Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the festival of the Baptism of Christ, 2022
You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.
The Reverend Mark Birch Precentor
Sunday, 9th January 2022 at 11.15 AM
I was fortunate to be taught theology by a very sprightly former-Jesuit, one of very few who would still lecture in an academic gown. His style was like verbal-fencing; quick-moving, elegant, piercing, sending your foiled argument skittering across the floor, always ending with a stylish rhetorical flourish. His frequent theme, and lament, was the lack of proper care and concern with grammar. In my case, that was because I was taught almost no grammar at school (ah, the seventies!), but his point was, of course, theological.
You're not going to get very far in theology, he taught me, unless you have some idea how language works. If you don’t pay close attention to your grammar, then your theology will be at best, flabby, and at worst, nonsense (he might have said heretical).
So, I learned that it's not just words that matter—theology is not just a matter of vocabulary but how the words are put together—the syntax. It's not just the nouns, adjectives and verbs; word-order and conjunctions require just as much close attention.
Consider a line from our first reading today. Through the prophet Isaiah, The Lord is consoling and encouraging his people with the promise of restoration and protection: when you pass through the waters I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned. The Lord goes further:
Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
It is the kind of hyperbole that a proud parent might say of their child, or a lover of their beloved—I would give the moon and the stars for you! What conveys this sense of overflowing regard and affection is not so much the willingness to see nations fall away for the sake of Israel, but the repeated conjunction—you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you. Said separately, those statements would have a certain solemnity (You are precious in my sight. You are honoured. I love you) but strung together with a couple of ’ands’ it becomes a passionate expression of a love that will stop at nothing. You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.
There is something of this grammar at play in the reading from Acts. The apostles in Jerusalem have heard about some believers in Samaria, who have accepted the word of God and even been baptised in the name of Jesus. Surely that should be enough—job done—rejoice! But instead Peter and John undertake the considerable journey to Samaria to lay hands on them, and to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. It's not that the word of God or the name of Jesus is inadequate (how could they be?), but a physical connection brings something additional, more, ‘and’—water and spirit, Jerusalem and Samaria, apostles and believers. We see the making of new conjunctions in the infant Church, with a mounting sense of a passionate joy that will never cease connecting, adding, gathering.
The Baptism of Jesus, this feast day within the season of Epiphany, shows us that God is not just ‘this’; not something we could follow with a full stop. Instead, God is this, and this, and this. The man baptised in the Jordan is Son of Mary and Son of God; human and divine. He is not two things, but he is this and this, bringing together creation and creator; reconciling heaven and earth. If language is to do him justice, then conjunctions are necessary—repeatedly so.
So, we have the Son, and the voice of the Father, and the Holy Spirit, descending, we are told, in bodily form like a dove. This is strange. The Holy Spirit is ethereal—the clue is surely in the name—so why would it be incarnated in this feathery way? Perhaps we should remember that this is an epiphany, indeed a theophany; a showing, an unveiling, an opening of heaven, and a glimpse of God. The Holy Spirit is made visible, just as the Father’s voice is made audible, to help us see and hear that God is this and this and this; endlessly connecting, communing, loving.
This or that—Father or Son, Son or Spirit, Spirit or body—this is not the grammar of God. We are so used to grammar, to conjunctions that divide and assign (mine or yours, friend or foe, refugee or migrant); we think we can only know something by distinguishing it from other things with firm lines of separation. But there is a kind of knowledge that is more interested in how even apparently disparate even opposing things relate; how they can both be, and how they might connect. Desmond Tutu once explained to his critics that if you want peace, you won’t get it just by connecting to your friends. The revealing of God as Trinity, the revealing of God in the Incarnation, insists that we learn a grammar of integration, bringing together and emphasising connection, and a deep suspicion of all ‘this or that’ modes of thinking and speaking.
St Luke tells us that it was after Jesus had been baptised, while he was praying, that the heaven was opened, and the Spirit descended and the Father’s voice was heard. Being part of a secular academy constrained him somewhat, but I’m sure my theology professor would say that the best grammar school is the school of prayer. We will not speak properly of the Trinity and the Incarnation just by learning the right vocabulary, however erudite and impressive. The grammar of love, the grammar of the Trinity, ‘this and this and this’ is learned on our knees; in the celebration of Word and Sacrament; where our imaginations become less forensic and more poetic; gathering and adding and connecting.
It is a grammar that feels terribly vulnerable in a world that speaks with less and less subtlety; that insists on this or that. In such a world, prayer itself can be reduced to things either answered or unanswered, success or failure; a pitting of our will against the Almighty. But only in prayer can we hope, with Jesus (through him and in him), to glimpse the opening of heaven, and hear the one voice we really need to hear; the voice Isaiah heard centuries before; the voice that rumbled out across the waters of the Jordan; the voice that invites us into a new grammar of connection and communion:
You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.