Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 13 January 2019.
One of the most precious things that we have is our name. It states who we are and is given to us by our parents. It may have a family history, or represent someone who is much admired. In some cultures, it represents the parents’ ambitions or hopes for the child. And so when we change our names we are saying something about who and what we are or hope to become.
It is also one thing that lasts after our deaths – the memory of who we were, and yet it is also something that we will take with us when we die – for the story is by no means over.
I certainly cannot conceive of how, if we are the result of a total randomness of forces and sub-atomic particles, we can organize and communicate to produce the societies and structures that we have.
But in the church our names are given special standing as we are brought to baptism, and we are formally named by our parents, and those names are accepted by the church.
Yet for Jesus baptism was something quite different. He had been named according to custom on the 8th day of His life, and yet He presented Himself to John the Baptist for his own kind of baptism – a ceremonial washing to mark a form of personal commitment in the sight of God of the profoundest kind.
John was offering this rite of washing to mark a personal turning away from the old habits and assumptions of life, in which personal demand and advantage had come to override faith in God and living according to His plans and purposes.
Jesus had never departed from the things of God and yet He went forward to receive this symbolic washing anyway. In this He was personally taking His place in the self-centered human rejection of God, and all its side effects in undermining and perverting and compromising all human relationships and transactions – but without taking part in any of them Himself.
Jesus was engaging Himself in every aspect of human distortion and violence and brokenness. He was entering every aspect of human corruption and degradation, and was preparing to take personal responsibility for them all, without personally having committed any of them.
When we want someone to take the blame for any particular disaster or sorrow or mishap – then Jesus has already done it, and all we have to do is to accept it and to receive it.
In going down into the river Jordan and being covered by its waters, Jesus was also enacting His own death and disappearance from human view or contact.
But the point of Jesus’ baptism – and of ours – is that He also symbolized something else, for as He came up out of the waters He was also pointing to His own resurrection.
When one set of lights went out with His death on the cross then another set of lights was coming on, and in this He also went before us, stripping from us the fear of death, even though we may all wonder at when and how we will die.
It was as He came out of the waters that He entered a new kind of life. True, His bodily organs were unchanged and yet God met Him with the person and power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus had just taken the first step on the road to the cross where He would encounter on behalf of all humanity the anger of God at the human rebellion. And yet, here God His Father was greeting Him and acknowledging Him, blessing Him and endorsing the ministry that still lay ahead of Him.
And yet here there is also something for us, for God also looks to each of us to respond to Him – and Him above and before all other things, including the institution of the church – in our personal lives.
This is where the words of Isaiah come to us:
‘Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.’
They have been expanded into a song:
‘When you walk thought the waters, I’ll be with you, you will never sink beneath the waves.
‘When the fire is burning all around you, you will never be consumed by the flames.
‘When the fear of loneliness is with you, then remember that I am at your side.
‘When you dwell in the exile of a stranger, remember that you are precious in my eyes.
‘You are mine, O my child, I am your Father, and I love you with a perfect love.’ *
What God said to Jesus at the beginning of His ministry, which would lead Him to the cross in our place, He also says to us as we put our trust in Him.
We may not know that the future holds for us but then we do not need to. No amount of fortune-telling is going to give us peace with God, nor can it.
Yet God is looking at each of us and seeing the potential. The sins and shortcomings He knows but He looks beyond them to what He has made and at what He hopes we may yet become.
Age and disposition are no barriers to this for the only barriers here are within ourselves – and they do not have to be.
For God is also looking at us and looking forward to the day when He also may say “In you I am well pleased.”
* These words are taken from Mission Praise, Combined music and words edition, published by Marshall Pickering, London 1990. The words are taken from song no 115, whose words are by Gerald Markland. Copyright is held by Kevin Mayhew Ltd, 1978.