Sermon – 13 January 2019

Baptism of Christ 

Isaiah 43 1-7

Luke 2.15-17, 21-22

Let me take you on a journey in time and space….

We’re going to travel 5.5k miles – according to my phone this will take 131 hours if we go via the A3. Better fly – that’s 8 hours.

In the process we’re going to go back in time 8 years and one week, and also adopt a different clock.

So if we were to land now – I wonder where – it would be 4.30 on 6 January 2011. And if we were to wait 5 days, and start our flight very early on Friday, we would arrive – yes, in Ethiopia – on a very important day: 11 January: Timkat, the feast of the Baptism of Christ, when huge crowds gather at traditionally sacred lakes, rivers and tanks to celebrate and re-enact Christ’s baptism and their own.  It’s one of the four great festivals of the Ethiopian church year, on a par with Christmas….

If you feel disoriented by this journey to a land where many things are just slightly at an angle to what we are used to, don’t worry. That tends to be the effect that Ethiopia has, and it certainly brings some of the things we take for granted into much sharper focus. For example, if you live on the equator and daylight always lasts the same 12 hours, what would be the logic in starting to count the hours in the middle of the darkness – surely it makes much more sense to count from sunrise, reliable as clockwork at 6 am our time? And instead of having months of different lengths, with elaborate rhymes to help us remember which is how long, why not have 12 months of 30 days with the leftovers – 5 or 6 depending if its leap year – bundled together together in a 13th month at the end of the year – a perfect occasion for celebration….?

My two visits to Ethiopia have been amazing in many ways, not least because of these challenges to the way I think – the things I take for granted. And its not just a matter of clocks and calendars. Ethiopia has one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world, and the early church there wasn’t established in the face of rejection and persecution, by Jews and ruling Romans,  but developed far more seamlessly from the Jewish tradition established at the time of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Nor was Ethiopia ever a European colony – the great missionary societies of the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches never established themselves and their Western traditions of liturgy and behaviour, displacing local customs and beliefs. The effect of all this, as with so many other aspects of Ethiopian life and culture, is that familiarity is tempered with strangeness in everything from church architecture and design to worship, with hundreds of unfamiliar saints who were the fathers of the Ethiopian church, and a very different focus, at least in the historic churches, on the nature of God and on who Jesus was and is. When we approach Christian traditions different from our own one of the challenges is to see through the strangeness to the things we share – the beliefs that shape every Christian.

Our churches, especially older ones, are full of pictures – stained glass windows mostly, and whilst most East windows will have a depiction of Christ in glory or on the cross, other favourites include parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, stories from the life of Jesus, pictures of him as the good shepherd….. images that remind us of his humanity. In Ethiopian churches the imagery feels very different. Wonderful wall paintings in many churches of every period from the 8thC onwards show almost exclusively the moments in Christ’s life when his divinity was clearest….. the annunciation (Ethiopians are devoted to Mary) his birth, the Transfiguration, the Last Supper, the passion and resurrection, and – finally we come to it – his baptism, when the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove and his father acknowledged him – you are my Son, the Beloved: with you I am well pleased.  The focus is on those moments when heaven and earth are joined in explicit recognition – even the miracles barely appear. I need to do more talking and reading about how this focus on Christ’s divinity – this very high Christology, characteristic of the Orthodox tradition – affects the everyday practice of Ethiopian Christians –  but for now it’s a good thing to be thinking about on this feast of the Baptism of Christ.

Because this is definitely a point where our tradition and the Ethiopian tradition come together – a moment when the divinity and humanity of Christ shine out, there on the banks of the Jordan, in one particular place in the Judean wilderness. its as if a column of light shoots from heaven to earth, bringing the two together – you are my Son, the Beloved: with you I am well pleased.  These moments of revelation, so important in Ethiopian tradition, are significant for us too, providing a balance to the stories we love to tell illustrating the humanity of Jesus, our friend, brother, teacher.

In this season of Epiphany we remember and celebrate the revelation of Christ to the world. Last Sunday we remembered the coming of the Wise Men – the first gentiles to see and recognise Jesus. At his baptism he submitted to a ritual of cleansing and repentance which he surely didn’t need, sharing in it with humanity, and being acknowledged by his father… what better revelation could there be? Next week we will be thinking at the all age service about the first miracle, at the wedding in Cana, and the following week about the beginning of his ministry, when he told the people of his hometown that  he was the fulfilment of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy.  And finally Candlemas – when Jesus was recognised in the temple, the heart of Judaism – by Simeon and Anna. Story after story, layering together over the weeks, through the years of our lives, to grow and deepen our understanding of who Jesus is – wholly God and wholly man.

We have such a rich tradition …. so many stories that can be told in so many ways – said, sung, pictured, enacted – to teach us, show us, who God is, who Jesus is, how much we are loved, and what that means about how we should live. The baptism story is one of humility and glory…. and love, beautifully introduced by the reading from Isaiah. God says….

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
……. you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you,

This message is for us – we can claim it too. And if we do claim it for ourselves – this love and protection, this Fatherhood of God that we share with Jesus – it is surely the most important thing in our lives. Do you believe it – do you believe, however falteringly or reluctantly, that God is our loving Father and that Jesus Christ is his son? Because if you do you have no choice but to share his love, as much in the way you live as in what you say… to be continually on the journey to find him in people and situations, to bring him to the people you meet and into every aspect of your life… to reveal him to the world in your own life.

This is our duty and our joy, the expression of our worship in our lives. It is the calling, the responsibility of every Christian, in Haslemere, in Ethiopia, across the world. We’ve tried to encapsulate it for our parish in the vision statement we adopted last year – together in Christ, growing in faith, serving in love…. This is our part in the Epiphany journey to show Christ to the world, but it doesn’t end with Epiphany at Candlemas… it’s a lifelong journey, duty, joy.

So let’s stand as the people of God here in our parish, in our time and place, back from our journey to a different place and time, here in Haslemere, and share our vision – remembering the actions of course and rejoicing that we have a God who knows and loves us because he is both human and divine….

together in Christ,

growing in faith,

serving in love

 

stay standing

 

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
……. you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you,

 

Again!

together in Christ,

growing in faith,

serving in love.

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