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Isaiah 42. 1-9; Acts 10. 34-43; Matthew 3. 13-end
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’Matthew 3. 13-end
When I was out in Kenya just over a year ago, I met an old man named Eustace who came from a remote village on Mount Kenya. In the 1950s, someone had come to the village and told them about Jesus Christ. Eustace was so drawn to the stories of Jesus that he decided to become a Christian. He was told that an important part of becoming a Christian was to be baptised. But there was no minister or church in his village where this could happen. So, Eustace and another boy decided to walk to the nearest church in order to be baptised. They were only about 14, they were barefoot, and – it was a three-day walk. That would have been like you or me taking off our shoes after church this morning and leaving them at the door for Veronica to trip over, and then us walking from here to Chester Cathedral. Barefoot. I’m not sure how many of us would even get as far as the Cock and Pheasant! But getting baptised meant that much to Eustace. And he made it! It is an awesome thought.
Our reading this morning in Matthew tells the lovely, gracious story of the baptism of Jesus. How one day Jesus walked out of the obscurity of his village life in Nazareth down to the Jordan in order to meet up with John, and to be baptised. The story in Matthew takes up only four verses – but how rich in meaning it is!
It is well worth remembering some of the bigger picture around it, in order to fully appreciate just what happened that day at the Jordan. First of all, John the Baptist had arrived on the scene like a thunderbolt, and his baptism was shockingly new. Never before, in all history, had any Jew submitted to being baptised. Of course, the Jews knew and used baptism, but it was only for proselytes who came into Judaism from some other faith. It was natural that a sin-stained, polluted proselyte should be baptised, in order to clean them up a bit. But no Jew had ever dreamed that they, a member of the chosen people, and assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism. Baptism was for sinners on the outside, and no Jew ever thought of themselves as a sinner shut out from God, for were they not sons and daughter of Abraham?
So John the Baptist was a real shock to the Jews. His fiery message that they too were doomed unless they, too, repented, was unprecedented. For the first time in their national history the Jews woke up to their own need of baptism. And they did wake up! Hundreds and probably thousands of them went out to John the Baptist. Never in all of Jewish history had there been such a unique movement of penitence and of search for God. No wonder that the countryside was in an uproar, with everyone discussing repentance. It must have been a bit like Brexit, with people arguing on both sides, but no one staying neutral. Love it or loath it, you thought about it.
Which is exactly why God had sent John the Baptist in the first place – to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
This was now Jesus’ opportunity, the perfect and prepared time for his public ministry to begin. The way had been prepared for the Messiah, and here he was, ready at the Jordan, asking John for baptism. It seems an odd beginning for a Messiah, to seek baptism. And down the centuries, many people have wondered why on earth Jesus would chose to be baptised. Even John was astonished! But in his baptism Jesus was identifying himself with the people whom he came to save. In the hour of their new consciousness of their sin, and of their search for God, Jesus’ baptism was his way of publicly declaring that he, too, needed to live a life consecrated and holy before God, doing only what the Father commanded him to do.
What about the voice that Jesus heard at the baptism? The words are of supreme importance. ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’. That sentence is composed of two quotations. ‘My beloved son’ comes from Psalm 2, which every Jew knew was a description of the Messiah, the mighty King, sent from God, who was to come. ‘In whom I am well pleased’ is a quotation from Isaiah 42, which is a description of the Suffering Servant. So at the baptism of Jesus, the voice from heaven was declaring two certainties: that Jesus was indeed the chosen One of God, chosen to be King, and the certainty that the way in front of Him would be the way of suffering – the way of the Cross.
And so, the dove descended gently upon Jesus. With it, Jesus was given the power of the Holy Spirit. From now on, in full obedience to the Father, and in the power of the Spirit, Jesus would fulfil his calling. He would be the Messiah, both as suffering servant, obedient unto death, and then – as king of kings, lord of Lords, at whose name one day every knee under heaven will bow.
And so yes, my friend Eustace in Kenya was right to take his baptism so seriously all those years ago. It was his declaration that he was repenting of his sins, and dying in order to rise again with Jesus to new life. He was reborn in Christ. Eustace went on with his faith in God. He somehow got to university in Nairobi, and became a university lecturer and a local church leader. Today he is retired, but has the pastoral oversight of about 20 churches, and is on the board of a big medical mission in Nairobi. His life has been so fruitful for God, and it began all those years ago with a barefoot teenager, walking lonely miles in order to be baptised and so declare his commitment to Jesus.
We celebrate the Epiphany today. The word “Epiphany” means the “Showing Forth”, the manifestation to the world – to people of all nations, colours, languages and even creeds. To all who will listen or see Jesus for what He is – the Son of God.
And so we have the familiar story of the Wise Men following the star – possibly from Iran or Iraq as we know them today – following their beliefs that our fortunes are in the stars. The New English Bible actually calls them “Astrologists”.
So they came and ended up first of all in Jerusalem, where they consulted the King – Herod, who was dismayed to hear of another King’s arrival – Jesus. People in power are always frightened of rivals, just as people who are rich are frightened of losing their wealth and create barriers to keep others out: “gated communities” is a misnomer as isolation and segregation must be the reality such barriers create.
Herod’s advisors told him of the prophecies that said Bethlehem would be the birthplace of this new King. The City of David – Bethlehem, which means “the house of bread” or “the place of basic nurture”. And so the Wise Men continued their following of the star, and came to the house where Jesus was, and offered their strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they went on their way.
In today’s world they could have instead embarked on a virtual quest rather than a physical one, with apparently less personal danger and without involving difficult face-to-face encounters with such as Herod.
It was very challenging to see the front page story in Saturday’s newspaper about the US drone strike and then to turn to read an obituary in the very same newspaper about the Iranian general who had been killed – someone considered by his compatriots as a genuinely wise man.
Born in 1957, one of nine children in a peasant farming family in a mountain village in Eastern Iran, who at the age of 13 left home with a cousin to try and earn enough money to repay the $100 agricultural loan his father had taken out from the Shah’s government when his father couldn’t make the repayments himself. Qasem succeeded in restoring the family honour:
“At night we couldn’t fall asleep with the sadness of thinking that government agents were coming to arrest our fathers,” he recalled. “Our bodies were so tiny, wherever we went they couldn’t hire us.”
Eventually, they helped to build a school. Eight months later they returned home through the snow with money to repay the debt. He went on to work for the local water board, but later joined the Revolutionary Guard after the 1979 uprising…
He was clearly not a saint, but he was once trusted enough by the West to be welcomed as leader of a delegation of Iranian diplomats to meet with US officials in Geneva following Nine Eleven. This looked like a hopeful collaboration until in 2002 President Bush included Iran in his “Axis of Evil” speech and all trust immediately broke down.
Clearly, General Qasem became a man of war not of peace, but one must wonder about the wisdom of simply “taking out” someone like that just because it is technically possible.
I feel violence can never be the answer. Just as we are outraged by King Herod’s massacre of the Innocents, so we are surely called to travel home another way than this…
The Epiphany season invites us into our own journey of discovery about the significance of Jesus – that God’s Son is not just born as the saviour for the Jewish people – God’s chosen race – but for all of us, all humanity. We are no longer to live as a gated community, locked out of God’s grace and favour. Whoever receives and accepts Jesus is a member of God’s family. Gentiles (we who are not Jews) can become the new Israel, upon whom God’s favour rests. As our epistle reminds us – now we have access to God in boldness and confidence through our faith in Jesus, who promises to be beside us in our searching and journeying through all the risks we take and whatever dangers we are exposed to as part of the universal human race this new year and beyond…
In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.Ephesians 3:5-6
I fear wise men may be in short supply among those presently in positions of great power on all sides. Let us pray for true wisdom, discernment, restraint and compassion to be cultivated in the world’s leaders of our generation.
May the golden allure of admiration craved by powerful rulers be melted down into shining acts of kindness and generosity; may the fragrant incense that comes from discernment of true worth be offered by taking time to act only in godly righteousness and in seeking lasting peace on earth, and may the sufferings of this present time be ultimately soothed by the transformative myrrh of human compassion and hopefulness now and always.
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Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’Matthew 2.13-end
Most of us know the story of Christmas off by heart – of Mary and Joseph, the little town of Bethlehem, the stable, the shepherds and the kings – but in actual fact what we really know is a conflation (the posh word for a mixture) of two stories; one from St Luke’s gospel and a different story as told by St Matthew. The first written gospel (St Mark’s) doesn’t include anything about Christmas, neither does the last written gospel (St John’s).
So we are left with St Luke’s account of angels in chorus, Mary and the Infant in the manger, the sheep farmers down from the hills, the innkeeper and the stable – all told (we think) by a source close to Mary. And the totally different story told by St Matthew of the star and the wise men, of the wicked King Herod forcing the Holy Family to become refugees – this seems to be from a source close to Joseph, the down-to-earth carpenter and yet a dreamer of dreams, with three angelic messages mentioned in our gospel for today; two warning of danger to the young Jesus.
When you consider these separate stories of Christmas told by Matthew and Luke, you might say that the story of the birth of Jesus is a story of light coming into our world, with the bright star pointing to the light of god’s love as reinforced by the opening verses of the gospel of John.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
But clearly the story of Joseph and his dreams are filled with the gathering darkness (ironically called forth by the radiance of the light). So Herod massacres the Holy Innocents and Joseph and Mary become Displaced Persons – until they find their home in Nazareth.
I think that this contrast between light and darkness echoes the lived experience of us all; of illness and health, good and bad, night and day. The powers of the dark hate the powers of the light of the day, and the good and lovely light of the life of Jesus ends on the Cross – well, seemingly ends: for we believe that actually the darkness disappears with the dawn of Easter Day. And if we hold fast to our apparently counter-intuitive, counter-cultural belif in God, and if we follow Jesus – the Light of the world- we may find ourselves on the winning side in this battle between good and evil. And may even find ourselves waking up to the new dawn alongside the angels in heaven and know ourselves at last “wonderfully restored” to light and life, just as Jesus that first Christmas we are told came to share our human nature.
So may we, by following His path, share His holiness and be welcomed home, out of darkness into His marvellous light. Let’s all try to keep that dream alive as we enter the gate of another new year, going into the darkness and putting our hands into the hand of God, that shall be to us better than any human-made light and safer than any known way.
Those who write catchy slogans or create successful marketing ploys will no doubt already have declared this to be the year for aspiring to 2020 Vision, once thought to be the norm for optimum clarity and focus in human eyesight!
Realistically, most of us live with less perfect levels of perception of the world around us, often needing help to see the bigger picture or the finer details of life. As Christians, none of claim to be perfect and most of us fail to see the wood for the trees at some time or other. However, there is this strange verse in our Gospels which is attributed as one of the sayings of Jesus: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!” This verse was literally carved in stone below the east window of Emmanuel Church, Forest Gate, the parish where I served as Vicar between 2000 and 2003, and the church where Dave and I were married at Epiphany nineteen years ago.
The stained-glass window above the inscription showed a humble but colourful nativity scene, with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus all being welcomed by the shepherds who had rushed down from the fields to greet the promised Christ child. It always seemed to me a bit incongruous that the call to “Be perfect…” was directly aligned in Emmanuel Church with what must have been the chaotic, obscure, messy, unwelcome and even dangerous circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
But in actual fact, it does make perfect sense! If we believe God in Christ was humble enough to step down from the exalted heavenly realm into the far from perfect world epitomised by that first century unequal, cruel and oppressive society, then quite simply the perfection God calls us as Christians to emulate is that same divinely inspired desire not to stand aloof from messiness and pain, but to get involved right at the heart of things, and somehow to try to see our way clear to make an amazing difference for good in the midst of a whole variety of otherwise hopeless, unglamorous or unpromising situations. In the second century, St Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!” The angels must surely sing with joy once more “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth!” whenever we display even the smallest acts of kindness and compassion in response to catching sight of both the obvious or more hidden needs of those around us, whether in our own community or glimpsed fleetingly in transitory heart-wrenching stories flashed up on our TV screens or on social media.
Whether we consider ourselves as ordinary and a bit on the edge of things, like the shepherds, just about making ends meet, or whether we count ourselves amongst the more privileged and comfortably off, like the three wise travellers, who can afford to risk going on adventures in life – whichever may be the circumstance into which we were born, consider that God may be calling each of us to come a bit closer to Christ as we enter this New Year. Think of how a young baby at just six months of age gazes so seriously and intently into your face, before breaking into a smile of recognition and delight! At this coming Epiphany season, may we increasingly see ourselves as God in Christ sees us, considered no less his beloved child than was Jesus himself, revealed at his Baptism in the turbulent waters of the River Jordan. And responding to the forgiving and gracious gaze that God eternally bestows on us, however insignificant or undeserving we may feel, may we have the insight to view others around us equally as our neighbours and companions along life’s way, however difficult the journey may be.
The first miracle that Jesus did according to the Gospel of John is the one often recalled at weddings in church – Jesus turning the water into wine! This story is one of the Epiphany season readings and reminds us powerfully that God desires all human society to be celebratory and rich in meaning and purpose. Too often we find ourselves more conveniently ignoring the hints and nudges of those who have noticed a real need or an impending crisis, like Jesus’ mother Mary did when the scandal of inadequate provision of hospitality threatened to embarrass the bridegroom’s family on that memorable occasion in Cana of Galilee. At our own wedding, sadly no-one noticed (not even the new bride) that all Dave managed to find left to eat at our splendid wedding buffet (provided by our lovely friend Eileen Williams) was just one vol-au-vent!?!
The Epiphany season, which lasts through to the Feast of Candlemas on 2 February, reminds us, as we approach Ash Wednesday at the end of the month, that we are called to delight in God’s world and sacrificially to enable others to do the same. If Christmas is for children, then Epiphany is for grown-ups! May our vision as the Anglican Church of God here in this community ever remain unclouded by selfishness and insularity, and may we ever be alert to responding in love to the needs of the world, starting with our nearest and dearest and then looking beyond them to help relieve the plight of the poor. May God grant us clarity of vision this New Year and always!
I can’t quite wish you a Happy Christmas yet, but my WELCOME together with LOVE is part of the theme I would like us to consider on this the 4th and last Sunday of Advent. Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard about the approaching birth of Jesus from the point of view of Joseph. From other New Testament sources we know that Mary was an excited Galilean girl, probably very nervous, but nonetheless looking forward to welcome the birth, of her baby who she knew, was to be a very important boy.
OK for her then, but what about Joseph. It is assumed that he was probably older and more staid than Mary and it must have come as a great shock to find out that his young fiancée was pregnant. Wow, that was a stoning offence. I doubt if HE welcomed the news when he first heard it. But God is good; He knew the characters of both of them. That Joseph, her husband-to-be, was an upright man, and that he wouldn’t want to make a public example of her. God also knew, that while Joseph was deciding to set the marriage aside privately, that he would listen and follow the will of God, when it was explained to him by an angel in a dream – who said
The child she is carrying is from the Holy Spirit. She is going to have a son. You must give him the name Jesus…
The only point where the two Gospel stories come close is when the angel says to Joseph, as Gabriel said to Mary, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That is an important word for us, too, as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth.
At this point those who are not Christians will be heard laughing out loud. “From the Holy Spirit; A virgin birth, you must be joking!” Since a boy I have always accepted that the conception of Jesus was just another of the wonderful mysteries of the Christian faith. However, I also remember reading as a school boy, in the now defunct Sunday Pictorial that a number of women had claimed virgin births, but they had only produced girls. And surprise surprise, some fifteen years ago on the web, I found that while it would be a scientific anomaly to give birth while a virgin, it is not a scientific impossibility. This has been known to happen in nature, although it is rare. When it does happen, all offspring are female; it’s all to do with females having two X chromosomes. However, there is 1 in 5 million chance for a women to have both an X and Y chromosome, so, the birth of a son cannot be completely ruled out as impossible.
In the Bible, we are told that it was through the activity of the Spirit that Mary became pregnant. That is indeed all that needs to be said, since we are concerned with the entry of the infinite God into his creation. This is something that cannot be described, any more than the act of creation can be described in any detail. Nor can the virgin birth be rejected simply because it is a miracle. The miracle is the incarnation itself, that God chose to have his Son born as a human, and if we can accept that miracle, there should be no difficulty about accepting the means by which God chose to effect it.
Bishop Tom Wright accepts that for centuries now many opponents of Christianity, and many devout Christians themselves, have felt that these stories are embarrassing and unnecessary – and untrue. Some go further saying that this story of a miracle birth, has had an unfortunate effect. They have given the impression that in its self sex is dirty and that God doesn’t want anything to do with it. They have also given rise to the legend that Mary stayed a virgin for ever, (something the Bible never says; indeed, here and elsewhere it implies that she and Joseph lived a normal married life after Jesus’ birth). This has promoted the belief that virginity is better than marriage, and all that it implies.
It is of course true that strange ideas have grown up around the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, but Matthew (and Luke) can hardly be blamed for that. They were telling the story they believed was both true and the ultimate explanation of why Jesus was the person he was. They must have known that they were taking a risk. In the ancient pagan world there were plenty of stories of heroes conceived by the intervention of a god, without a human father. Surely Matthew, with his very Jewish perspective on everything, would hardly invent such a thing, or copy it from someone else unless he really believed it? Wouldn’t it be opening Christianity to the sneers of its opponents, who would quickly suggest the obvious alternative? Well, yes, it would; but that would only be relevant if nobody already knew that there had been something strange about Jesus’ conception.
In John’s gospel we hear the echo of a taunt made during Jesus’ lifetime: maybe, the crowds suggest, Jesus’ mother had been misbehaving before her marriage. It seems as if Matthew and Luke are telling this story because they know rumours have circulated and they want to set the record straight. Everything depends, of course, on whether you believe that the living God could, or would, act like that. Some say he couldn’t (‘miracles don’t happen’); others that he wouldn’t, because ‘if he did that, why doesn’t he intervene to stop wars and genocide?’ But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Israel – in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways – and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself.
Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals within it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the Holy Spirit? That is a question everyone must answer for themselves. In the OT reading we heard Isaiah proclaiming that God himself will give a sign. ‘A woman has conceived and will bear a son named Emmanuel.’ Now, the name ‘Emmanuel, was not given to anyone else, perhaps because it would say more about the child than anyone would normally dare. It means ‘God with us’.
Matthew’s whole gospel is framed by this theme: at the very end, Jesus promises that he will be ‘with’ his people to the close of the age. God is present, with his people; He doesn’t ‘intervene’ from a distance. He is always active, and sometimes in most unexpected ways. And God’s actions are aimed at rescuing people from a helpless plight, demanding that he take the initiative and do things people had regarded as (so to speak) inconceivable.
This is the God, and this is the Jesus, whose story Matthew will tell us through the Gospel readings in the coming year. This is the God, and this is the Jesus, who still comes to us today when human possibilities have run out. God with his powerful grace and love always offers us new and startling ways forward, in fulfilment of his many promises. During the Christmas season we will have Joy, but there also the challenge, to remember Christ all the year round. We must not put him away in a box together with all the other Christmas decorations. We also have to remember that Christ does not remain a child. He grows into manhood and challenges us to follow in his footsteps and to obey the commandments and the will of God. A challenge which most of the world finds too difficult to accept. Joseph accepted God’s word and welcomed Jesus as any other normal father would, and I’m sure he loved him as he watched him growing up, and while he was passing on his skills as a carpenter to Jesus.
Yes, welcome and love. That’s what we have to do, welcome and love baby Jesus this Christmas tide. WE also have to allow him to grow and be the man who will challenge us by revealing the true nature of God. As well as loving God, Jesus also teaches us that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. Do we welcome and love our friends who are non-Christians this Christmas time? Probably yes. But do we love and welcome those we do not know when they come to church at Christmas or for baptisms or weddings or funerals? God loves us all and we too should always be loving and welcoming to all of God’s children. WE owe it to God, we owe it to them!
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
We will be singing carols at The Cotton Tree on Friday 13 December from 7.30pm.
We will be singing carols at The Cock and Pheasant on Thursday 19 December from 8.00pm.
Come and join us and have a good sing.
We will be collecting in aid of St Oswald’s Church funds.