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Who are you? – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Title of sermon: Who are you?

Date/time/service: Sunday 10th January 2021 – Epiphany 1 The Baptism of Christ

Passage of scripture: Acts 19.1-7 & Mark 1.4-11

It was in 1223 that Francis of Assisi had the brilliant idea of creating a Christmas crib. His aim was to help people focus on God’s gift of Jesus to the world. To start with the nativity scene created was with live people and animals but within a very short time this developed into an inanimate affair with statues, rather like our own magnificent crib here at the Minster. Within 100 years of the first nativity scene in Francis’ home town there were nativity scenes in every Catholic church in Italy and soon after the practise spread further afield.

Whenever I read the first chapter of Mark’s gospel I wonder what would have happened if Mark’s gospel was the only gospel to survive. Christmas would be very different because we wouldn’t have the story of the birth of Christ to celebrate. Presumably, in addition to Holy Week and Easter the other major festival of the Church would be today, the day we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. If Mark had been the only gospel to survive instead of cribs containing Mary, Joseph and the baby surrounded by animals, shepherds and kings, we would have the wild figure of John the Baptist pouring water over the head of the adult Jesus with a dove suspended above them. It’s one thing for churches the world over us to set a scene in a stable covered with straw, it would be quite a challenge for us all to set a scene in the middle of a river!

Clearly the most important event for Mark at the beginning of his story of Jesus was not his birth but his baptism. He makes it absolutely clear that John the Baptist is following in the footsteps of the great Old Testament prophets and by so doing sets his story in the context of all that had gone before. In Mark’s story Jesus is the fulfilment of prophecy.

Clearly for Mark the Baptism of Christ is a world changing event. But it is good to remember that at the time it happened it was just an eccentric religious leader pouring water over the head of an unknown man in the middle of nowhere in particular. Perhaps the thing I love most about this strange story is that, as Jesus emerges from the water and the dove descends, the voice of God is heard to say,

‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Mark 1.11

This is before Jesus has done anything else that Mark thinks is worth recording. As far as we know Jesus had done no miracles, he had not exorcised any demons, or healed any lame or blind people, he had shared no teaching and told no parables and yet God proudly identifies him as his Son and says he is pleased with him. Mark does not tell us how old Jesus is but he is clearly an adult, so, it seems that to this point Jesus has led an ordinary life in obscurity – but God honours that ordinary, obscure life by telling Jesus that he loves him and is pleased with him.

Sometimes I watch things like ‘Britain’s got talent’ or ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and see the families of people on these programmes being interviewed. Without exception, when asked about how their family member is performing they will say how proud they are of them and how much they love them, as if the fact that they can sing or dance is what makes them special. This is not God’s way. God does not wait for Jesus to perform as the Messiah before he says he loves his son and is pleased with him …. in Mark’s gospel God makes that clear right at the beginning, before Jesus does or says anything worth writing down.

The fact that the love of God is not earned but is freely given is central to our understanding of who God is. But it is also central to our own sense of who we are, to our own sense of identity.

I remember reading about a man who was arrested by the Nazis and sent to a Concentration Camp. At his lowest point he reflects that he had lost everything; his career, his family who he assumed were all dead, his clothes, he wore only a prison uniform, his hair which had been shaved off, and even his name, the number tattooed on his wrist was all that identified him. He wonders who he is, what his identity is …. all those things we usually use to identify ourselves, job, family, relationships, dress had gone … from the outside he was just a weak and feeble body with a number …. so who was he – what was his identity now? I have never forgotten this and often reflect on it when I visit people who have lost everything, sometimes even their minds – who are they now? What is their identity?

The answer, for me, is to be found in the story of Jesus’ baptism when the voice of God is heard to say to the obscure carpenter’s son standing in a muddy river in the middle of nowhere, this is my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased. Despite the fact that we do not always please God by our behaviour, God also says to each one of us in our ordinariness and obscurity, ‘this is my child, the beloved’. This is our abiding identity, even when everything else we usually use to identify ourselves is gone, God still says to each one of us, ‘this is my child, the beloved’.

In conclusion, I heard an astronaut being interviewed on the radio yesterday. He recounted being in the International Space Station and in the course of his work a fellow astronaut in the station told him something that ‘earth’ had just said. He reflected that his colleague, in that moment, saw herself as distinct even from the earth. As she hurtled through space, thousands of miles from earth, she was outside separate from the earth. Even then, of course, the voice of God was saying of her, ‘this is my child, the beloved’.

As we reflect on the Baptism of Christ today let us rejoice that, like Jesus, we are beloved children of God. Let us continue to strive to live our lives in such a way that God can also say of us, ‘with you I am well pleased’. But even when we fail at that, even when our lives seem only ordinary and obscure, even when all that we usually use to identify ourselves is lost or taken from us, even if we find ourselves hurtling through space, somewhere, deep inside, may we continue to hear God’s voice giving us our true and abiding identity, ‘you are my beloved child’.

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