Sunday Sermon 

Sermon for the first Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 3:15-17; 21-22

 

This is a very visual passage, this account in Luke of Jesus’ baptism, containing several vivid images, and I wonder what pictures it brings to your mind?

 

You may have pictured the scene like a photo or painting:

On the banks of the Jordan a crowd has gathered to hear John’s powerful preaching, his message to them is to act justly, to love mercy and to repent and turn from their wrongs. All of them have come forward and are baptised in the river. Jesus too is baptised, in and by water and, as he prays, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove alights on him and from the heavens God speaks:  'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'

 

Is this the picture you had in mind as you listened to the reading?

 

Or did your imagination see the harvest scene of farm workers threshing in the barn, beating to separate the grain from the chaff, winnowing with pitchforks so that as the valuable grain is lifted it falls to the floor to be gathered and stored, while the worthless chaff blows into the corner where it can be collected and burned.

 

Or were you uncomfortably imagining what it might be like to be baptised by Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with fire?

 

Both these images, of the harvest threshing and baptism by fire are physical, violent even, and refer to God’s judgement.

The fire may allude to the refiner’s fire used to purify silver and gold. The intense heat burns off the impurities and leaves the metal pure and gleaming. Both these images are to do with separation, of the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, the dross from the gold, the sheep from the goats. Not ideas we may be comfortable with, in association with ourselves and others, whether we think that what is implied is that our worst excesses shall be scrubbed off to reveal us at our best, or that we may be weighed individually in the balance and found wanting.

 

In Malachi, the prophet writes,

‘For he is like a refiner’s fire…and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness,’ and more ferociously still he says, ‘See the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts.’

 

The first of the pictures, the baptism by the River Jordan is, by contrast, one of love and recognition, of peace and prayer. God acknowledges Jesus as his Son, the people are baptised, and there is harmony between Father, Son, and God’s people; there is connection between heaven and earth through the voice that comes from the heavens; and the dove that descends to mark Jesus out as special also links God’s Holy Spirit with God’s people on earth. Baptism is a sacred moment, a sacrament, about belonging to God in Christ, about new life, and new beginnings, about shedding the old ways, and embracing the new, about belonging in a community of faith, but much more than a rite of passage, it is about receiving the Holy Spirit and living in his light. Luke’s gospel is sometimes called ‘the Book of the Holy Spirit’!

 

God’s words to Jesus, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved,’ are echoed again and again in the New Testament as applying to us too!

‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’ John 1:12

‘for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith’ Gal 3:26

‘for all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God’ Rom 8:14

‘therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us’ Eph 5:1

See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God’ 1 John 3:1

 

So, on the one hand we are beloved children of God, made, known, forgiven, loved, connected to God as a Father through Jesus, our brother, saviour, and friend. On the other hand, we are subject to God’s law and justice and ultimate judgment, though it is tempered with mercy.

 

So how are we to marry and hold in our heads and hearts these very different concepts?

 

Jonah, you may remember, when he finally obeyed God and went to Nineveh to warn the people of their judgment and doom, was disgusted when they repented, and God showed them mercy instead and saved them. John here has also warned the people in strong terms. In the proceeding passage he yelled at them,

‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.’ They do so, and what they receive, in fact, is not wrath but baptism and blessing.

 

The parable of the Prodigal Son combines these threads, of judgment, mercy, and love. One son squanders his inheritance on wine, women and gambling and turns away from his father in shame. When he returns (turns back or repents), with nothing left, he knows he deserves censure, but he hopes for mercy. He receives instead the rapturous welcome of a loving father for his son, and there is rejoicing that what was lost has been found.

 

This message recurs many times in the New Testament, that heaven is available to all, all are invited to the banquet, that God does not want to lose a single one of all he has created, that he will go to great lengths to find the stray lamb and rejoice when it is found.

‘Indeed’, says John, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’

And even Malachi, in the last words of his book, the very last words of the Old Testament says:

‘Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.’

 

The older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son is no more beloved for having stayed and worked hard and behaved responsibly. We are not loved by God according to our efforts and merits, for then we might all expect censure and judgment, as universally falling short. That is not to say that we can wallow in selfishness! Love breeds love. The love of God the Father is given freely and unconditionally, and though we may distance ourselves from him, he is still at home, and we can turn back to live as his beloved children. Being a beloved child of God is a gift, an act of grace, a blessing. And it is a blessing that we can share, letting others know that they too are beloved of God.

‘Becoming the beloved’, says Henri Nouwen in ‘Life of the Beloved’, ‘is pulling the truth revealed to me from above down into the ordinariness of what I am thinking of, talking about, and doing from hour to hour.’

 

Let us then know ourselves to be beloved, give love for love, blessing for blessing, allow our hearts to be purified and transformed as we go through the refining process of life, stay near to God, even if it means straying and returning many times, and have faith in God’s grace and mercy, trusting that he longs to welcome us home as his beloved children at the end.

Amen.

 

Sarah Emanuel

9th January 2022