All in the eye of the Beholder?

Sermon preached on The Baptism of Christ 

 I’ve sometimes referred to Epiphany as “the season of revelation” – a time when  we gradually learn more about Christ’s identity. And this first week of Epiphany has seen revelations of a different kind, however, and not always welcome ones.

I suspect that for many people Friday evening was rather spoiled by the publication of a report by the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, – which stated that, after all,  Red wine is NOT particularly good for our health.

Presumably now we can wait for a u-turn on dark chocolate too!

But then, almost at the same time, there was some surprisingly good news for some of us. Other voices this week have been proclaiming the health benefits of the next superfood.

And what was it they were celebrating? –  well, naturally, it was the Black Pudding.

Speaking as someone who grew up only a few miles from Bury Market, in Lancashire – the true home of the Black Pudding – I have to say that I was rather surprised to hear this particular revelation!   I do actually like the taste of black pudding, and I have been known to enjoy the odd Full English breakfast when it’s on offer – but I’d certainly never thought of either  of those things as  health food!

Apparently, however, black pudding is a valuable source of iron, of potassium, of calcium and magnesium – while not posing the same health risks recently attributed to processed meats such as bacon and ham.

But then, of course, even before we’ve had chance to digest that information let alone some actual black pudding,  someone else has to come along to spoil it all:  a spokesman for the Institute of Food Research pointed out that black pudding is also around 15 – 20% fat, high in calories and in salt.  Possibly NOT quite so good for us after all!

It may be then, that if you wanted to assess whether or not this particular northern delicacy is for you,  your gut reaction to the list of ingredients may be at least as good as test as a list of the chemical traces found in them.

As so often – it’s a matter of perspective – what you “see” depends on what you were looking for in the first place.

So, before I either start to make you feel hungry OR put you off your lunch completely, let’s turn to the particular “revelation” of this morning’s Gospel.

Here again there is a question of perspective.

This particular event – the Baptism of Christ – is recorded in all four gospels, but with a slightly different focus. It’s not always clear, for example, whether the voice from heaven is addressed to the reader, to the crowds gathered by the Jordan or – as seems the case with the version from Luke’s gospel that we’ve just heard – to Jesus himself.

“YOU are my Son, the beloved, in YOU I am well pleased.”

In other Gospels we read “This is my Son” and “He is my Son” – slightly less direct and a slightly more theatrical presentation of God the Father, perhaps.

We simply can’t know which if these accounts, if any, is factually correct. Taken together, the four gospels encourage us to ponder what effect this event had on all those who were there – and whether it’s possible that this was the point where Christ first realised the full implications of his own identity  –  the human Jesus grasping at his Father’s divine revelation as we do.

The common factor in all four gospels however is the Father’s expression of love for Jesus – it is that which is reveals to US the true nature of God and which, in context, gives Jesus the strength to face what lies ahead.

And that revelation, I think, IS for the reader of the gospels –  IS for the crowd gathered around Jesus and IS for Jesus himself. What we learn here is that the Father loves the Son NOT because of what he has done – but because of who he is.

Jesus’ real ministry has yet to begin – and it’s that bedrock of divine love that will enable him to see it through.

It’s because Jesus is loved from before the foundation of the world, that he can withstand the isolation of the desert wilderness, that he dares to console the outcasts, to challenge the religious authorities, to endure the shame and agony of the Cross.

He knows who he is and that he is precious in God’s eyes –  and that no matter how hostile the stares of others, nothing will change that fact. “You are my Son, the beloved.”

I’ve hinted that the same reassurance is intended for us, the readers of the Gospels, as well – and if we’re not so sure about that – perhaps Isaiah’s perspective on God can help us: the God who says “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine. You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you. Do not fear for I am with you.”

Just as at the Baptism of Christ, then, Isaiah presents to us a vision of God, who loves us – NOT because of the wonderful deeds we may have done, NOT even because of the quality of our faith – but because He has formed us and knows exactly who we are – has always known us – and, even so, yearns for us to be his.

We don’t have to earn his forgiveness – He has redeemed us.

We don’t have to earn his love – just to accept it.

That unbidden, undeserved love does not give us license just to do whatever we choose, nor is it an excuse just to do nothing with our lives.

God calls us by name – he has plans for us.

For our families – for all whom we love – we find strength and patience to bear many things, to risk many things, that are not obviously in our own interests, but which, instinctively, we know are the right things to do. That same instinct, that same resilience, is part of our proper response to God’s love.

As we continue to step into this new year, then,  with all the possibilities and uncertainties that it will bring, may we do so trusting that it is US whom God calls “beloved” – and that he will journey with us through whatever lies ahead.