Who can remember that first day of the school term? All those promises made to yourself about working harder, getting your homework done on time. Or how about the opening of a fresh new jotter – crisp and clean. The effort during the first weeks of term to ensure the jotter stays neat and tidy – extra effort with the handwriting, no doodling on the cover.
A fresh start.
The New Year is another time we take stock and think about making changes, starting a fresh with diets or fitness regimes, taking up new hobbies or stopping bad habits.
A fresh start.
Our Bible readings this morning are a wonderful way to start the New Year – Both speak to us of beginnings.
A fresh start.
The opening words of Genesis – the beginnings of God’s word, the beginning of God’s world.
A fresh start – THE start.
Words from the opening of Mark’s Gospel – Jesus baptism – the beginning of Jesus ministry.
A fresh start – HIS start. OUR fresh start.
Both passages pack a punch – neither footers about – it’s straight in there.
In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water. Then God commanded,
Let there be light—and light appeared. God was pleased with what he saw. Then he separated the light from the darkness, and he named the light
Day and the darkness
Night. Evening passed and morning came—that was the first day.
80 words in and the first day if done.
So John appeared in the desert, baptizing and preaching.
Turn away from your sins and be baptized, he told the people,
and God will forgive your sins. Many people from the province of Judea and the city of Jerusalem went out to hear John. They confessed their sins, and he baptized them in the Jordan River.
John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. He announced to the people,
The man who will come after me is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to bend down and untie his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
Not long afterward Jesus came from Nazareth in the province of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven,
You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.
180 words in and Jesus ministry is ready to rock and roll.
There is no hanging about – no lengthy preamble or introduction. No faffing about – it’s straight to work.
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t start with the nativity – it starts 30 years later. None of the imagery of Christ’s birth – the intensity of Mary’s Magnificat, the confusion of Joseph – the wonder of the shepherds, the loyalty of the wise men, the humbleness of the birth. None of that – no sentimentality.
Instead it is bang! Jesus is here, he gets baptised. We only need to read a further 120 words of Mark’s Gospel and Jesus has recruited his first disciples.
There is an immediacy, an urgency almost in Mark’s Gospel – the need to get the message out there. Many writers and theologians make the judgement that the Gospel writer Mark is writing for Christians who are enduring great persecution. They needed to hear the words of comfort and reassurance that we find in Mark’s Gospel.
For example they may have asking questions about why if Jesus is the Saviour are they having such a hard time? Mark answers with telling them about Jesus calming storms, about Jesus teaching that they would suffer persecution for his sake, if they were looking for personal power and glory then they needed to think again.
An urgency about the message of the Gospel. An urgency to reassure the early Christians about the promise of God in Jesus – their saviour, our saviour.
When I read this week’s reading and began thinking about what I might say to you in this the first sermon of this new year – I was surprised that we were back with John the Baptist – it seems only a few weeks ago that we were thinking about him during advent.
It reminded me of that Sunday in advent when we witnessed (in Aberlour) the baptism of Shu May, Stephanie, Kaitlyn and Sophie – three generations, four new beginnings of lives in and with Christ. That was a special Sunday for them and their family – it was a special day for us and it was a special day for God.
When in baptism we replicate, in our own way, the baptism of Jesus – I have a feeling that just as he did with Jesus – God whispers through the Holy Spirit “You are my own dear child. I am pleased with you.”
Our baptism marks the beginning – the fresh start we have in our lives – only made possible through the love of God – shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of his Son –Jesus.
In our tradition we accept the principal of infant baptism as well as believer’s baptism. Not every tradition accepts an infant baptism as a true baptism as they question the infant’s ability to acknowledge their past life and fresh start.
Our understanding of it is that the family takes this responsibility from the child and promise to bring the child up within the church family.
The early church accepted infant baptism – whole families would be baptised together – a bit like Shu May, Stephanie, Kaitlyn and Sophie.
For these ancient families marking their welcome into a new way of life, a new faith was not as easy as it is for us – and I am talking from a personal safety perspective. They were under persecution – life as an early Christian was a dangerous one.
Our baptism’s are no less life changing though – if taken seriously.
They are a hugely important part of our lives as Christians. This fresh start is something that is only made available to us through the grace of God.
And it is important that we take this seriously.
And what better way to begin this new year together than to think again about what it means to be baptised into the family of God.
‘Turn away from your sins and be baptized’ is what John the Baptist said to the people. Repent, be washed clean – begin again.
So, what does repent mean? Repent means to think with sorrow and with sorry hearts about what we are and what we have done. Repent means being regretful enough about something and being determined to make amends.
Repent suggests acknowledging our guilt in the sight of one we have hurt and seeking pardon and forgiveness.
Within the context of the Gospel, repentance means coming before God, acknowledging our waywardness, confessing our need of him and seeking his power to renew, to wipe clean our guilt, to restore us by his grace.
Is that not what the world desperately requires? Is that not the simple message John the Baptist proclaimed – a baptism in token of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins?
So large numbers of people came to hear this amazing message. They came accepting for themselves its profound truth. They were baptised by John in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. Yes, that must have taken much courage in the first place.
What would other people think or say, some might have wondered.
When God is allowed to come into the picture, does it matters what people think or say?
It matters not one bit, for Jesus himself came to the Jordan and there was baptised by John. At the moment when he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.” The dove has always been associated with the qualities of peace and gentleness.
Washed clean by the Spirit of God – an old life left behind and a new beginning.
And this wonderful gift is freely available for each and every person that seeks it. If there is one thing that continually moves me about God – it is his infinite capacity to love and forgive.
He forgive and loves me, he forgives and love you – each and every one of you.
That is awesome.
And yet how often we forget this – how often we ignore God’s love and go our own way.
We forget that in our darkest moments, in our darkest thoughts – God is there.
God is there willing us to acknowledge him and to trust him.
In baptism God is with us – just as he called Jesus his own dear child – his beloved child – he call us in the same way.
A friend of mine, Fiona, very kindly posted this following quote on her Facebook page the other day – it’s a quote from Henri Nouwen – Henri was a Dutch born priest who became a prolific writer about his faith and his living experience of it.
In this quote he talks about the voice of God in our baptism – calling us his beloved.
Anyway the quote – and please listen carefully to this – it is so worth it!
He said: “that soft, gentle voice that calls me the beloved has come to me in countless ways, my parents, friends, teachers, students and the many strangers who crossed my path have all sounded that voice in different tones.
I have been cared for by many people with much tenderness and gentleness. I have been taught and instructed with much patience …and perseverance. I have been encouraged to keep going when I was ready to give up and was stimulated to try again when I failed. I have been rewarded and praised for success… but, somehow, all of these signs of love were not sufficient to convince me that I was the beloved.
Beneath all my seemingly strong self-confidence there remained the question:
if all those who shower me with so much attention could see me and know me in my innermost self, would they still love me?
That agonizing question rooted in my inner shadow, left persecuting me and made me run away from the very place where that quiet voice calling me the beloved could be heard. Would they still love me?”
Would they still love you? God does.
Because that is what God asks of us.
As parents to love our children.
As friends to look out for our friends.
As teachers to care for our students.
As students to care for our teachers.
The list goes on and on…
Whoever you are, whatever you are – you are the gentle voice of God whispering – you are my beloved.
To the people outside the church – you may be the only way they see Jesus. That may be a startling revelation – but in a world where many don’t know Jesus – we might be the only link they have. Our lives, our choices – the only pointers to what a life with Christ is like. We might be the only Bible they know.
And that is a huge responsibility.
But we are not alone – never alone in any of this. We have God’s love.
God’s infinite capacity for love – knows no bounds.
But do we let God loves us?
Here are some more words from Henri:
“For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.
Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?”
The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?”
And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?”
God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”
Henri wrote those words in his book about the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
There is a challenge for us all in those words – how are we to let God love us? How do we allow ourselves to hear again that voice from our baptism – you are my own dear child, my beloved.
A challenge for the New Year – a resolution perhaps to think more about what if given freely in baptism – a resolution to let God into our lives like never before.
To let God into our daily lives – not just our Sunday lives.
To let God work through us in new ways,
To let God reach out through us in new ways,
To let God love through us in new ways,
To let God love us,
To let God love.