Stuff needed: Fishbowl with water, sponge, plastic toy, cup, bath bomb, and a table to put them on.
It wasn’t long ago that we were celebrating Jesus being born, and now, today we are remembering his baptism, but Jesus isn’t a baby in this story from his life, he is an adult, and he has come into the desert, into the wilderness to his cousin John, who we know a John the Baptist to be baptised.
Now, I hope you were all listening to our gospel story, because I’m going to ask you some questions later, but first, I want you to think a little bit about water.
Water is a really interesting substance, because it reacts with things differently.
Like these bits here, (sponge, cup, plastic toy) other than getting them a bit wet, there is no long lasting effect.
But some things are drastically changed by water.
We need water to live. Around 60% of our bodies are made of water. And plants also need water to live. What happens to a plant when you don’t water it??
It goes brown and crispy and dies.
There are other things that react dramatically to water. Take this (bathbomb) when I drop this in the water it fizzes and changes the colour of the water, and there is nothing you can do to change it. It’s changed forever!
Now water has an important role to play at this stage of Jesus’ life.
Remind me, who did Jesus go to see in the desert? John the Baptist.
And John had been telling people that they needed to change their lives, he showed people that by the things they were doing wrong, they were making themselves dirty and separating themselves from God.
And so he helped them to say sorry and to become joined to God by taking them into the river to show that they wanted God to wash away the things that separated them from God.
And one day, John saw Jesus coming, and John knew who Jesus was, he knew he was God’s Son, and that Jesus was much more powerful that John could ever be. John said that he isn’t worthy even to undo Jesus sandals and that when Jesus came, he wouldn’t just baptise with water, but that people would be baptised with the Holy Spirit as well.
And that’s what happened. Our gospel said that when they’d all been baptised, Jesus as well, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended from heaven, and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased’.
And we hear something similar from our Old Testament reading today for us, when the Lord says
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
… you are precious in my sight,… I love you.
The baptism of Jesus is important because it shows us not just how important Jesus is, but how important we are too. We share in the baptism of Christ, so that we are baptised not just in water but also by the Holy Spirit, and that through this act, we too belong and are joined to God. And we are changed, like this (referring back to the bath bomb) forever.
I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all. I certainly hope your seasonal plans went a little better than mine, which were delayed and then cut short by the recent storms. Getting to and from my parents’ home in Anglesey was a scary journey, with winds and flood and closed roads.
All of this came to mind when I was thinking about what to preach on because if you read the Christmas story, the theme of journeys feature quite strongly.
Indeed throughout the Scriptures we see that God’s people are always called to be on the move and this applies especially to the people in the story of our Lord’s birth who are called to travel in the most difficult of circumstance, more difficult I might add then Storm Frank.
During the variety of nativity plays of the season, we saw Marys and Josephs and Donkeys marching up and down the aisles making the journey to Bethlehem seem like nothing at all. But which of us would dream of undertaking a 100 mile journey when one of you is so heavily pregnant & with no better means of transport than a donkey? Especially with no accommodation pre-booked at journey’s end?
Our crib under the nave altar may look quite cosy under its warm spotlight, but those who have visited Bethlehem will know of the steep stone cut steps and the narrow opening to the cave which is believed to be the birthplace of Our Lord. We shouldn’t let our carols mask the stark reality of Mary & Joseph’s desperation in bringing their special child to birth in a damp, dirty hole in the ground.
And in today’s gospel reading, and in our celebrations today, we have another long and dangerous journey coming to its conclusion as the wise men have travelled following the guiding of a star to worship the new born King and to offer their gifts, gifts so unusual and inappropriate for a baby- reveal their deep understanding of the significance of the child they seek.
It’s a wonderful story that opens up so many possibilities but is tantalising in its lack of detail, which is perhaps why it has been so embellished by artistic imaginations over the passing years.
Such as TS Eliot’s wonderful poem “The journey of the Magi” with its opening lines
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year for a journey
And such a long journey
The ways deep, the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
The poem speaks of the Magi’s temptation to turn back, of their regret at swopping their creature comforts- “The summer palaces on slopes, and the silken girls bringing sherbet”- for the stark deprivations of the journey.
“At the end we preferred to travel all night, sleeping in snatches,
with the voices singing in our ears that this as all folly”
If the journey itself wasn’t bad enough, it was made worse by their visit to Herod. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising & have come to worship him”.
We may question their title as wise men at this stage, is it ever wise to ask a monarch with the murderous paranoia of Herod, ‘where is the child, who is not your own, whose reign will eclipse yours?’
And at journey’s end they are left questioning “were we led all that way for birth or death?”
The Magi’s inadvertent alerting of Herod to the Messiah’s birth leads directly to the Massacre of the Innocents and causes the Holy Family to set out on yet another journey into the unknown, to flee Herod’s violence and live as refugees in Egypt until Herod’s death.
There are so many questions and issues around the Magi that we can barely scratch the surface of what those long ago travellers have to teach us.
But one of them is the message that God is always leading us forwards, often to places and situations where we need to grip our courage and our faith close to us. God is constantly calling us forward to embrace new challenges & new adventures of faith and leading us ever closer to his kingdom.
This goes for the church as well as us as individuals.
As Jesus says later in Matthews gospel, we are to ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’ to look for Gods Kingdom and all these things will be given to you as well because God will guide you. So our job is to travel with him, and be on the lookout for the next direction to go.
And we can be certain that just as he was present to guide the Holy Family to safety and to lead the Magi to the Christ child, so he will guide and protect us in our journey through life.
So may the courage and obedience of Joseph and Mary in undertaking the task of parenting the child who was the long-awaited Messiah, and may the courage and perseverance of the Wise Men in Journeying so far to seek the child born King of the Jews, inspire and encourage us as we begin this New Year to follow wherever God may lead
It is the final Sunday in Advent, and we are only days away from finally being able to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus. So we don’t have long left in our preparation. And as part of our advent preparations today, our attention is pointed towards Mary, the chosen one of God to be the Mother of Our Lord.
Mary has been hugely influential throughout the course of human history and rightly has been inspiration for many artistic expressions. Paintings of her are often re-produced as Christmas cards.
The imagery traditionally used for Mary is one of a woman, dressed in blue and surrounded by saints or angels, deep in prayer, or gazing adoringly on the Christ child in her arms. And she can keep that adoring gaze because as the carol tells us, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”
The pious mother of God, or the queen of heaven, they are often people’s first thoughts.
And beautiful ones they are. However they are not entity fitting or suitable for the image of Mary in our gospel reading this morning.
Because these images obscure the stark reality of what has and is taking place, and how God has broken into the life of not a devout nun or a saintly queen, but of an unmarried teenage girl from a poor area of town.
Mary’s world upside-down, but, she is not alone.
If you think back to the message from the angel, he ends with the news that Mary’s elderly cousin Elizabeth, who has never been able to have children, and had given up hope long ago, was also pregnant.
So what does Mary do?
She puts on her shawl & travels to the hill country to get a second opinion.
I can’t help thinking whether this visit also had a practical reason, of getting Mary out of the way of the Nazareth gossips and relieving her family of the social stigma associated with their daughter’s mysterious but most embarrassing condition?
Regardless, as soon as the cousins meet- even before Mary can say anything more then “Hello”- Elizabeth greets her with, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child in your womb, and why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
So Mary knows that the angel spoke the truth and she breaks into song, her song of joy her Magnificat.
It’s annoying that the gospel appointed for today is only 6 short verses, but I’m sure most of you know the magnificat to some extent. (but for those of you who don’t, it goes…..)
As I said earlier, we are in the final days of our advent preparation, and so part of this should be to move away from the romanticised image we carry and rid ourselves of the myths that have etched their way in over centuries of re-interpretation, so we can see clearly the central message of this encounter for our own lives and to understand that God has always used ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
And this is in part the message that Mary sings about.
She sings about God’s subversion, about how God reverses human plans and designs.
She sings about how God chooses the insignificant instead of the important, chooses the weak instead of the strong, how God lifts up the lowly & puts down the powerful.
When we portray Mary as the perfect heavenly queen, the pious virgin, then it seems only right and fitting that God should break into her world.
She is, after all, a holy saint, very different from you & me.
But to see things this way is to miss the central point of Mary’s Magnificat, and the focal message of the entire Gospel.
Mary sings not about herself but about God who turns everything upside down, -for her, for you & for me.
So the episode that we know as the Visitation says that if God can break into the life of an ordinary peasant teenager from the back of beyond, then he can and will do the same for all lowly, broken, insignificant folk like you and me.
And doesn’t that sum up precisely the mission of this Child whom she was called to bring to birth?
After all he was born in a stable.
He grew up in Nazareth, a back-water far away from the centre of power in Jerusalem.
As an adult he chose as his companions the poor, the destitute, those on the edge and beyond acceptable society,- because they were the ones whose ears were open to his message and whose lives were open to his transforming presence.
Mary sings in praise of God who has a passion for justice, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich empty away.
I wonder what we make of Mary’s warning about the God who scatters the proud in the thoughts of our hearts, who sends the rich away empty?
When we understand Mary’s song then perhaps we too may dare to allow Christ’s coming to break into our lives, over-turning our selfish desires and enlisting us, like Mary to be servants of the Lord building his kingdom of justice and peace among his people today.