Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack at a baptism at St Michael & All Angels on 14th August 2016
Jeremiah 23:23-9, Luke 12:49-56
‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’
So here we are, gathered to witness and celebrate the baptism of Eva, Ruby, and Louie and together to share in a meal of simple foods – bread and wine, a gift given to us by Jesus, a meal he asked us to share. Then into these celebrations come those hard hitting words of Jeremiah and Jesus, words that challenge us and perhaps make us feel uncomfortable, words that you may think a bit strange for a baptism. So what is going on?
Well, I would like to suggest that if we dig around just a little, we may come to the conclusion that in fact, that are perfect words for a Baptism, reminding us what it means to be a member of this community we call ‘the church’, a community committed to following Jesus, playing our part in building the Kingdom of God He came to proclaim. So let’s do just a little bit of digging and see what we find!
The words of Jeremiah were written a very long time ago; words born out of a time of injustice, chaos and often violent conflict, culminating in the siege of Jerusalem. People were starving, many were dying; national and family life was being destroyed. Many of those who survived were then deported as slaves. The destruction of the Temple shook the religious and political foundations of the people’s identity. From this maelstrom came questions about meaning – where was the God who gave them land and promised to be with them. Had God abandoned them, forgotten them? Events cried out for interpretation to give new understanding. This is the work of Jeremiah – to explain events, divine justice and to point the people to a new way of living, a new future.
So this morning, we hear Jeremiah speaking to a people in exile. We hear God’s anger directed at the false prophets claiming to speak for God, yet their words are filled with lies and deceit, aimed at making the people forget God. Jeremiah interprets all that the exiles have experienced, their pain, their suffering and the demise of the nation, and sees much of it rooted in the lying and deceit of priests and prophets, and the leaders who have duped the people. But the faithfulness and loyalty of the exiles is also challenged – they must close their ears and their minds to the words of false prophets, and place their trust, their loyalty in the hands of the one true God who will lead them back to their promised land.
But people struggle and are reluctant to change; so God continued to speak through his prophets, urging new beginnings, putting God at the centre of their lives. The last of those prophets was John the Baptist, calling the people to see the works of God in their midst; pointing the people to ‘the one who is more powerful than I. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’.
And that of course is Jesus whose strong words about division and fire ring in our ears this morning; words that make us feel uncomfortable. A stark contrast to Jesus teaching about forgiveness, peace-making, being non-judgemental, but words we need to hear.
Jesus can see that a crisis is coming, and his own fate will be bound up in that crisis. It is a crisis that will see once more the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. We can hear his desperation, frustration that so few of his contemporaries could see what was happening around them. They were good at forecasting the local weather, so why, why can’t they see what is going on around them – from the Roman occupation to the oppressive regime of Herod; arrogant high priests and the Pharisees making people jump through more and more legal and ritualistic hoops rather than enabling to draw closer to the one true God who calls them; the diminishing of God’s children rather than enabling them to grow and flourish. And in the middle of it all a young man announcing the Kingdom of God, healing the sick and releasing those bound by life’s injustices. Why were the people so unable to put two and two together and realise that a crisis was looming – a catastrophic confrontation and clash of cultures – the Kingdom of God pitched against the kingdoms of the world, a crisis that would tear families and communities apart.
Still today, there are people in our world living under siege, suffering intolerable violence and starvation. Then as now, to live according to the values of God’s kingdom poses a challenge, a threat to all who would rather adhere to the values of the kingdoms of this world. Jesus urges us to look at what is happening around us and to measure that against the values of his Father’s kingdom. He has no voice but ours and we, together with the church throughout the world, must find our prophetic voice, and with courage speak out against the injustices that diminish our brothers and sisters.
This is the work of all the baptised people of God, the work that Eva, Ruby and Louie will share. In Baptism, our lives are bound to the life of Christ and we commit to a way of life that gives life – that shines like a light in the dark corners of our lives, our communities, our nation and our world. In these early years, Eva, Ruby and Louie’s parents and Godparents, through God’s grace, will teach them by their example what this means. It will not always be easy; difficult and perhaps painful, decisions may have to be made. But that is the only path that will ultimately lead to freedom, justice and wholeness, shalom – true peace – for all God’s children: children of all nations, colours, cultures and creeds.
It begins with water, the stuff of life itself, without which nothing can survive. Yet water can also drown and destroy. Baptism is about both these – symbolising the movement from death to life – from being self-centred to God-centred. This morning, the water flowing over the heads of Eva, Ruby and Louie will symbolise that movement to new life; and in that action is brought together all the mixed stuff of life and God’s transforming love. Amen