Isaiah 42, vv 1-9; Matthew 3, vv13-17
So Christmas is over, decorations have been packed away, the wise men have been and gone and we’ve just sat down to relax from the hectic that is for most of us what the festivities bring. Some of us may even have started to look ahead, to plan for 2020 but the mystery of the baby and his precarious start to life still lingers and, like Mary, we’re maybe in the mood to sit awhile, pondering.
Then wham, our readings catapult us from that image of vulnerable little one, in the care of his humble family, straight to the sudden and striking appearance of Jesus as grown man, starting his mission and ministry.
Now there will be some among us, labouring with raising little ones, who might indeed wish away those childhood years, with their endless demands on time, energy, emotion and purse. They may be thinking ‘if only’, if only we could jump ahead from toddler to mature and independent adult, job done. But really we know that would be to miss out on the adventure of helping to shape the growing person, watching and supporting the realisation of their potential, part of the curious mixture of genetics, environment and upbringing that make most of us who we are and who we become.
And I think that’s why I find that leap from baby to man on a mission such a shock. It’s a bit like the Apostles’ creed, which goes ‘born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate’.. and you think, hold on a minute, how did that happen. Surely the bits in between were important too. Those years from 2 to 30 have to have been important in shaping the life and ministry of Christ just as we can trace the influence of our own early years on the people we are today.
So I want to think a little bit this morning about the ‘in between’ and how Jesus became the man we see in the pages of the gospels, owning his humanity and his deity, in order that he might be, as Isaiah foretells, a light for the Gentiles, opening the eyes of the blind, freeing people from captivity and darkness. And I hope as we explore this together we will realise a bit more about who We are, IN and TO God, and be energised afresh for the journey Ali spoke about last week in continuing Jesus’ mission.
It is widely thought that Jesus was around 30 when he began his ministry and only Luke’s gospel includes any reference to any part of his formative years. You will know the story of Jesus staying behind in the temple and responding to his parent’s worry by reminding them that he had to be in his father’s house. It’s one small window on the upbringing that Jesus experienced, but as all of us who share in caring for children know, a great deal goes into nurturing a child, a teenager, a young person. They are shaped by their parenting, their culture, their place geographically, historically and socially and in those days, much more than is now the case it really did take a whole village, a community, to raise a child.
So many influences on Jesus’ development
- Mary who had pondered what she witnessed in her heart, taking Jesus on her knee and retelling stories of his birth and escape from Herod
- His aunt Elisabeth reciting the strange story of his cousin John’s birth
- knowing something of the parallel life lived in the wilderness by John, perhaps visiting him there
- father/son time working wood and learning about adult responsibilities
- visiting the synagogue with all the other boys to learn the Scriptures and heritage
- being part of the daily pattern of small town life in Nazareth and its rural surroundings
- noticing the struggles, pains and injustices through which his community lived
I invite you to think of more as we reflect how Jesus went through the process of becoming the person who emerges in today’s readings. Jesus was not born able to tie his own shoe laces or knowing how to work a lathe. Luke’s gospel tells us that he grew in wisdom and strength. He learned, developed, matured as we did and the children around us do, and what was important to the young ones in our families and community was important for him too
- the meeting of basic needs
- the consistency and reliability of adults around him
- learning to handle emotions, deal with frustration, disappointment, sadness as well as joy, fulfilment and delight
- developing relationships of different types with different people
- the support to work out where his identity and his path in life
Just as Jesus’ body, mind, emotions developed it seems his awareness of his deity and his mission also went through a maturing process. Jesus’ experience was not like that of the ‘last emperor’, or even most members of our royal family, surrounded by servants and officials preparing them for ascent to the throne, reminding them daily of their purpose and future.
The scriptures record that Jesus took some time, even after the start of his ministry to claim his title and have it recognised by others – isn’t this the carpenter’s son, ‘what good can come out of Nazareth’ those around him said. Who do you say that I am, Jesus asked. It wasn’t obvious. So although we cannot know how Jesus became certain of his identity and where it would lead, we can reflect on how that evolution took place:
- stories of prophets, stars and angels
- moments of inspiration
- experiences of God in places of worship, in creation and in others
- conversations with John perhaps even before this baptism episode
- a growing inner certainty as the truths of the Jewish scriptures resonated within
- a sense that Israel’s salvation story which he knew so well was to become embodied in him
And so the Epiphany – Jesus’ appearing here in Matthew 3 – is not so much of a moment of sudden and great revelation as an emergence, an entering on to the stage where all that had been forming over the past 30 years would play out in mission and ministry.
How important then does that baptismal experience become. I have always seen the baptism as a sign for others, including us – the public signifying of the start of ministry, but think of the importance for Jesus of that incredible affirmation. Yes, you ARE my beloved Son and I am well pleased with you. We know how important affirmation is for our sense of self and I think Jesus needed that too – the deep, foundational assurance of being loved. And it is a relationship and a bond to which he returned again and again, taking time out from being with and giving to others, to be nourished and renewed in prayer, to rest in the presence of the one who loved him above all others.
And it is clear from the text that God delighted in his child too as the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. We struggle to understand the Trinity but perhaps mutual relationship is our best image, each member drawing from and giving to the other, in an endless cycle of love. We don’t often think of God as ‘needing’ but there is an eternal pattern of giving and receiving that is built into the fabric of God’s world and God’s being.
And that pattern leads to action, living out the calling to bring about God’s kingdom, resourced and sustained by love and to the dreadful cost of separation that took place on Calvary. We often dwell on the agony of Jesus and even the anguish of Mary but do we reflect on how God’s heart was broken?
So what does this mean for us?
I think at least 3 things and my ponderings have been influenced by this little book by Rowan Williams on being disciples. I don’t understand it all by any means but some of it is very compelling.
We’re here this morning because we are disciples, we’re trying to follow the God/man Jesus and as you might imagine Rowan Williams presents this as both a profound and simple calling.
- Firstly he says it’s about seeing the imprint of God in all things and all people. Jesus was both God and man and we are made in that image. That makes our status as human beings phenomenal. There is nothing more precious, more Godlike, than a single human person, Williams says, so we are to consider and treat each one, including ourselves, with reverence, dignity and respect. This is more than human rights that we accrue as a way of keeping everyone safe and free, Williams argues, it’s about inherent value. We just matter, all of us, each one – nothing to do with productivity or ability. Every life is sacred and every life counts because however hidden or undiscovered we have within the imprint of our God.
How would it be over coffee if we have our conversations with this truth in mind – I’m standing before the closest thing to God that I’m going to see today. How is the person I’m talking to showing God uniquely to me? How do I bring the Godlike part of me to this conversation?
- Secondly only mission and ministry that stream from love are godly and worth engaging in. Being a disciple, Williams says, means being called to see others from the perspective of an eternal, unflinching and unalterable love. And that love comes from the kind of assurance Jesus knew. We too need moments where we know that we are beloved sons and daughters, bringing delight to God, but I suspect we both long for and fear that intimacy in equal measure. If we can take it on board to any extent we live from a more open, honest, welcoming place. We take ourselves both more and less seriously and share life and faith more naturally, ready to learn and to receive in any encounter.
We have perhaps all had experience of – and sadly there is much historical evidence of – Christian mission being undertaken from other motives, the need to sure up our numbers perhaps, to bolster our own insecurity, to fulfil some sense of duty or responsibility. That is just so far from the pattern of humility, gentleness, servanthood and reciprocity that is in our scriptures.
- Thirdly, like Jesus, and as Maz would say, we are all on a journey and we are all part of others’ journeys. We piece together our story from insights, experiences, encounters, relationships. We develop our identity as children of God and as we practise community we help to shape others on their pathway. This is our story and our song, as the communion liturgy puts it, the often fragile, messy and challenging path of faith we’re on. We need one another to do this well.
It’s really all a bit awesome and I was thinking about how it works a little in practice for me. I set off for town on Friday thinking I will seek to encounter God in the people I meet this morning and of course it lasted for about 5 minutes. I bumped into someone I would not usually go out of my way to talk to, but I deliberately did, and was rewarded with a 5 minute rant about the state of Macclesfield footpaths. The most I could honestly say is that I didn’t feel annoyed at the end and did experience some empathy for what might really have been troubling that person. Is that it? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a start.
By contrast I do think I’ve seen that godly pattern of costly and generous love in a couple of things I’ve experienced this week. One is at work where bringing freedom, light and justice to families that have known abuse is actually an everyday reality for our teams and the people they work with. But it’s the work they do with each other than I think makes all the difference. We have a peer support group, a place where those who’ve been through difficult times, come together, sometimes learning new skills or gaining new insights into their experiences, sometimes just socialising and ending isolation for one another. I am increasingly convinced that it’s in the mutual giving that the real healing takes place, not what the staff do. They get people to the point where they can breathe again and create the space for sharing but it’s in supporting one another that people realise their own worth and many go from being victim to survivor to friend to volunteer to staff member. It’s an amazing thing to witness and feel some part of.
I also watched, and can thoroughly recommend, Gareth Malone’s latest choir venture set in Aylesbury young offenders institute where some of our most broken and dangerous young men reside. Rehabilitation is everyone’s aspiration but mental health is poor, risk of harm is high and change is incredibly difficult. The programme also shows the anguish of families who’ve watched their loved ones lose their way and be separated by prison walls. There is dignity, reverence and respect in Gareth’s interaction with the young men as he finds a way to let them express themselves in music and a stunning image of fathers and mothers’ love and pride in their children as they hug and congratulate their sons who’ve managed to show up and perform in the concert, against the odds.
So listen again to the words of Isaiah:
5 This is what God
the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
We gather this morning as people who need God to ‘hold our hand’ – to be steadied enough to look back and make sense of our pathway, to be held firm as we face hard times, to have the confidence to take a next step. We also remember what a joy it’s been to hold the hands of little ones as they have ventured out and accept that we too can bring delight as we seek to live in the eternal, unflinching and unalterable love of God.