The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 43.1-7; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17,21,22
What’s your earliest memory? Amazingly, given how momentous the event is, none of us, so it seems, remembers being born
Those of us baptised as babies don’t remember that. To be honest I find it hard to think of what my first real memory is because I get confused with the memories that other people have given to me, telling me about what I did up the nurse’s dress, for instance, when I was laid as naked as the day I was born in the scales at the Welfare. I don’t remember that though my Mum clearly did!
I don’t really remember the day my sister was born upstairs in our house. I’ve been told that I kept asking whether Mummy was alright and whether the baby was alright every few minutes after it’d happened but I don’t remember it. I suppose I really remember getting lost – in the market in Leicester near Lineker’s stall and grabbing some other woman’s hand and particularly getting lost in Scarborough on the only good day of the holiday, on the zigzag path, running on ahead and then getting lost but finding my way back to the boarding house where we were staying. I was 7 and I do remember it and my family have never let me forget it.
For Jesus his baptism was a not to be forgotten moment. He’d come to where the crowds were gathering by the River Jordan, to listen to John’s uncompromising preaching and then, when everyone else had gone down into the water, to follow them. It was a moment that he wouldn’t forget because that was also a moment of affirmation for him, a moment of declaration as the Spirit descended and the voice of the Father was heard.
But like many of the moments of revelation in the Bible, like many in the Gospels, this was not so much for Jesus – affirming as it must have been – it was a moment for us. As Jesus would say elsewhere, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine’. (John 12.30) We may not remember our own baptism but in some way we share in this act of baptism of Jesus, we’re baptised with him, we enter the waters with him, we die and we rise with him. As St Gregory Nazianzus wrote
‘Jesus rises from the waters; and a drowned world rises with him.’
If baptism is about being reborn, re-entering the experience that none of us can remember, and emerging refreshed, cleansed, grace and light filled, then each time we celebrate this feast we remember again the enormity of what happened by that riverside and the profound nature of the epiphany that took place there.
Because this of course is all about epiphany. Last week it was wise men who we were remembering, strangers who made their way from distant lands to the threshold of the house where Jesus was and they knew him as the promised one of God. Next Sunday we’ll be taken to Cana, to a wedding where the wine had all been drunk. Jesus takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary, he takes water and it becomes wine and he’s revealed once again, as a miracle worker, as one who held creation in the palm of his hand, but perhaps even more importantly for us, the one who will transform our poverty into riches, who will make wine of the stuff of the lives of those around him.
We heard some of the most powerful words from the Old Testament in our First Reading. These words of Isaiah are staggering to me, they change the way that I look at life, they are words that give me confidence when my confidence is flagging.
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.
This is the God who is being revealed to us, the God to whom we bring ourselves as meagre gift, the God with whom we die and are reborn, the God who will take the water of who we are and transform it into the wine of the kingdom. This is Jesus who will pass through the waters, through the rivers with us and we will not be drowned, who will walk through the fire with us and we will not be consumed. This is the God who is alongside us and that is the truth that is at the very heart of the Christmas celebrations that we’ve just enjoyed, the alongside God alongside us.
The antics in Westminster inside and outside of Parliament last week were a disgrace, name calling, threatening behaviour, intimidation. We reap what we sow and at the moment we’re reaping a whirlwind in our society and in our city. The deaths of Lee Pomery killed on a train in front of his 14 year old son and then the brutal murder of Jayden Moodie, himself just 14, will be things that we will not forget. But they reveal a level of brutality and anger, a willingness to undertake violent acts, a basic lack of humanity that’s simply staggering and frightening. It’s as though Pandora’s Box has been opened and wickedness and intolerance and an abandonment of civil and civilised behaviour has been unleashed.
Whatever happens this week in Parliament as our MPs take part in the ‘meaningful vote’ as it’s called, whether we get the deal or no deal, whether in the end we remain in Europe, there’ll be a huge task of reconciliation and community rebuilding to be undertaken, and undertaken by the likes of us, who believe that rebirth is possible, that ‘the drowned world’ can rise with him, to use St Gregory’s words.
I can’t remember anything else quite like this. I can remember entering the Common Market, I can clearly remember decimalisation, I remember the three day week and the winter of discontent, the electricity strikes, I remember Mrs Thatcher snatching our milk off us, I remember the Gulf War, I remember so much but I don’t remember this level of division that now exists – and it must grieve the heart of God.
But God says to us
‘Do not fear, for I am with you …you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.’
God says as much to his son as the waters break and Jesus re-emerges from that deep watery womb into the life of the world and God says the same to us, the drowned world.
With those words of reassurance and in that moment of revelation Jesus heads off into the wilderness, it wasn’t over yet. There was much more to be discovered, there was a testing epiphany to take place and it would take hard days for him to realise what was God’s will. We emerge from the waters with Christ and perhaps we also have to expect the wilderness with him as well. That is the way it might be. But God is with us, we have God’s word for it and I remember that God has been with us in the past and is with us now and will remain with us, through the water, through the flames and we will not drown and we will not burn, we will not be consumed, for we have God’s word for it.
And in this most divine liturgy in which bread is broken and wine outpoured we will experience the God who places his very being into our hands, the vulnerable God sharing his vulnerability with us, the strong God sharing his strength with us.
We remember, we forget, that’s life, but in the days that lie ahead of us know this now as Jesus knew it then, that God is with us and God’s spirit rests upon us. In this time of huge uncertainty that much is certain.