The Baptism of Christ / First Sunday after Epiphany 2018
Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is our first Sunday service of 2018 so let me start by wishing you all a very happy New Year!
The new year is often a time of fresh starts, of new resolutions of thinking about who we are and trying, perhaps, to be a slightly better version of ourselves this time around. You could say that that is an annual version of what we do here every week when we confess that we have not been perfect and, I hope, we resolve to do better in the week ahead.
My main New Year’s resolution this year, as clichéd as it undoubtedly is, is to get out on my bike more. I have even signed up to the 58 mile London to Brighton bike ride in June to help incentivise me to actually do it and, to help encourage me even more, this was set as one of my objectives in my ministerial review – after all a healthy priest is better for me, for you and for the diocese. So I am now, officially, a MAMIL. A middle aged man in lycra. If you happen to see this Mamil peddling by looking like a wonderful vision in lycra, don’t hesitate to give me a wave – but don’t be offended if I don’t return the compliment – I may just be concentrating on not crashing or passing out!
But New Year needn’t just be about boring things like trying to get a little bit fitter; it can also be a time of taking stock and thinking a little more deeply about things. Perhaps to think about why we are Christians and what difference this may make to the way we live and how we perceive the world.
So, this morning I want to offer a brief reflection on two different ways of thinking about ourselves and our place within creation, and what a difference faith may make.
The first is the secularist view of creation and our place and purpose within it.
In this view the universe began purely as a result of the laws of physics, with no underlying purpose or ultimate cause, other the physics of matter itself. The universe expanded, stars formed and died and, over time, planets were created.
On this planet we call Earth the right conditions for life existed, not too far or too close to our sun, and over time simple life forms evolved into complex creatures, those that survived extinction continued to evolve until, from the realms of mammals (I am no longer talking about middle aged men in lyrca) there evolved human beings. As the most adaptable species on the planet human beings became the most widespread and numerous, and so here we are.
Let me be clear – on a scientific level I have no problem with any of that. I have no doubt that physical laws made the universe go bang in the same way they make my computer work, and I have no doubt that the laws of biology and natural selection created modern humans.
I am not a 6 day creationist, a dinosaur denier or a flat earther. Science can explain how everything which exists came to exist.
However, the problem with the purely secularist view of the world is that it refuses to look beyond the how to the why. For the secularist there was no ultimate cause behind the big bang, there was no guiding purpose behind the formation of the stars and planets and nothing behind our evolution other than the demands of evolution itself. We are simply biological creatures, living briefly amongst billions of similar creatures on a small rock in the midst of an infinite universe, with no ultimate cause, purpose or destination.
Cheery isn’t it. But it gets worse.
In a world without an ultimate cause or purpose there are no ultimate or absolute values. The only worth of a human being in such a world is either what it can produce or its value as a consumer. The economically inactive or those deemed a net drain on society, the disabled, the sick and the elderly, are seen as being of no intrinsic value at all.
But there is another way of looking at life, and that way is hinted at in today’s readings but, of course, it flows throughout the whole Christian story.
In the reading from Genesis we heard an extract from the first account of creation. Let me reiterate that Genesis is not and was never written as a literal, scientific, account of the process of how things happened, rather it is a seeking after understanding of why they happened. A theological search for the ultimate cause, rather than just the cause and effect.
In the beginning, at the start of all things, the earth was just a formless void – there was nothing. Nothing, that is, except God. And God’s first act is to send his Spirit into this formless void and to start to bring order from the chaos. God created light simply by speaking the words, light came into being and God saw that it was good. Here we have God as both the ultimate cause of creation and the source of values – the light is good because God said it was good.
The story of creation in Genesis continues through all creation until God gets to humanity – when he said: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness. And, in verse 28, after God created humanity in his image, both male and female, he blessed them and then declared the whole of his creation to be good.
In this view of the world neither the creation of the universe nor the creation of humanity is a random act without meaning – it was the chosen act by a creative God who not only brought all things into being but who declared it to be good – to have value not because of its economic worth but simply because God brought it into being and declared it to be good. And if that counts for creation as a whole, then how much more for humanity, created in the image of God. As you know there are about 7 billion humans alive on earth right now and, as I mentioned in my last sermon, there have been something between 45 billion and 60 billion people born since the time of Jesus and, of course, many more since the beginning of humanity itself. Each one of those billions of people were made in the image of God.
In a world without God one life amongst billions may be deemed worthless. In a life with God each person is in the image of God and therefore of infinite value.
But it gets better. God did not just create humanity in his own image and bless it. As we know from the story of Christmas just gone God actually stepped into that creation and formed himself in the image of humanity, in the person of Jesus. God makes us holy both through creation and through the incarnation.
The story of the baptism of Jesus is not placed accidentally next to Genesis. In Genesis God created order out of chaos by sending his spirit over the face of the waters, by creating light and calling it good.
In the baptism of Jesus, God brings order out of man-made chaos by sending his spirit upon the waters of the Jordan, Jesus is the new light of the world and God declares him to be good: “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased.”
But this is no gentle act – there is a revolution going on here – the veil of heaven is torn open. In Isaiah 64:1 the writer implored God to rend open the heavens and come down, and that is exactly what is happening here. God is no longer up in heaven apart from his creation, the division between man and God is destroyed by Jesus who brings God and man together. And this tearing apart of the division between man and God should also remind us of the tearing apart of the curtain of the temple when Jesus was crucified – Mark tells us again and again that in Jesus God has come down to man so that man might be lifted up to God.
God created humanity in his divine image but in the person of Jesus he opened the gateway for humanity to join with the divine.
In this world view, human beings are not meaningless sacks of biology clinging onto a rock in a vast and meaningless universe. We exist within a God-created order, made collectively and individually in the image of God and each of infinite value both to one another and to God.
The hard-line secularist will doubtless say that this is no more than wishful thinking, trying to make ourselves feel better about the emptiness of existence and that there is simply no proof of God. To this I would say two things: anyone who thinks that religion is about making us feel better about ourselves and life generally may have been reading a self-help book but they certainly know nothing about Christianity. Pick up your cross and follow me is not an easy path, in the face of eat, drink and be merry. And secondly, no God cannot be proved or discovered in the way you might a Higgs Boson particle. That is because that God is not an object that can be examined or found. God is a subject to be encountered and experienced in a subjective way. God is love and you cannot prove the existence of love, but you know instinctively when it is present.
So, in this new year, what difference does being a person of faith make to me?
It means that when I look at the universe I don’t just see an empty void, I see the canvas on which the God of love drew creation.
When I see the earth I don’t just see a rock orbiting a ball of gas I see a world formed by the God of love, who called it good.
When I see a fellow human I don’t see a consumer or a competitor or a waste of resources I see a fellow reflection of the image of God.
When I look to Jesus I see not an easy way out of the trials and tribulations of living in the real world but I see the union of God and man who lead the way by his life, death and resurrection back to the God of love who created us out of love and who blessed us as part of his good creation.
You pays your money and you takes your choice but I know which way I prefer.