A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on January 15, 2023 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading for address: John 1: 29-42
Few items have had as much news coverage this week as Prince Harry’s book. Angela Tilby in her Thought for the Day broadcast this week spoke about seeing in Prince Harry, the Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress, running towards salvation with his fingers in his ears so that he doesn’t her the cries of his family. She draws a link to the American Pilgrim Fathers fleeing the collective expectations of the C of E and how the US culture of individualism can seem strange in the UK where duty and sacrifice are more expected, especially of the Royal Family. For Prince Harry, salvation seems to have something to do with grappling with injustice, ultimately the injustice of the untimely death of his mother. Death and injustice are linked, perhaps even the same thing. He attempts to fix the injustice by bringing his truth to the world. The question of “how can we escape a world of injustice?” is one a lot of people face.
It’s also at the heart of our Gospel reading.
This story is from the very start of John the Baptist’s ministry.
He had a zeal for confronting injustice that makes Prince Harry’s book look like the bland of a hopes of beauty queen. He confronted the sin of society with a fervour that would have made Gretta Thunberg quake in her boots. And John invites those he convicts to a very immediate action. He invites them to baptism. Baptism was not uncommon in Jewish circles of the day. A lot of travelling preachers used it. It was something you’d do over whenever you wanted a fresh start.
The formal way of dealing with your sin in the Old Testament was to go to the Temple and sacrifice a lamb. They would lay their hands upon it, confess their sins then kill the sheep in their place. Lambs didn’t come cheap. Sacrificing one to God was saying “I take my sin seriously… this seriously.” A cheap bunch of flowers from a service station wouldn’t do it. It was similar to the practice of a scape goat in Leviticus where the tribe elders laid their sin on a pair of goats, cast one into the desert and slit the throat of the other.
There’s something about sin that seemed fitting to by symbolised by these lonely deaths. We don’t often talk about sin at St Martins but it doesn’t mean we are immune from its effects. Sin is anything that puts down a barrier between us and other people, God or the world around us. We tell lies or create an image of ourselves that is not true that holds people at arm’s length. We become greedy and hoard or take what belongs to others or treat them without the dignity they have as fellow human beings. We destroy the planet as if it is free for us to use to the point that it is not there for future generations. We are cruel to animals and those human beings who we perceive to be weaker than us. We all do this from time to time… we all have destructive tendencies. We all participate in injustice. We all sin.
Over the Exile, when the Jewish people were held captive in Persia, getting to the Temple to sacrifice a lamb wasn’t possible. They learned new ways that God could be with them in gathering to hear the scriptures read in what became synagogues. Even when they returned to Jerusalem, the sacrificial cult in the Temple was never quite the same. Once a year the High Priest would still sacrifice a lamb symbolically on behalf of the sins of the whole Jewish people… to hedge their bets.
But here, like other street preachers, John the Baptist encouraged a more accessible way of dealing with sin. It could happen anywhere. Any river, any pool, any person. You didn’t need to be in the Temple to do this. This is also true with Christian baptism, you can be baptised anywhere, but we use baptism in a slightly different way. Anglicans and Roman Catholics and Baptists use Baptism as the entry to the Church. It’s a once and for all outward physical sign of an inward spiritual grace. It is the recognition of a change of state, a change of your spiritual DNA, whether we fully understand it’s significance or not… even if friends in more protestant Christian traditions would repeat it a few times for good measure.
John the Baptist was using baptism in the same way as how we Anglicans use Confession. I’m often surprised that members of our congregation don’t know this but all the priests at St Martins are available to hear your confession. In the Anglican tradition it is not as central as in the Roman Catholic church. You don’t have to do it to receive Eucharist. The collective confession we say at the start of Eucharistic services is enough. Anglicans have a phrase about Confession “All can, some should, none must.” Every year, particularly in Lent as we prepare for Easter, people ask to see us to make a confession. It is sacred and very solemn, something that requires preparation, but we give them absolution on behalf of the Church, in the place of Christ. Some people ask for it before a wedding or to draw a line after a divorce or a difficult stage of life. It is something you can do over and over.
John was calling his community to confess how they had been part of the injustice of society. So what is this confession baptism?
Emma Donohue’s novel The Wonder recently made into a Netflix film, tells the story of Anna, a girl in nineteenth century rural Ireland, who carries the weight of the injustice of her family that is stopping her from eating. As the effects of starvation take hold her nurse comes up with a plan. She fakes her death, convincing the weak child that she dies and wakes up as a new child with a new name, no experience of injustice to atone for. A new future.
Baptism, then and now, is really about death. It is intended to symbolise being buried and coming out a new person. This is what John the Baptist is trying to offer members of his community. “Be free from the weight of injustice. Die to that person and be born again as someone with a fresh start, a fresh opportunity to live as God wants us to live.”
But then Jesus walks by and John glimpses something new. “Behold the Lamb who takes away, not just your individual sins, your injustice, but the sin, the injustice of the whole world”
You might recall that the start of the Gospel of John, a few verses earlier, starts with “In the Beginning God” – the same as the start of Genesis. And now our passage repeats the words “On the next day” for each part of the story. “On the next day Jesus appeared”, then a few verses later “On the next day Jesus walked by”. The passage also talks about Jesus being there much before John… much before anyone… at the start of the universe. John wants us to know that Jesus was there at the start of creation and that this is linked to that. Even more than that, Jesus is the one who has the Spirit of God resting on him and not leaving him like it came and went from the prophets, priests and kings anointed in the Old Testament. Jesus is God’s Spirit carried by a human being.
This was hard for John’s first century hearers, but they are invited to join the dots. In case they missed it, John summarises: “He is the Son of God”. Sons were something human – something created from one human being to another, but this person here is God revealed as Son. God revealed as brother. Jesus is a walking, breathing declaration that God is with us. Pleased with man, as man to dwell. The creator is with creation, as creature.
And it is this that transform this cosmos from being a place of injustice to being a place where God abides.
When you go to stately homes they’ll often tell you that King Henry the Eighth spent a night or two here as if it adds more significance to their house. They probably don’t bother to tell you about everyone else who has slept in that bed, what dramas have happened there since the 1500s. Because Henry the Eighth is the most significant person who has been there, everything else falls into insignificance around that fact.
The fact that God is present changes the dignity of the place. Crosses are now seen as symbols of beauty as well as suffering, Bethlehem is now world famous instead of being the place Ryan Air would have made you land to save money. Some Christians forced to stand naked in the cold in concentration camps reminded each other that Christ was stripped too and this made all the difference to their experience. Human injustice now becomes the place where God dwells. How can anything be more significant about crosses than the fact Jesus was on one? In the same way injustice, the experience of the consequences of all sin is now most fundamentally the place where God is… more than anything else. How could anything else be more important to say about other than God has been there.
When terrible injustices happen, we look to those who have experienced something similar to tell us how to think about it. Only one who has suffered can judge and deal with the injustice of suffering.
The fact that God took on son-ness, God, the creator was born as a creature, was in itself a form of stripping of dignity, a form of death. TS Eliot in his poem the journey of the Maji, includes the wise men, gathered around the baby Jesus, saying
“Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different”
You could even say that The Incarnation, the majesty of God being buried in the confines of a human body then coming out in birth, is the baptism, the death and rebirth of the whole creation. Then the fact that Christ saw through a whole of human life, not leaving us even if it meant draining the cup of suffering and death, meant that there is no experience of humanity, no place in creation, that is Godforsaken. Everything has the hope of rebirth.
On the next day, John’s disciples ask Jesus where he is staying… where’s your place, Jesus? Where can we be near you? Jesus says to them, as he says to us “Come and See”. We are invited today to come to see the Kingdom of God the place where Jesus abides… I should warn you though, it may look quite ordinary.
In a few minutes Richard will lead us all in Eucharist. He will hold up a cup and say “Drink this all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins” Drinking the wine in a Eucharist is a statement that we live in the reality that the overcoming of injustice is found in the suffering God.
The presence of the Creator recreates injustice and sin and suffering into life. Just as Jesus’ body was raised from death, we have hope that all of our bodies, every creature in the cosmos will be raised not just from death but to life without sin or injustice.
We can participate in that reality now and we can commit to prophetic actions like participating in the Eucharist that say to Princes or press packs or anyone who needs to hear this… maybe to ourselves sometimes “I believe this reality will win. I believe this reality is more real than anything else we see, any other truth we know”.
Because in Jesus we see God the Son, God the Offspring, God the creature
Our creatureliness is now the place where God abides
So sin will be forgiven.
Injustice will be stripped of its destructive power.
Death will not be the last word.
with all our loved ones who are lost to us, or were taken too soon,
will be eternal.