Saturday, 11 January 2014

This Is My Son: An Arty Sermon on the Baptism of Christ

This is the sermon I have prepared for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ 2014. 

Water. So elemental, so vital, so life-giving, so refreshing, so powerful, so devastatingly destructive, so utterly necessary to life on this blue planet. It's been estimated that on average, a person would survive only between three and five days without water, even though we ourselves are 65% water. Water fascinates us and soothes us, cleanses and refreshes us, keeps us alive and alert; water worries us and, as we are seeing more and more, has the potential to overwhelm us completely, as one of the most dangerous forces on earth; yet water is benign enough be used as a control substance in allergy tests.

So we come this week to ponder the watery start to Jesus' public ministry, his baptism in the river Jordan. As yet no miracles have been performed, no teaching offered, no sick cured; and yet, here in the river, we see Jesus as he is, as all that he will go on to do will confirm about his unique divine identity as the Son of God.

The baptism of Jesus has caught the imagination of painters and artists down the centuries, and to help us think about who Jesus is this morning, we are going to look at three very different artworks from different times and places. 

The first is a very ancient icon of the baptism of Jesus; this is called an icon of the Theophany.

You'll remember that last week we celebrated Epiphany, the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ, and you may well know that 'epiphany' literally means 'upon the light', the very moment that the Magi turned to squint up into the night sky and noticed a new brightness. Theophany is similar; this word means 'the light of God'; in other words, the moment at which we see Jesus not simply as another devoutly Jewish man coming to be ritually cleansed, but as the light of God himself.

In this Theophany, water is gushing out from the rock as it did for Moses in the desert (Exodus 17; Numbers 20). This water is pouring forth with some gusto, yet Jesus is not swept away by it. In the Hebrew tradition, floods most commonly signify chaos and misrule; God in Psalm 29 is called 'king over the flood.' Jesus here is king of these floodwaters, at perfect peace in the midst of the flood, and the sea creatures are mastered by those either side of Jesus who ride them. Maybe anticipating the moment when he will walk on water, Jesus stands on a cross, beneath which two snakes' heads poke out. This same Jesus will bear a cross, this icon tells us, and that cross will crush the serpent underfoot as the prophets foretold. In other words, evil and chaos will be defeated through Jesus. 

Already that has started; an axe lies at the root of the tree by the side of the waters, as John says. Already the tree of evil has begun to be felled, and its demise is inevitable. And there John is, on the banks of the river, as the patriarchs who foretold the coming of the Messiah look on - and on the other side, the angels whose faces are exactly the same as the people's; or is it that the people have started to resemble the angels? Only the wings give it away as human and divine beings gather together around this one unique Jesus, fully divine and fully human. And, like the Epiphany star, the light from heaven. This is my Son; this Jesus, who is king over all that is chaotic and destructive, who will be nailed to a cross and who will overcome all that is evil; this Jesus in whom all humanity and all divinity are poured into one fragile human body. 

Some millennium or so later, the heterodox visionary William Blake painted three pictures of the baptism of Christ. 


This, too, is a theophany, a moment of the light of God shining out of the human body of Jesus. Light plays on the water and contrasts with the dark shadows of the hills and the darkness of the skies around the angelic clouds of light. Here the division between the angels and humans is clearer; the skies are not so much parted as concentrated as rows of angelic beings look on to witness the public identification of Jesus as the one on whom the Spirit, the dove who in this picture is pure white, pure light, rests. The prophecy of Isaiah talks of the light of the coming salvation of God as being like the light of a whole week (Isaiah 30:26); here, it is as if the light of a whole week is being focused down on the two figures in the river. In the icon, Jesus is facing us; here, he is facing away and we see, lit from above, his back. This is no mere artistry on Blake's part; Exodus 33 talks about the glory of God being so intense, so concentrated in the tabernacle, that Moses could see only God's back. Here, the same is being said of Jesus. The intense brightness of the glory of God is the same intense brightness of the glory of Jesus, because Jesus is God himself, shining in the darkness of this world's shadows.  This is my Son, the one who has come as a light into the darkness, the one in whom all the glory of God dwells. 

The theme of the light of Christ is explored in the final picture I'm going to show you, a chalk picture by Peter Paul Rubens, composed almost two hundred years before Blake's painting.  

Here the light and dark contrast is split right down the middle by a tree. The tree in the icon is small, and off to a side; here, the tree takes centre stage and it is Jesus who is off-centre, bathed in light. Maybe here we might think of God's plan for salvation for the world coming together in the baptism of Jesus. We might think of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden, the tree of temptation and fallenness. We might think of the cross, which Paul describes as a tree of cursedness. And we might think of the tree of life in the middle of the new Jerusalem, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. These trees define human life; our fallenness, our redemption in Christ, and our ultimate destiny as adopted children of God with Christ in the new heavens and new earth in which all is being made new. This is my Son, the one who takes on himself human brokenness and sin, who offers himself to be the curse to end all curses, to redeem humanity on the cross, and in whom all are invited to be part of the new creation. This is my Son, who splits history in two just as this tree splits this picture in two. 

So much to ponder this morning!So as we come to him now, in worship and prayer, we come to the one who is in control over all in our lives that is destructive and chaotic; we come to him as the light shining into the darkness of our world, whom we see not yet face to face but whose back view is as full of the glory of God as the God worshipped by Moses; we come him as the one who splits history in two, who takes on himself our sin and brokenness and who offers us healing and life as he makes all things new. Amen.      

1 comment:

  1. This is so instructive and so inspiring! Thanks Lucy :)