A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
The Baptism of Christ - The First Sunday of Epiphany
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last evening here in the cathedral a group of some four hundred people gathered for one of the great liturgies of the life of this building – a Diocesan Confirmation. If you’ve never been to one, I do encourage you to seek one out this year, they are amazing. Forty one people, ranging in age from ten to seventy years old gathered here from all over Dorset and Wiltshire, and they declared some things about their faith, they engaged some rituals, and in front of families, friends, the Bishops and clergy, and most importantly before God, they confirmed that they wanted to turn to Christ, to repent of their sins, and to renounce evil. And three of them were baptised, the waters of the font flowing over them, as they became new people, as they were born again. And the gospel reading was the one that the Vicar of the Close has just proclaimed.
Last week I wasn’t here. I was on holiday. For reasons passing understanding, Emma and I decided that we would include in our holiday plans, two days in Plymouth followed by two days in Sheffield. Luckily we both enjoy driving and are able to tolerate being alone with each other in enclosed spaces for long-ish periods of time, and so we found ourselves in a parish Church in Sheffield for the Second Sunday of Christmas. And there the curate of the parish preached a very good and very thought provoking sermon about the wise men. How this connects to what I was saying earlier will I hope become clear – go with me for a moment.
He was talking about encounters with Jesus. Encounters with God. He wanted us to think about how that visit to Bethlehem might have changed the Magi, right down deep in the heart of their being. Because of course we have no way of knowing. The scripture tells us nothing about the long term effect of this encounter with Jesus on the wise men. All that we know after the famous scene of them offering the three gifts and paying homage, is that they “return to their own lands by another road.” Now some people read into that phrase “another road” all sorts of spiritual import – a new road in their lives, a choice to live differently, or whatever. Others read it as simply a way of avoiding having to go back to Herod and tell him who, and what, they have found.
Now the preacher last Sunday went on to suggest – and this is where he and I probably disagree a bit - that the one moment when real, actual, profound change, what we might want to call “ontological change”, change at the level of our souls, happens, is the moment we realise that it is in the person of Jesus that our lives find their answer, their reason and their fulfilment. He wanted to say that at no other moment does that kind of profound change occur, not at an ordination or, presumably (though I didn’t get the opportunity to ask him) at a confirmation, or a wedding, or even I guess a baptism. There is one moment, he preached, when we change, when we become someone new, and that is the moment when we recognise Jesus. Which I suppose could be at a wedding, or a baptism, or a confirmation, but it needn’t be. It could be in the park, or the cinema, or even in the pub.
And so I suppose the question I want to ask you this morning is this. If you are a Christian, is there a single moment when you feel like you changed, as a person? Have you had that feeling, ever? Can you point to a moment or an instant when you felt yourself change, become different? How does God change you? Do you think he does? Is there a single moment when we are, as scripture refers to it, “born again”?
‘Cos much as I enjoyed the sermon last Sunday, and indeed the entire service, I rather suspect God doesn’t work in an entirely “on or off” way in terms of the way in which he changes us, develops us, and brings us closer to his image, closer to his likeness as we might put it.
Some people do seem to have Damascas Road experiences – you know one minute they are paid up, signed up members of something and the next minute they have changed entirely. God does seem to work in that way sometimes. But very often the stories people tell at their baptisms, their confirmations, and indeed at their ordinations, or weddings, or at the graveside of a friend or soulmate, or chatting to me in the pub, are that God works in other ways too. God is the God, very often, of slow, gentle, loving change, change which we almost don’t notice until suddenly we recognise that our parameters, our criteria for judging our decisions and actions, and even perhaps the lenses through which we view the world, have changed. They are different, because we are different.
But none the less, the first thing I want to say this morning is this. God changes us. God wants to change us, and when we get those rare moments of clarity, we recognise that we want to change too. We want to develop, to be mature, to grow closer to the likeness of God which was breathed into us at the beginning. I don’t know if you can remember your baptism, your christening? I can’t. But I know what my godparents promised for me and I can remember the promises I made at my confirmation: I turn to Christ, I repent of my sins, I renounce evil. Huge promises. The biggest ones we ever make. If we think that we can open ourselves up to God and not be developed, matured and changed, we are kidding ourselves. Christianity is an extreme makeover. At the level of the soul. This is ontological change. If you turn to Jesus, you get changed.
However, and secondly, I reckon this goes on a lot. I don’t think you have to point to a single moment when you recognise the significance of Jesus. Some might be able to do that, but it’s not required. Think about our first lesson for a moment. Paul rocks up in Ephesus and finds Christians there, and he says, “ah, splendid. Christians. Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” And they say, “what’s the Holy Spirit.” So then they are baptised again, in Jesus name, and this rather non-specific thing called “receiving the Holy Spirit” happens to them. This was the wrong way around in Paul’s ideal model of disciple making, but it seems to work. Even in the very early days of the Church, it seems, God doesn’t work to a set plan. He doesn’t read the rubrics quite as carefully as we might think!
So of course God does change us at our moment of conversion, if we have one. Certainly also at our baptism and our confirmation, or both, or all three. Perhaps he will change us tomorrow, again, or for the first time. Perhaps he will change you this morning. It is in the nature of the Holy Spirit to be unpredictable.
And thirdly, therefore, this is all because it is in the nature of the Spirit to be generous. Overwhelmingly, outrageously generous. Jesus doesn’t need to be baptised, does he? He’s not a sinner, so he doesn’t need a baptism of repentance. Indeed in another version of this story, John the Baptist says exactly that when Jesus turns up to be baptised, but Jesus insists. This baptism is not for his sake, it is for the onlookers, for those who will read the story in years to come. It is for us. Because in the baptism of Jesus we see God pouring out generous, outrageous love. God is saying, this is how it’s going to be, between you, my poor fragile, confused people and me. Heavens are going to be opened, doves will descend, you will hear my voice, the voice of the Trinity, and I will be present, moving, transforming and regenerating the aching and diseased with power and light. In the words of the hymn, telling “tidings of a new creation to a tired and weary earth.” So this change which is wrought in, amongst other things, our baptism, modelled to us by Christ himself at his baptism, is absolutely unlike anything else. It is transformation at the level of our souls, our essence. Because that is where God works, it is his place of business. Your heart and mine. Your soul and mine.
And in a world where those who we love are struck down seemingly arbitrarily with disease, or betrayal; in a world where people who call themselves religious can massacre children, or rooms full of journalists or shoppers, and consider it a good day’s work, in a world where hatred seems often to have the upper hand – here is something stronger. Here is something, someone, who longs to change us again and again and who isn’t going to be driven out by fear or anger or hatred, by men with guns or twisted and deformed creeds and beliefs. Because he lives in the heart, from where the deepest hatred cannot expel the light.
Does God change us, deep down, at the level of the heart? Of course he does. Profoundly. Ontologically. But I reckon you can’t point to a single moment. Because it is the nature, the very essence of God to be changing us all the time. In the refining fire of his love God changes us, and we are reminded that the most seemingly broken and defeated thing can be holy, and even the darkness is radiant with his light.