The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Isaiah 43:1-7

Luke 3:15-22

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying… Amen.

The third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke, the chapter from which our gospel reading comes this morning, opens with a statement that firmly places John the Baptist at a time in political and religious history. Listen to the detail …

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins …(Luke 3:1-3)

The writer of Luke’s gospel places these events firmly in a time and a place and this matters. This detail is important. This is about incarnation. God standing in time and place.

John the Baptist calls his followers to repent and baptises them to immerse them in that repentance and set them free in the radical forgiveness of God. The water, the key symbol of baptism, is cleansing and, also, is the most fundamental requirement of life.

Those John has baptised thought that he might be the Messiah. John disillusions them of this. John is preparing the way for Jesus.

 ‘I baptize you with water; he said, but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Luke 3:16)

Jesus comes. And Jesus too is baptised, embraces the ritual so deeply needed by frail humanity to cleanse from sin and to set free for fullness of life. Jesus is baptised. And we might wonder why Jesus does this. The incarnation is about God walking the earth, God standing in solidarity with humanity, with all creation. Jesus who is born into a human family and has experienced a human childhood and young adulthood, in this scene, steps further into humanities’ shoes by being washed in the waters of baptism.

And, then, he shows us how to respond.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also has been baptized and is praying, the heaven is opened, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice comes from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’  (Luke 3:21-22)

Jesus prays.

In this liturgical year when we are guided by the Gospel of Luke, we will see this often. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus often prays. And Luke’s Gospel, we will find, is one in which the Holy Spirit is shown to play a profound part. Already, in the infancy narrative, we have heard Gabriel tell Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her so that her child will be holy; he will be called Son of God(Luke 1:35)

After Jesus’ baptism, as Jesus prays, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and we hear these words again. We hear God speak.

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

Jesus prays and then the spirit comes and God’s voice is heard opening to him, as the heavens opened, his identity, God’s Son, God’s Beloved. And Jesus also hears God’s view of him, one with whom God is well pleased.

Heard as Jesus prays. The identity out of which he will live and heal and teach and die and rise again.

What might we hear as we pray?

The story of baptism is a beautiful pattern, really, for the praying life. Repentance seems to be opening. The time of reflection needed before we can pray. And it is a lovely thing that early on in our service of Holy Communion, we make our confession and hear the absolution, the pronouncement of God’s forgiveness of those things we have done wrong, those actions and ways of being of which we are ashamed. Perhaps, before we can hear God’s voice reminding us of our identity, we need to hear that voice setting us free from dwelling on some aspects of our lives we would rather not remember.

And then to prayer. All we are told in our gospel reading is that Jesus prays. And that Jesus will baptise us with the Holy Spirit that will nurture our prayers. The Holy Spirit nurtures our relationship with God in prayer. Jesus is a devout Jew. He may in his prayers, as a Jewish man, be silently reciting a psalm. In the synagogue, prayers would be woven with reflection on the scriptures. The rabbis would argue over the meaning of the scriptures, would read the thoughts of the scholars, would wrestle, themselves, with the way the scriptures shed light on their lives a people belonging in a community of God. Jesus would have been a part of this. He lived and breathed the scriptures. At times we hear that Jesus goes up a mountain to pray by himself; perhaps, he gazes at the beauty of the scene, perhaps he watches the birds fly by, perhaps he marvels at the plants at his feet. Nature may well have reminded him of the one who created all things, the one who named him “Beloved.”

How do we pray? If we can hear the precious words of absolution that were spoken this morning – “Pardon you and set you free from all your sins, strengthen you in all goodness and keep you in eternal life” – how might we then be still to hear God’s voice giving us our identity as children of God? Would we be surprised to hear the word “Beloved?” Can we truly know that God says to us “With you I am well pleased?”

This year in our Monday Lent study we will read a book by a Jesuit priest and brother James Martin that explores spirituality for real life. The books have arrived and this book makes delightful, and often humorous, reading.

“A spirituality for real life” involves exploring ways of praying that are founded on the assumption that this is where God is to be found. In the thick of our lives, in the events, in our responses to the events, in the way we feel about things, in nature, and most definitely in scripture.

The first book that I read about the Jesuit way of praying with scripture using our imagination was called “God of Surprises” and it was written by the Jesuit Gerard Hughes. Gerard Hughes introduced his readers to praying with scripture using our imaginations and I have not forgotten sitting in a chair beside a window in an upstairs room overlooking Station Road in a little English village called Twyford where we lived, having my first go at praying with verses of scripture from the prophet Isaiah. I mention this snippet of my life story because the verses from Isaiah that Gerard Hughes guided me through were the same verses that we heard read this morning.

But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
   the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
…you are precious in my sight,
   and honoured, and I love you …
(Isaiah 43:1-4)

The same portion of scripture that we heard read this morning. Jesus would have known these words well, would have sat with them, allowed them to infuse his imagination, so that when he heard God’s words of love and delight at his baptism, the idea that he was dearly loved would not have been totally unfamiliar. The prophets knew these things too. And the words spoken by God through Isaiah are not only words of love but words of guidance in difficult times. God is not only tell us that we are dearly loved; God is telling us that we are accompanied. Do not be afraid … God says. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you … God says. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you… God says. As we pray we are given also the assurance that God is with us in all things, accompanies us in all times and places and so we need not be afraid.

Jesus prayed and Jesus nurtures our prayer too. And the pattern of baptism might be the pattern of our daily prayer. Beginning with repentance and the hearing of God’s voice setting us free from those things of which we are ashamed. Then spending time with God in reflection, with scripture, in silence, walking by the beach or in the bush, being still just long enough that we might hear the whisper of God’s voice giving us our name, reminding us that we are dearly loved, and then … finding ourselves blessed with the truth that that we may embrace without fear the joys and struggles, the work and rest of our lives for in all these things we are accompanied by God.