Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Thinking about suffering

Reflection for morning worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator, streamed on Tuesday 21st March 2023 

‘Sickness brings patience, patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope’.

If you’ve ever been to the Galway Clinic, you’ve most likely seen these words, written on the wall in the reception area close to the chapel, and attributed to St Paul. When I first saw them, I thought what a strange thing to write on the wall of a hospital. When I’m sick - in pain, frightened, suffering – I’m not inclined to feel patient. All I want is for someone to make my suffering go away!

These words are of course a variant of Paul’s words in his Epistle to the Romans (5:1-11), which we have just heard. ‘But we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’

Now we all know about suffering – it is a part of our common experience as human beings. And surely suffering is a bad thing, a manifestation of evil within the world. I don’t mean pain. Pain can be a good thing, when for instance it teaches us as children not to put our hands in the fire. Suffering is more a psychological torment that comes from feeling bereft, out of control, in danger, unloved, hopeless, only sometimes from unremitting pain. Suffering drives us to forget everything and everybody else around us in our rage to be rid of it. Suffering is evil.

So how can Paul possibly ask us to ‘boast in our sufferings’? Doesn’t that sound a bit like glorying in something evil? Let me try to tease out some thoughts about suffering.

First let’s think about the causes of suffering.

Much of the suffering that we see about us, and experience ourselves, is caused directly or indirectly by you or by me, or by other human beings. Consider the wholesale suffering caused by war and oppression, driven by human greed and thoughtlessness. Or what you might call retail suffering, from hurtful words to a loved one up the scale to violence, rape and murder, caused by people like you and me not living up to God’s loving message. This suffering is due to our human propensity to sin, what theologians call ‘original sin’. We know we are all sinners, we all need forgiveness, and Jesus assures us that our loving-father God will forgive us if we truly repent.

But there’s an awful lot of suffering that we really can’t trace back in this way to human sin. I’m thinking of the suffering caused recently by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. I’m thinking of the suffering caused by illness and disease, for instance by Covid-19. And I’m thinking about the suffering caused by the fact of death – in the long run we know death will separate us from all that we know and love. All of this suffering seems to be due to the working out of the natural laws of physics, chemistry, biology, in the universe created by almighty God.

As Christians we believe our God to be both almighty and loving.

But surely if God were really both, he would not allow such a burden of suffering to exist. He would not have made us humans subject to original sin, we would never cause others to suffer. He would have created a universe in which natural disasters and disease were absent, and where we would be immortal. Therefore, some say, if God exists he can’t be both: if God is almighty he can’t always be loving, and if God is always loving he can’t be almighty. This is known as the Problem of Suffering, or the Problem of Evil, and it has been debated by philosophers and theologians since time immemorial. How can we resolve this paradox?

St Paul cuts through this logical hair-splitting by focussing on God’s love. As he puts it, ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. Jesus, with perfect obedience to his loving father God, suffered a cruel death on the cross, in order to show us all how to deal with the suffering and death, which every one of us will know. ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’, Paul says. It is this love which gives us the character to endure suffering, and never lose hope. Our Christian hope is that by God’s grace our faith will justify us – that is our faith will put us in the right relationship with God – and so bring us ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’.

How amazing it is that almighty God through his Son Jesus Christ should express such loving solidarity toward sinful people like you and me! How comforting we find that solidarity when we ourselves suffer!


Sunday, 12 March 2023

The Samaritan woman at the well

Address given in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan Church on Sunday 12th March 2023, the 3rd of Lent

Today’s Gospel reading (John 4:5-42) about the Samaritan woman at the well is a beautifully vivid story, isn’t it?

To begin to understand it we need to know something about the Samaritans and their relationship to Jews like Jesus and his disciples in the NT period.

Samaritans and Jews saw each other as outsiders and lived apart. These two peoples shared so much, the same land, the same God, and the same Torah – the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, but they saw each other as having different religions. To Jews the Samaritans were ritually unclean – they contaminated anything they touched. Samaritans, on the other hand, believed they had preserved the true Israelite religion, which the Jews who returned from exile in Babylon had perverted. The Jews worshipped God on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but the Samaritans worshipped God on Mount Gerizim. As they both still do, for a small Samaritan community has persisted for centuries of persecution in the land of Palestine.

But notice, Jesus consistently tried to break down the barriers between Jews and Samaritans. For example, the Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, the disciples do something surprising.

They go into the city of Sychar to buy food. But this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city. Any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards. I wonder whether they brought any food back?

While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. ‘Give me a drink’, he says. She is intrigued, ‘How is it’, she replies, ‘that you a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’. She is surprised that a Jew like Jesus would talk to a Samaritan woman, let alone accept a drink from her.

Their conversation is a model for how we should respond to outsiders in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture. It is a real dialogue, involving both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation of being heard, and listening honestly to what the other is saying, rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say. And it is tinged with good humour.

They speak about water. Jesus says, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ And the woman replies with wit, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

And they speak about their different faiths. The woman says, ‘I have no husband’, and Jesus laughingly replies, ‘You are right … for you have had five husbands’ – no doubt a reference to the five books of the Torah. The woman says, ‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain’ – Mount Gerizim – ‘but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem’. To which Jesus replies, ‘The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’

For Jesus it does not matter where or how you worship God, so long as you do so in spirit and in truth. And it should not matter for us either.

When the Disciples arrive back, they are shocked to find Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman.

They are filled with questions, but they cannot bring themselves to ask them. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger.

But their failure and their prejudices are shown in another way: the woman gives Jesus water as she and Christ talk, but they fail to join in the conversation about faith and about life.

They are still unable to articulate their faith, but the woman recognises Christ as a Prophet. They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say and came to believe that Jesus is truly the Saviour of the world.

Jesus was thirsty, he asked the Samaritan woman for water, and she gave it to him.

But in return she received much more from Jesus: he gave her the ‘living water’ which became in her ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’. She believed in Jesus, and because of her many Samaritans came to believe in him. They came to believe that Jesus ‘is truly the Saviour of the world’.

‘I am thirsty’, is the fifth of the seven last words of Christ from the Cross on Good Friday, and in response he is given wine with bitter hyssop (John 19:28-30). Many people have compared the thirst of Christ on the Cross with his request to the Samaritan woman, ‘Give me a drink’, and the promise that follows, ‘Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty’.

In expressing his thirst out loud in that cry from the cross, Christ shows his humanity and his humility. In expressing such a basic need, he shows his solidarity with all those people, living or dying, healthy or sick, great or small, who are in need, and who in humility are forced to ask for a cup of water.

In his thirst on the Cross, I think the dying Christ seeks something much more than water or vinegar. He thirsts for a new humanity to be formed and shaped through his incarnation, life and passion, death resurrection and ascension. His thirst is for our salvation.

So to finish:

Let us give thanks for the openness and trust of the Samaritan woman, and pray that Christ will give us, as he gave her, ‘living water’ which will become in us ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.

O God, the fountain of life,
to a humanity parched with thirst
you offer the living water that springs from the Rock,
our Saviour Jesus Christ:
stir up within your people the gift of your Spirit,
that we may profess our faith with freshness
and announce with joy the wonder of your love.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Have a happy, holiday Lent!

A reflection given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Ash Wednesday, 22nd February 2023

I’m not going to preach a sermon, but I do want to say a few words about the meaning of Lent.

The Church invites us, as we heard in the introduction to this service, ‘to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word’.

But to many in the wider society we inhabit, Lenten fasting and self-denial seem plain daft, perverse even.

‘Oh what a bore!’, I hear them say, ‘Why all this guilt-inducing, self-flagellating, call to gloomy repentance? Go away, and let us get on with our busy lives.’

There is no shortage of people to mock those of us who take Lent seriously.

My answer to them is this: Lent is not a burden – it’s not meant to be a burden, but a gift. Lent is a holiday, a holiday from the everyday, and an opportunity!

·        Lent is an opportunity for me to liberate myself for a while from one of those little habits of luxury that can so easily become addictive bad habits. It is a chance to prove to myself that I am more than the sum of my desires. And after the fast, thank God, I shall relish what I denied myself even more.

·        Lent is an opportunity to spend more time with God, to feed my spiritual side, my soul. God is the great lover of souls, but often I feel too busy to respond to his love. There are so many ways to spend time with God that it is difficult to choose, from prayer, or reading scripture, or some other worthwhile book I wouldn’t otherwise find time to pick up, to joining with others in a Lenten course.

·        Lent is an opportunity to live more simply for a while and enjoy the present moment. Heaven knows, most of us could do with a break from the pressures to be busier and busier to acquire and consume more and more. Lent is also the time of lengthening days and burgeoning spring – let us enjoy what God has given us - for free.

·        Lent is an opportunity to be as generous as can be from the surplus of good things God has given me. There is nothing so pleasurable and good for the soul than to help someone in need or donate to a good cause.

But whatever we choose to do or not to do, we must not be gloomy about it! As Jesus tells us, ‘when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

May we all have a joyful, holiday Lent!



Tuesday, 14 February 2023

Remembering St Valentine and celebrating romantic love

Marty and I chose that passage, chapter 2 of the Song of Songs in the OT, to read together at a service to bless our marriage here in Killodiernan church back in 1995. And it is a delight to read it together again, nearly 30 years on!

It seems particularly apt for St Valentine’s Day tomorrow, when this service will be streamed. The Song of Songs is a great celebration of romantic love, love between two people who desire each other and long to be together, lovers who are in love. 

Historically, the Church has often found physical desire and its sexual expression to be a bit difficult, a bit embarrassing perhaps. In both the Hebrew and the Christian tradition, many have preferred to interpret the Song of Songs as about the love between God and his people Israel, or the love between Christ and his Church. But I suggest this is being a bit po faced. The Song of Songs has been included in the Biblical canon, I suggest, to signify God’s blessing upon all of us who have experienced the delight of being in love with another in a committed relationship.

Some years ago, Marty and I found ourselves in Dublin on St Valentine’s Day, and we decided to attend a Mass in Whitefriar Street Church, which since 1836 has held a reputed relic of the saint, given by Pope Gregory XVI to an Irish Carmelite preacher called John Spratt. The atmosphere in the church was quite emotional, packed as it was with loving couples young and old, and single people longing for love.

St Valentine was a 3rd Century Roman priest or bishop martyred on February 14th AD269 on the orders the emperor Claudius II. He is an early hero of the Roman church who refused to renounce his faith and acknowledge the emperor as divine. But how did he come to be associated with romantic love? The reason is quite obscure, but there are legends that Valentine defied the orders of Claudius II by secretly marrying couples, allowing the husbands to escape conscription into the pagan army, and that to remind them of their vows he gave them hearts cut from parchment. 

Whatever the truth of this, by the time of Chaucer in the 14th Century his feast day was already recognised as a day for romance and devotion. And this continues to our own day – intensified if anything by those who wish to market cards and flowers and intimate meals to couples in love

As we remember St Valentine on his feast day, let us also use the day to celebrate romantic love as a gift from God, and pray for loving couples everywhere.

Gracious God, we pray at this time for loving couples. We thank you for uniting their lives and for giving them to each other in the fulfilment of love. Watch over them at all times, guide and protect them, and give them faith and patience, that as they hold each other’s hand in yours, they may draw strength from you and from each other; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday, 12 February 2023

Care for Creation

The Pillars of Creation are set off in a kaleidoscope of color in NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s near-infrared-light view. The pillars look like arches and spires rising out of a desert landscape, but are filled with semi-transparent gas and dust, and ever changing. This is a region where young stars are forming – or have barely burst from their dusty cocoons as they continue to form.

An address given in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Creation Sunday 12th February 2023, the 2nd before Lent.

I doubt if anyone here today believes that God created the universe in 6 days.

Through the patient work of scientists, studying the natural world and building on their predecessors’ discoveries, we now know so much more about creation than the authors of Genesis could. The universe began in an explosion of energy some 13 billion years ago. Our planet Earth was formed from the dust of exploding stars some 4 billion years ago, and the first life appeared soon after. There are at least 10 million distinct life forms on earth today. All are related, descending from a common ancestor. And life on earth has been just as diverse for 100s of millions of years.

Today’s 1st Reading from the first chapter of Genesis (1:1-2:3) is obsolete as a description of creation – it is a myth. To be taken seriously today Christians must engage with the language of science to talk about creation. Evolution is the way that God has created the diversity of life we see today. God has been at work creating it over geological aeons, he is doing so now, and he will continue to do so into the distant future.

But like all good myths the creation story in Genesis chapter 1 encapsulates deep truths which we should not carelessly discard. 

One of these truths is that God loves biodiversity - why should he make it if he doesn’t love it? We are told that ‘God saw everything that he had made and … it was very good’. If we love God then we must seek to protect the diversity of his creation – anything we do to damage it is an offence against him.

Another of these truths is that human beings are special, made in the image of God: ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them’, says Genesis.

We alone of all the creatures on earth are blessed with intelligence – we can imagine a future, plan how to bring it about, and act to make it happen. And we alone of all the creatures on earth possess a moral sense – we can tell right from wrong, distinguish truth from lies, prefer beauty to ugliness – as God does. We call this capacity conscience. If we follow our conscience we are able to do good, to be as good as God has created us to be, and in a sense we become co-creators with him. This is what it is to be truly human. Of course we know that all too often we fail at this – we sin – but we believe God will forgive us if we truly repent and mend our ways.

Yet the 1st chapter of Genesis also contains something more problematical.

Humankind is told, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’.

Well, the human race has certainly been fruitful and multiplied - there are now more than 8 billion people on planet Earth, and still increasing, though the annual rate is slowing. As a species we have subdued the Earth - human beings are consuming more resources than Earth can provide. By some estimates we are using today the resources of 1.8 Earths. The result is the ecological crises we are facing now - climate change, the degradation of natural ecosystems, and species extinction.

Too often people understand the command to ‘have dominion’ over Earth’s resources as a licence to exploit them greedily, to take as much as they can, without thought for the future. But this is wrong. It is wrong and it is sinful.

Wise farmers know they hold their land on a repairing lease for their successors. They know not to take more from the land than its fertility allows, and not to overstock their farm. Wise rulers protect their dominions in order that they may continue to flourish.

The second creation myth in the 2nd chapter of Genesis forbids over-exploitation of the Earth. God takes Adam, the archetypal human being, and places him in the Garden of Eden ‘to till it and keep it’, in other words, to care for it.

We human beings have a special responsibility to care for God’s creation.

The ecological crises we face have brought the importance of this into sharp focus. In response our different Christian traditions recognise that care for creation is a Christian imperative.

Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew challenges us, calling out human destruction of the natural world as a sin. Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato ‘Si, on Care for Our Common Home”, quotes Patriarch Bartholomew approvingly, and he appeals for ‘a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet … a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all’. And our Church of Ireland, along with the rest of the Anglican Communion, commits itself ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth’, as a mark of its mission.

The challenge has been laid down, and now it is up to Christians of all traditions to work together, with people of goodwill from other faiths and none, to care for and cherish the Earth, the Garden of Eden that God has given us.

This is the context in which Jesus’s words from the 3rd reading (Matt 6:24-33) speak to me.

Jesus says, ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

Our society’s single-minded pursuit of wealth in a consumer market economy is surely at the heart of the ecological crisis we face, which threatens our very civilisation. We have a choice to make: either we serve wealth – continue business as usual - and face destruction; or we serve God by changing our lifestyles to live simply without waste, protecting the environment, and generously supporting those in need.

Jesus understands very well that fear for the future is the greatest barrier to making lifestyle changes. He tells his followers not to worry, because God looks after his creatures. ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? … Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field … will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?’

Our heavenly Father knows what we need and is faithful. If we ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’, he will give us all that we need – just perhaps a little less than our greedy desires, but all we need. Part of our striving must be to care for and cherish the good Earth God has given us, and at the same time to care for and cherish our fellow human beings.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word.

God of the living,
with all your creatures great and small
we sing your bounty and your goodness,
for in the harvest of land and ocean,
in the cycles of the seasons,
and the wonders of each creature,
you reveal your generosity.
Teach us the gratitude that dispels envy,
that we may honour each gift,
cherish your creation,
and praise you in all times and places. Amen

Tuesday, 10 January 2023

Follow me and I will make you fish for people

'I will make you fish for people'
Duccio di Buoninsegna

Reflection for morning worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 10th January 2023

We have just heard Mark’s account (Mark1:14-28) of how Jesus recruited his first disciples. Beside the sea of Galilee, Jesus spots Simon and his brother Andrew fishing. Jesus says to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’. And immediately they left their nets and followed him”. A little further on he saw the brothers James and John mending their nets. ‘Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee … and followed him’. Matthew gives us an essentially identical account (Matthew 4:18-22).

Have you ever wondered why these 4 very ordinary men dropped everything to follow Jesus when he called them? Jesus clearly had great charisma, as all the Gospel stories about him show. But I doubt if you or I would leave our loved ones and our livelihoods to follow a charismatic stranger we had only just met.

The answer is that they already knew Jesus, or at least knew all about him, and Jesus had already impressed them with his presence, teaching and authority.

John in his Gospel (1:35-42) tells us how Andrew and Simon first met Jesus. Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. As Jesus walked by, Andrew and another disciple of John the Baptist heard him exclaim ‘Look here is the lamb of God!’. Andrew and the other disciple followed Jesus, who invited them to come and see where he was staying. They came, they saw, and they stayed with Jesus for the rest of the day. Afterwards Andrew went to find his brother Simon to tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’. Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, who recognised him and named him Cephas, meaning rock in Aramaic, or Petros in Greek, Peter in English. This must have happened well before Jesus called Andrew and Peter to fish for people, as Mark tells us that happened after John the Baptist had been arrested.

What of James and John, the sons of Zebedee? that they were partners with Simon in his fishing enterprise. I feel quite certain that Simon and Andrew would have told them all about the man they had met, who they thought might be the Messiah. We are not told so, but they might even have introduced James and John to Jesus. Luke also adds some lovely detail to the bare story given by Mark and Matthew of how Simon and Andrew, James and John, came to leave everything to follow Jesus.

Jesus did not convert Simon and Andrew, James and John in a sudden ‘born again’ conversion experience, causing them to drop everything to follow him. Such experiences do happen, but rarely – remember St Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus. Rather, I feel certain that these four disciples came gradually over time to follow Jesus, as they encountered him in their lives, and heard about him from others. This is still the way most disciples are made, sometimes over many years.

Most of us, like Simon and Andrew, James and John, must come to know Jesus intimately, as a friend we admire, before we can respond to his call, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’.


Sunday, 8 January 2023

The Baptism of Christ


Today the Church asks us to remember the Baptism of Christ.

Picture again, in your minds eye, the moments after John baptised Jesus, as described by Matthew in his gospel (3:13-17).

Here is Jesus, a man in the prime of his life, about 30 years old. He is glistening wet from receiving John’s baptism of repentance, as he walks up out of the river Jordan. Then, suddenly, the heavens burst open. The Spirit of God descends like a dove to alight on him. And the voice of God declares from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

What a strikingly vivid and dramatic scene – it’s easy to imagine being there, isn’t it?

Matthew describes an event – an epiphany - in which God reveals Jesus to be his Son and anoints him with his Spirit.

The same epiphany, bringing together Jesus at his baptism, the dove and a voice from heaven, is also described by Mark, Luke and John. It must have been part of the common tradition of the earliest Christians on which Matthew and the other evangelists drew when writing their gospels.

For Christians by the 4th Century these baptism passages were seen as supporting and illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that the one God consists of three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are the only passages in the NT where we encounter all three persons together at the same time, in the same place.

Matthew would have known the book of Isaiah well, like all educated Jews of his time. He would have seen the parallels with today’s OT reading (Isaiah 42:1-9), in which God declares, ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him’. But there is this crucial difference: for Isaiah, God identifies his chosen one as just a servant; whereas for Matthew, God identifies Jesus as his beloved Son.

What did John the Baptist make of Jesus’s baptism?

John recognised Jesus when he came to ask for baptism - not surprisingly since they were cousins close in age. John says to Jesus, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ What’s going on here?

John proclaimed ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). He called people to repent, and baptised them as a sign that God forgave their sins. John knew that he needed baptism, repentance and forgiveness himself. But I think he must have believed that Jesus was such a good and holy man that he had no need of baptism, repentance and forgiveness.

John would also have recalled Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant in today’s reading, ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.’ Perhaps John recognised the Jesus he knew in Isaiah’s description - softly spoken, filled with compassion for the damaged and the weak, yet determined and passionate for justice.

Despite John’s reluctance to baptise him, Jesus insists, and John consents. Then John experiences the epiphany described by Matthew: When Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him’ – that is, to John – ‘and (John) saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on (Jesus). And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.’

Only then does John realise the full truth, that his cousin Jesus is the promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, not just a remarkably holy man.

I wonder what his baptism meant for Jesus himself.

Jesus very deliberately chooses to ask John for baptism, and insists on it – it must have been very important for him.

Matthew gives us a clue when he records Jesus saying to John, ‘it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’. For Jews, righteousness meant obeying God’s law and doing God’s will. Jesus clearly believes God wishes him to be baptised by John. But for what purpose?

Perhaps God wanted Jesus to seek John’s baptism at the very start of his ministry in order to demonstrate publicly that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son, not just a good man like Isaiah’s servant. This was certainly the effect on John. But Jesus himself surely also needed to be certain who he was before beginning his ministry. Is it possible this is also the very moment when Jesus finally understands that he is Christ the Messiah, the Son of God?

Whatever the truth of this, Jesus clearly associates himself quite deliberately with John’s proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 3:2) - he went on to proclaim it in his own ministry (Matt 4:17). And I like to think that Jesus chose to be baptised by John because he wanted to show his solidarity with sinful human beings like you and me, who desperately need to repent and be forgiven, even if he had no such need himself.

So what does Jesus’s baptism mean to you and me, 2000 years on?

Well, no doubt there are many answers. But this one strikes me.

The epiphany at the baptism of Jesus marks a great new insight into the nature of God as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As God says through Isaiah, ‘See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare’.

Before it, Jewish religious thinkers could only conceive of the relationship between God and a human being as that between a remote master and a terrified servant. After it, Christians could see the relationship as one in which God takes our human nature upon himself, to be incarnate as a human being, like you or me.

Everything is changed, everything is made new. God ceases to be a remote figure and we are no longer afraid. God comes near to us, as close to us as our own skin. We feel his presence to be like a loving Father, to be like Jesus his Son, our friend and brother, to be like the Holy Spirit which inspires all that is good and true in us.

Let us thank God for Jesus’s baptism, most particularly for the insight it gives us into God’s intimate and loving nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Almighty God,
who anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit
and revealed him as your beloved Son:
inspire us, your children,
who are born of water and the Spirit,
to surrender our lives to your service,
that we may rejoice to be called your children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen