The feast of the Baptism of Christ is one that is rich beyond measure: it’s filled with images and signs, pointers to who Jesus Christ is and who you and I are called to be become.
It is a truly mystical and beautiful scene.
The feast of the Baptism of Christ gives us a great opportunity to reflect on John the Baptist, the patron saint of this church, and what that patronage might mean for us.
It gives us the opportunity to reflect on who Jesus Christ is, in his divinity and humanity.
It gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own baptism, the sacrament that brings us into the life of the Church, the Body of Christ, and that can, and should, shape our identity as Christians not just on a Sunday morning, but a Monday morning and day by day.
And today we have a chance to reflect on these things through the readings we hear and also in our liturgy as, after this sermon, we will turn, literally, to the font, at which we will give thanks for Holy Baptism, as we recall God’s movement in, over and through water. We will pray that God might wash us and cleanse in us in those life-giving waters. And then we will get wet! Water will be sprinkled as a refresher of baptism, as a beautiful verse reflecting on the water of life is sung.
But first the gospel reading tells us about John the Baptist, our patron saint in this church. As always John comes across as a dramatic, demanding and disturbing figure: we hear again his call to repentance.
The challenge, and question, for us is how do we hear such a message? Do we write it off through familiarity or fear, or are we like the people who went out to hear John, ‘filled with expectation’?
Dramatic, demanding, disturbing. It’s a fiery message! Does that make you expectant… or nervous?! Some people hear John as off-putting, certainly to modern ears. It sounds unwelcoming: you might ask, ‘can we be a welcoming church to all if we have that sort of patron saint’?
Sometimes churches mistake being welcoming for giving newcomers, and those searching, precious little to engage with: we lower the bar so people can come in, but fail to raise the bar in saying that something wonderful, beautiful, demanding, and yet, fulfilling is to be found here.
John the Baptist makes straight paths; he opens doors: ‘let the King of glory come in’ (Psalm 24). His figure is carved above the North Door of this church and carved into the very wood of the West Doors. The power of his message is that all are welcome, but that a living relationship with God is wonderful, beautiful, demanding yet fulfilling.
Indeed John the Baptist is profoundly inclusive in the sense that his message is that everyone in all humanity is in need of restoration, in our relationships with one another and our relationship with God: as St Paul later articulated it, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’.
In that sense John’s message is a profound relief to us all: because I am a broken person, prone to slip, slide and fall, - a sinner - my life is also an arena for God’s grace and forgiveness to abound.
John speaks of fire and water. Raw power. Flames represent the burning intensity of the power of the Holy Spirit. Like water fire can be destructive and also regenerative. Fire burns away the dross to reveal that which is most precious, like in the refining of gold and silver. The fire of the Holy Spirit incinerates sin.
Similarly water can destroy, wash away and also cleanse and bring life. It was over water that the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, moved in the beginning of creation, through water that the people of Israel passed from slavery to freedom and water flowed out of the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision bringing new life to everything it touched, even the Dead Sea.
All life begins with, and is sustained by, water: we’re each over 50% water! That’s one reason why the delivery of clean water to thirsty people and creatures is so important.
In each of our mother’s wombs we were held and sustained by the water of life, and at the breaking of those waters we came to be born.
No wonder then that the early Christian writers speak of the font as the ‘womb of the church’. The font, like the related word ‘fountain’, is a spring of water that bubbles up to eternal life. In the font a new Christian is born; waters are poured out and the newborn, the neophyte, emerges. In that way, plunged into the waters, like Christ descending into death, we are raised with the power of his new life.
Fire and water are symbols that speak of the life, vitality and growth that emanates from God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God who is revealed at the Baptism of Christ: the Father speaks from the heavens over the Son in the waters, upon whom rests the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove. The Baptism reveals the Holy Trinity.
The Baptism also inaugurates the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry with which we are so familiar, his ministry of healing, restoration, reconciliation, teaching, telling parables, his betrayal, death and resurrection.
When we share in baptism we become part of the life of Christ: we become God’s precious children; the wrench like grip of sin is loosened; God calls us by name to live in full human dignity; and we are inspired, literally ‘spirit-filled’ to live in restored relationship to God, to other people and to ourselves.
It is in that context that we hear Isaiah’s words from our first reading – words worth pondering throughout this week – ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’ (Isaiah 43.1-3)
There is something wonderful, beautiful, demanding, powerful and yet fulfilling here.
So now as the procession moves to the font please turn and face it. There we will, in the spirit of John the Baptist, make confession of our sins and shortcomings and then be renewed by the water from the font.
See there the fiery flame of the Paschal Candle of Easter burning representing the purging power of the Holy Spirit and the victory of Christ in resurrection life and then feel the waters coming upon you afresh bringing you God’s life, restoration and peace.