Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 18 February 2018.
Anyone who has had to take a test – and it does not matter whether this is school exam or a driving test or a professional exam – faces a kind of day of judgment. Most of these day-to-day tests are relatively benign but there are other, more demanding tests and more severe penalties for failure.
One such was the judgment of the earth in the days of Noah when in the face of almost total social rejection, he was instructed by God to build an ark of monumental proportions. A length of 450 feet, a beam of 75 feet and a combined draft and topside of 45 feet. 3 decks to accommodate just about any and every kind of living creature together with their supplies.
But the ark would save Noah and his family from the waters of judgment, or to put it differently, they would be saved through the waters from the judgment of the floods by the provision of God and the obedience of Noah.
And so the rainbow, telling of both the sunshine and the rains through which it shines, would be a sign of God’s everlasting covenant never to judge the world by flood again.
The rainbow would be both a promise and yet also a warning not to take God for granted.
But the gospel provides a different picture, in which Jesus willingly entered the waters of the river Jordan in order to identify Himself with sinners and so begin His road to the cross where that sense of identifying with sinners would be brought to its completion.
Here the waters themselves were unthreatening and they were to symbolize the washing-away of sin and the turning away from sin into a new life.
Yet they would represent a move away from the things of the past and into a new dispensation and fellowship with God.
And yet there was also something new for Jesus who would be starting a new kind of life for Himself. Now His ministry would begin, even if He would first wait on God for a deeper sense of direction and in doing so would face confrontation with and temptation by Satan.
But here also Jesus would move from a personal turning point to one for the whole of humanity. Now the gospel of salvation would begin to be proclaimed and the world would never be the same again.
Whereas Noah was entering a new kind of covenant with God in which he accepted a new kind of stewardship for the world, Jesus was walking away from His baptism into a ministry that would take all that He had and was. It would confront and defeat the strongest powers that the world could summon and the most devious strategies that Satan could contrive, all the while as He took mastery over His own body and its needs and desires.
More than that, Jesus would be working to release humanity from its self-imprisonment by the demands and appetites of self while at the same time presenting the reality of the kingdom of God, the salvation and the forgiveness of God while not projecting onto His mission any demands of self.
In this the Kingdom of God was going to begin with and in Jesus Himself as He gained mastery over self in order that the glory of God may be seen and heard and found to be as active and as powerful as any other human authority or organization.
This was where His own humanity would be brought into complete submission to the will of God as He strove in all aspects of His being and personality to proclaim the Kingdom without personally appropriating it for Himself.
The authority of Jesus over sin and evil and the elements of the air and over disease and even death would be shown forth as He continued to deny Himself and submit wholly to the will of God.
Until recently baptism tended to be administered with few questions asked and few expectations placed on the parents of baptized infants.
It would be a family occasion celebrated in church. Yet the reality is more demanding, for baptism is the sacrament of the church in which new members are admitted into its life and fellowship.
As adults were baptized so they would immediately be admitted to communion and into the fullness of the body of Christ. And as infants were baptized it was expected that their parents would bring them up as Christians who would be able to express their own faith and commitment at confirmation.
I believe that there is much to be said for opportunities for each member of the church to make a personal declaration of faith before witnesses, even if these are other members of the church.
I also value the opportunity that the liturgy and practice of the church provides us in the annual renewal of our baptismal vows which we do on the eve of Easter Day at the Paschal vigil.
For it is here that we are drawn together into the ministry of Jesus in proclaiming His victory over sin and death and despair.
We are also commissioned with the same message that Jesus Himself had in proclaiming the Kingdom of God – even and perhaps especially when it goes against our personal inclinations.
But then we are also supported by the Holy Spirit of God – far more present with us than the occasional rainbow.