The Baptism of Christ

First Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 3.13-17

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden
6 January 2008

A result of sitting in the front half of the church is that you cannot help getting a sense of the congregation as a whole. And a result of that for me is to make me think not only how beautiful we all are, but also what a richly diverse lot we are. As far as I can see, there is scarcely any profession, skill or achievement represented by more than one person.  Three priests I grant you, and, I think, three medics – but in each case we mostly represent very different lines of work.  If we were, many of us, a bit younger, we could set up a very balanced, smooth-running, cooperative community --- though I think we should be short of a plumber and the decorating might be rather amateur.

And I guess that most of us could tell a tale of how we came to do the job we have done. For myself, I can do it pretty precisely.  I was in an army unit in Germany and it was early 1949.  We had a visit from Cuthbert Bardesley. He later became a distinguished Bishop of Coventry, but then he was Bishop of Croydon with Bishop to the Forces thrown in. I was put to talk to him. After two minutes of conversation he said, ‘I think you should be ordained’. (It was not, I am sure, that I had a particularly holy look: I guess he said it to every youth he met.) Being a biddable type, of course I complied.  Many of you perhaps have similar memories – of events that decided life’s course, life’s work, for you, whether or not you recognized it at the time.

For Jesus, the Gospels present his encounter with John the Baptist as just such a defining moment.  But what exactly is its force?  It is of course nothing less than revolutionary.  And so such an event seems against the grain for most of us, almost all of the time.  Against the grain for Telegraph readers and equally for Guardian readers – for all of us, in churches or not;  because we like to feel settled in our view, our property, our routine ways of life.  We are not going to be shoe-horned out of them if we can possibly help it.  John the Baptist was a disturber of the peace – no wonder he got himself eliminated.  And Jesus, whom he recognizes, is bound to follow the same path, with death in store. 

For us, Christian people, it is of course, most of the time, much less dramatic, much less drastic.  We plod on, loyally we trust, within the social structure we find ourselves in, doing our bit in the way of generosity and helpfulness, worshipping and praying s bit, thinking out our choices with love for God and neighbour in mind – at least so long as it’s not too demanding.  And as we age, it’s harder to stir ourselves much more  -- and the emphasis falls more on our inner loyalty of heart and mind and our basic treatment of those around.

The explosion that was Jesus’ coming and being among us echoes still – and echo it must for each of us:  not just rubber-stamping the way we are, but disturbing us and forming us more and more, with sensitivity and love, and with revolution when the need arises.

I  think it is very hard to combine a sense of that need with the inevitable routine that dominates most of our lives:  how to know in the ordinary and how to be stirred amid the humdrum.  We need imagination and we need deliberate attention to God and to the figure of Jesus in his crisis-filled manner of life, if we are to keep the spark of faith alive within us at more than a formal level – like a pan of water for ever just simmering!  Jesus’ baptism holds us to the sense of crisis – which he held to the end.

The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

Arms of Lady Katherine Leveson

The Foundation of Lady Katherine Leveson
Registered Charity no. 213618
Temple Balsall, Knowle, Solihull, West Midlands B93 0AN

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