Sermon given at Evensong on the Baptism of Christ 2018
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
Sunday, 7th January 2018 at 3.00 PM
Yesterday we celebrated the great feast of the Epiphany, how the adventure of Christ’s mission and divinity was revealed to the world. Yesterday the focus was upon the visit of the Magi, and today we celebrate Christ’s baptism. A key theme linking these two feasts is that of spiritual journey.
Exactly 160 years ago yesterday, on 6th January 1858, a 21-year-old man was ill in bed. As a devout Christian, knowing that it was the Feast of the Epiphany, he read the Gospel for the day. Here St Matthew recalls the journey of the wise men that followed a star to find the baby Jesus. They acknowledged him as the promised Messiah, and offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Inspired by that Gospel, William Chatterton Dix wrote what has become one of the most popular Epiphany hymns, ‘As with gladness men of old, did the guiding star behold’.
Like many other Epiphany hymns and sermons it takes up the theme of the journey, the pilgrimage, of the Magi. Here they find in the infant Jesus, the God who comes among us in self-emptying love and grace, and who in turn point us on our own human journey towards pure Divine Love.
Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in a Nativity sermon in 1620, whose theme T S Eliot took up in his poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, spoke of the journey being at the worst time of the year, and a journey full of dangers, yet a journey on which they didn’t hesitate to set out, because they were so keen to find Christ.
That same theme of ‘journey’ lies at the heart of today’s feast: The Baptism of Christ. When we’re baptised our parents set the scene for our own Christian journey. Parents and godparents renew their own Baptismal promises, and they promise to immerse their children in the faith of the Church through their own spiritual journeys.
If we begin to draw these themes together, it’s not difficult for us to see that Baptism is linked closely to the paschal mystery, a movement from death to life, a journey experienced by all Christian people. When we’re baptized we rise with Christ and live with Christ all the way through to eternal life.
Our second lesson this afternoon from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians speaks about this gift of redemption, journeying from sin to grace, ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith’. (Ephesians 2: 8)
From this basis we see that baptism is a great gift from God to us, whoever we are, whatever age we are, whatever we have done, or whatever we might yet do. It relies entirely on God’s action, not ours. It is God who causes us to be born again.
It is God who fills us with his Spirit. It is God who ignites his light of love in our hearts.
It is God, through Christ, who washes away our sins in the water of baptism. There’s nothing we can do to deserve this. We cannot make God do it; he does it because he chooses to, out of grace and mercy.
Because of this, Christ invites us to make a lifetime’s journey into God’s Love. Each of us here is on a spiritual journey and God intends it to be the ‘trip of a lifetime,’ an adventure: the adventure we’ve always longed for. So what does this really mean?
In the 5th century, St Augustine wrote, ‘Our hearts were made for you, O God, and they are restless until they find their rest in you.’ (Confessions I, 1). If we’re honest with ourselves, much of this restlessness comes from sin, which is, of course, a turning away from God; sin is a refusal to love as God loves us.
But God does love us and wants us to find ‘rest’, in other words our fulfilment in life by living in his love without end. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’ (St John 3: 16–17)
This great message tells us that God’s Son took flesh and was born among us as the Saviour Christ Jesus and through his Epiphany and his Baptism he leads us to our heart’s desire: the God who is love.
Christ calls us to follow him on this journey which is the way of love: the divine, sacrificial love which leads us into God’s beauty, goodness, truth, justice, peace, and joy. This love is a great and challenging way to live because it must be lived in the face and opposition of the sin in this world, and not least in our own personal sin.
In the face of this sin, Jesus showed God’s love and was nailed to a cross. Yet after he died, he rose to a new, transformed human life, revealing that God’s love never ends and sin and death cannot defeat it.
On this journey of following Christ, we will all need to die to sin, be put to death within ourselves by God’s power in us, and rise with Christ to new life. This basic theology lies at the very heart of William Chatterton Dix’s great Epiphany hymn, but it’s also the path and pattern of our lives, the Passover from death to life, called the Paschal Mystery.
It happens over and over again, till the end of our lives. It begins at baptism and it’s the very way of love. It is a journey which begins at baptism and involves everything we are. It is deeply meaningful and totally fulfilling. We believe this is the adventure we have always longed for.