Sermon preached at the Eucharist on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ (12th January 2020) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at the Eucharist on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ (12th January 2020) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

Epiphany 1: The Baptism of Christ 

Acts 10.34-43, Matthew  3.13-end  

In a previous generation, the singer Harry Secombe made famous a song which began ‘If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring...’ Famously, our Prime Minister Boris Johnson when a child dreamed of ruling the world. But if you were actually a ruler of the world, what kind of ruler would you be?

One of the most admired and respected emperors of the ancient Roman empire was called Marcus Aurelius. Born in 121 AD, adopted by another respected and peaceful emperor, he ruled for nineteen years and died in the year 180. He was a follower of the Stoic school of philosophy, and was a serious and moderate man who disliked the pomp and pleasure of the imperial court. He didn’t indulge in sensual pleasures or unnecessary violence.

Marcus Aurelius wrote notes to himself, reflections and ideas and lessons in life, which have come down to us as his book of meditations. Although he persecuted Christians as atheists, non-believers in the Roman gods, he was trying to live in a good and generous way, and his reflections on moderation in life and acceptance of death have inspired many down the centuries.

All rather different from what we see of much political leadership in our world today. There are still political leaders who learn from philosophy and faith, who live moderate and restrained lives, caring more for the people they serve than their own egos – I know some of our members of Parliament who are like that. But they don’t make the headlines, unlike the egoists and narcissists and extremists, presidents and prime ministers and dictators and populists who can’t let go of being in control, and who pursue wealth and power in ways that corrupt themselves and their countries and lead to cycles of violence, destruction and revenge – too much of which we’ve seen in the events and headlines of the last two weeks, let alone the last decade.

Marcus Aurelius tried to be a good emperor. But he didn’t realise that a revolution was quietly taking place on his watch. He persecuted Christians because they undermined the power of the state by proclaiming that Jesus, not the emperor, was their Lord. Christians prayed for and were loyal to the emperor and government in all things lawful – but Christians wouldn’t worship the empire or the emperor as a god, because they – because we – believe in one God who alone deserves our worship. We believe that political power is to be used to serve the weak and the poor in society, not for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful.

Jesus as Lord, God’s King, God’s Messiah, the Christ, brings a very subversive view of what it means to rule the world. It’s particularly clear in the gospel we’ve just heard read, from Matthew chapter 3. Just before it starts, John the Baptist has been bigging up the Messiah who’s coming after him. John is expecting a big, impressive, spectacular leader full of the awful power of God. Unlike me, says John, he’ll baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire, and he’s going to sort out the world and destroy the evil with unquenchable fire. Get ready!

And then, Jesus humbly presents himself in front of John the Baptist as just one in the queue of people who are seeking God through baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And John is horrified – you should be baptising me, he says to Jesus.

Imagine holding a coronation service for a new king of the UK. All the great and the good are there in their pomp and finery. The streets are lined with military in their uniforms. The doors of Westminster Abbey are flung open as the new king arrives, and there he is on our TV screens around the world – wearing workman’s overalls, riding upon a bicycle, a sign of representing all the people of the country, coming for service not in power, upsetting the expectations of everyone.

So, Jesus comes to baptism by John, not because he needs to be forgiven, but because he identifies with all those who want to come to God in penitence and faith. And it’s because Jesus so identifies with us that, when God fills him with the Holy Spirit, and calls him his beloved Son, Jesus can share God’s Spirit and power and love with us as his sisters and brothers. God’s fire in Jesus is the fire of love for all who will receive it, not the hellfire of judgement for the wicked which John expected.

Compare the rule of Jesus with the rulers of history and today. Did Jesus come with power to fight against his enemies? Did Jesus set up covert operations in different places to undermine Roman power and win freedom for Judaea? Did Jesus take up swords and fight? Did Jesus assassinate his enemies or undertake acts of terror? Did he raise money to build up large armies or militias and threaten others with bombs and missiles? When he was killed by the Roman state, did his followers declare war or threaten insurrection?

Violence is easy, and is deeply destructive; and the normalisation of violence in civil and international life, from knife crime to state terror, is far more costly in its effects on human well-being than any amount of money spent on active care for others in need, and giving justice to the poor.

The Christian view of war and violence subverts the power of states and their proxy partners, because being a follower of Jesus Christ means not pursuing violence and power, but seeking a good life together, with peace based on justice and compassion.

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius worked hard to be good, but he also spent much of his time fighting against his enemies. One of the things he wrote in his meditations has profound resonance with the subversive way Jesus sets out an alternative form of power. He said: the best way of revenge is not to become like that. In other words: when you take revenge, you drag yourself down to the level of the person who has wronged and damaged you, because you’re acting like they do: far better to be different from them, and not to act like that. As 176 deaths in the plane downed in Tehran last week have shown. The best way of revenge is not to become like those who have hurt you.

That isn’t so far from the kingdom of God, where Jesus tells us to love those who hate us, and to do good to those who persecute us.

However high or low we may be in the world, each of us has some power to make the world a better or worse place for those around us.

However high or low we may be in the world, any of us can follow Jesus and be baptised in water and with the Holy Spirit, and be part of God’s kingdom.

And however high or low we may be in the world, we should beware the words of Peter in our reading this morning from the book of Acts: that Jesus is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead – for we will not be judged by how powerful or rich or honourable we are, or how strong and successful we have been, but whether we do what is good and bring peace to others in the name of Jesus Christ.