baptise Alexander and Lucie, we hear those words again. ‘This is my child, my beloved’.  We hear them spoken to Jesus. But we also hear them spoken to the children who come for baptism, and we hear them spoken to each of us. For what is baptism if not to receive the seal of God’s Spirit that affirms that we are indeed children of God? What is it if it is not the sign that God welcomes us home from exile, receives us back from our strange lands, offers us his generosity, stretches out his arms of love and reaches towards us to embrace us, invites us through Jesus to pray with the words ‘Our Father’?  There is no way of life more dignified, more humanising, more fulfilling than living out this call to be God’s beloved child. The voice says ‘this is my beloved child’ and Lucie and Alexander say ‘yes’ to it today, yes to God’s invitation to become more truly a human being, find their truest selves, embrace the path of light and love, and life in all its abundance.

All this belongs to Alexander and Lucie today. In baptism, each of us is made ‘a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven’ as the old Catechism puts it.  A beloved child of God, the voice from heaven tells us, our names written on his hands: that is what we are when we become members of Christ. Like him, we are in the world to be children, disciples, servants, bearers of light and glory.  Where horizons are dark, and exile threatening, where so many suffer and peace on earth seems distant, where we quickly lose heart and hope begins to fail, baptism is a sign of the God who keeps faith with us. Because of that voice that spoke from heaven, we can safely entrust this world and ourselves to God’s Child who comes to us. With joy we journey on into another year and give a heartfelt welcome to Alexander, Lucie and all who want to walk this Christian way with us.

For if we are God’s children, God’s beloved, we know there is a future worth living for. The world, time, eternity are ours, for we are all Christ's, and Christ is God's.

Durham Cathedral
12 January 2014, The Feast of the Baptism of Christ
Isaiah 42.1-9; Matthew 3.13-end