Church Year · Epiphany · Sermon & Talks

Baptism & Covenant

Reading: Matthew 3:13-17

I don’t remember my baptism. I was just under a year old when it took place on 20th June 1976. I know the date because for reasons it has never been clear to me, my parents, still together at that time, chose my mum’s 37th birthday as the day to get me dunked. To be fair to them they had no discernible faith and think they really just wanted to appease my grandparents, two of whom had a real and quietly faithful faith.

It’s a scenario that we are familiar with in Church life. For all the parents who bring their children forward as baptism candidates genuinely seeking a change in life-style, or to identify with something they can’t quite their finger on but seems important; there are always one or two for whom the day is about little more than another party. Does that sound judgemental? It’s not meant to, but it is the reality of a minority of the baptisms we do. And I know that for a number of us, we can tell when that is the case, there is something in the nature and feel of the service that gives them away. But baptism is a gift of grace in our world, so we baptise and pray for something of the gospel of love to be sewn in the the hearts of those present.

And perhaps in our darker moments we wonder why those with no connection with the Church want to seek baptism, a deeply important Christian rite and sacramental act.

But then we might ask the same question when we read this account of Our Lord bringing himself forward to his cousin John to be baptised in the river Jordan. It’s is clear from the gospels in the story of Christ’s birth that he is the Son of God. He is already set aside for a job, a task. Why then should he of all people seek baptism? In fact it’s a question that John asks of Jesus himself:

“I ought to be baptised by you. Why have you come to me?”

Why does the Son of God, the only sinless man to have lived since the fall need to come to John for a rite that begins with and is all about the need for forgiveness & grace in our lives? Jesus’ words in response to John tell us that it was about his obedience to the Father.

For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.”

 What we too often forget is that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. He had the capacity to rebel as we do against the wishes of his father. Jesus baptism is about obedience. About his willingness to follow the path God has laid out for him. It sends a clear signal out into the world that Jesus IS going to follow the way of his Father. He is starting his ministry and intends to see the job through to the quite literally bitter end.

If John’s call to baptism was a voice crying in the wilderness. The baptism of Christ is like a rallying call to the heavens, a trumpet cry to the enemy that God’s great plan for the redemption of humankind is underway.

Today Baptism involves some really important promises. In fact, as we say to our baptism families when we do the preparation evenings, there are very few times in life when we make public covenant promises like the ones in the modern baptism rites. In fact we can rarely come up with more than a few:

  • Wedding Day
  • In Court of Law
  • Military or public service (MPs etc)

We really don’t make these sort’s of promises much anymore. Today is the one day in our Church year here at St Mary’s where we do invite you to join us as a Church as we re-commit ourselves to the journey with and for God in the next year. We unashamedly use the Methodist covenant prayer because they are good words, powerful words that if we pray and mean have the power to radically change us for God.

Let’s take a look at it a bit at a time:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;

That’s a pretty big start isn’t it? It is the heart of what Jesus was doing and saying when he presents himself to John to be baptised, it’s echoes of Isaiah’s declaration: ‘Here am I, send me’. They are big words because they are among some of the most counter-cultural things we could ever say. “I no longer wish to live for myself but for you Lord. My life is yours”

Does that sound scary? Well it should. We wouldn’t be truly human if the idea of letting go of control of our lives didn’t give us pause for thought.

But there’s more because the prayer goes on to list ways in which God can make use of us:

put me to doing,
put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,

It doesn’t come much starker than that! Put me to doing or seeking to be employed in God’s work is easy but a willingness to say ‘put me to suffering’ takes courage. And yet there is a biblical imperative that says that those who reach out in Christ’s name will face suffering and hardship and yes even death – to be laid aside by and for God. To be called home in his service. The countless and nameless saints that have gone before us into martyrdom attest to the dangerousness to our own safety in living wholly for Christ. And yet the heart of this is not the heart of a suicide bomber seeking glory through their own death and the causing of destruction. But an act of devotion to God. Not so much ‘I will die for you’ but rather ‘I am willing, should it come to that to be called home through my act of service’ There is no glory in a needless death but there is glory at the end of life following God.

In a similar vein the prayer goes on:

exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:

I don’t know if I have ever told you the story of the man I once met on Temple Meads station. If I have, forgive the repetition:
It was my last week working for a Christian charity in London and I was required to make a rare home visit to one of the department heads home office to set up their remote access to our London network. On my way home as I scanned the destination boards at Temple Meads I was stopped by a homeless guy asking for money, as I gave him some he spotted the fish I used to wear on my tie and asked me if I was a Christian. I said yes and tried to mumble something about God being nice or something else that seemed wholly inadequate and he replied “Yeah I am a Christian too. I don’t know why God has taken so much away from me, but I do know that on the streets where I am now there are so many people who need to know him, and I kinda feel that’s why he’s brought me so low”

Feel humble yet? It’s the heart of what God call us to do when we follow him unreservedly, he can raise us up like King David or dash us low like Job. But whatever he does he looks for a faithful heart that responds “OK Lord, why did you bring me here?”

And that requires us to:

freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to his pleasure and disposal.

So that we can truly say:

And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

At the end of the prayer we remind ourselves to who we are dedicating our lives. The author and perfecter of our faith, the triune God whose hands wrought the universe but were also nailed to the cross in an act of self-sacrifice that made us his and allowed us to know him as ours.

The prayer ends with this

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

The last line acknowledges that this is a man-made covenant, a promise that we may fail to keep, but we ask that the heart and desire that brings us to say it will be honoured, confirmed in the heavenly realms.

As I say every year this is a powerful prayer and we do not undertake saying it lightly. In a moment when stand together and say this prayer, just as we recite the creed each week, I urge you only to join in with the words if you feel able to. If you’re heart responds to the words here and says ‘yes’ Lord, I want to live for you, I will endeavour in 2014 to be yours, live your ways, put aside my desires, my longings, my prejudices and the things that drag my focus away from you.

So. Let’s all stand together, and if you feel able to put your name to this covenant prayer I ask to join with me as we say:

‘I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.’

Amen

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