OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
BAPTISM OF CHRIST (11th JANUARY) 2015
Readings: Genesis 1:1-5
Acts 19:1-7 Mark 1:4-11
When the authors of Genesis and its two great creation stories set about telling their tales they did so not as a scientific explanation but as a theological explanation. In two different ways they wanted to speak of a God who breathed all that is known into existence, yet who still cares for and suffers with creation in its own on-going dramas. More than that, they wanted to speak of the paradox of a God who creates from without yet remains within, remains involved in creation in its personal and cosmic struggles. The second author even depicts God walking and working in and within the garden of the created universe, listening, punishing, caring, and remaining, ever-always.
When Mark sets out to tell the story of the one who he had come to know as the very heart of God – perhaps as one influenced by Hebrew thought he might dare to say the very entrails of God – when he tells the story of Jesus he begins with the strange and unavoidable historical observation that Jesus was baptised in the Jordan by his cousin John, baptised in a baptism for the remission of sin. It’s a tricky tale, because Christians came to know Jesus as sinless, and a nice deity should not be grovelling around in a river full of human sin. In fact the whole narrative of baptism shared by all four gospel writers raises that terrible question: what is a nice God like you doing in a grotty place like this? It is, ironically, the same question the authors of Genesis were addressing, but times had changed, and Jesus had happened.
Eastern orthodox depictions of the baptism of Jesus often show debris in the river beneath his feet. It is the detritus of human sin, left behind him. Some modern icons have used the modern detritus of a dying planet: batteries, tyres, broken glass, condoms and syringes. It is the same issue: what is a nice God doing in a place like this – and for that matter, what is a nasty notion like a condom doing in a sermon like this?
But if God is a rarefied and nice God then God is not in Paris when bullying and powerfully non-Islamic thugs shoot a Muslim policeman and assorted champions of free-speech. If God is a rarefied and nice God then God is not on our beaches and our roads when our loved ones die in far too great a number. If God is a rarefied and nice God then God has nothing to say in tragedy, and the death of a loved one echoes through the universe with a resounding "no", a resounding "my God my God why have you forsaken me", which is a highly theologised way of saying my God my God why do you not exist, why is the universe an empty and meaningless place?
When champions of freedom are shot in a Paris office no one should dance in the streets yelling platitudes about resurrection and eternity and justice. That was never the way that the gospel writers and Genesis writers were proclaiming. But slowly, by the authenticity of their lives and the integrity of their witness their story did begin to seep out into the Babylonian and later the Roman Empire: thuggery is not the end.
God (though even that word may be damaged seemingly beyond repair) still opens those divine entrails to the pain of the universe, still feels that pain, and is still drawing that universe to an as yet incomprehensible and invisible end in which death and injustice are not the final word. The Genesis writer was trying to tell us that the Source of all existence has not deserted existence, and still draws that first day existence through its pain to a final and future glorious Seventh Day. The authors of the gospels were trying to tell us, against all odds, that the cry of death on a cross or in an upstairs Paris office is not the final word, but another tragic parenthesis on the way to what the hymnist calls "that yet more glorious day." The Baptism of Christ, like the entrance of God into Existence, is neither more nor less than the very Source of existence hitching creation in all its ambiguity onto a trailer that ultimately leads to eternal life and light, in all its incomprehensibility.