Link to the video for this reflection: https://youtu.be/r77zAeIpdns
Link to the Church of England Service for this Sunday which should be available after 9am on Sunday 10th January
Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11
In the name of the living God, Loving Father, Risen Son and ever present Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our Epiphany journey we have shifted today on from the visit of the magi, through to the very first days of Jesus ministry. But even before Jesus comes into focus in Mark’s gospel account, we are introduced to John the baptizer, whose primary purpose was to prepare the way for Jesus. This year, in our readings, we concentrate on Mark’s gospel and much of it is very like the passage we heard read by Alison this morning. A lot of action distilled into a very small amount of words. We have the whole story of John and the baptism of Jesus done and dusted in just 8 verses. All the other gospel accounts give us much more information, particularly Luke which fills in the whole back story of John with his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah.
For example, in Luke, John was the baby that leapt in the womb of his mother Elizabeth when she encountered Mary. And Elizabeth was the one at that point who exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”. If you haven’t read it recently, it is worth reading the whole of the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. It tells how the story of the birth of John the Baptist fits around the story of Mary’s response to God’s call on her life.
Anyway, we find John this morning baptising and proclaiming a baptism of repentance in the wilderness. There must have been something spectacularly charismatic about John. People were not drawn to him for his sartorial elegance, his smart attire or his unusual diet. Let alone for his message. Generally, I do not find that stressing the need to repent of our sins (important and helpful as that can be to us) is something that usually attracts a crowd. Let alone a crowd that has to have made quite a big effort including significant inconvenience and discomfort to travel to a wilderness to hear it. My view here is that John’s integrity and authenticity was the draw. When we know something or someone is the real deal it can help as to make the necessary effort to travel to see them. We need to put out of our minds our world beset with fake news, and at times people being flagrantly economical with the truth! The impact of this has been particularly graphic this week – with scenes I hope we never see again in my life time. Please pray for the people of the United States of America.
It is also not a small number of people who go to John to be baptised and repent – our gospel says – all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him. Add to this – that people are travelling to be baptised and repent not because John is the main draw. John clearly says to them that he is only the warm up act as he proclaims: ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals’.
It is also worth noting here that the use of repentance is using a Greek word that carries the sense of ‘a change of mind’ or ‘a change of heart’. It relates far more to the promise of a new future than to mulling over the sins of the past. John is clear that what he is offering is only stage one of the new life into which God invites us. And we can hear that too in what Johns says next ‘8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Finally, Jesus appears over the horizon and in 3 short verses – he is baptised by John, this is a new stage in his life too, as he moves away from the hidden years in Nazareth, begins his active ministry and the stuff he had come to earth for. And then something amazing happens as he comes up out of the water or more correctly I should say God does something amazing. People of Jesus’ time tended to imagine a rigid, unbreakable barrier dividing earth and heaven, one that made it impossible for humanity to reach God. Now this barrier is torn apart and God’s Spirit comes powering through, like a descending dove on him. And a voice is heard from heaven that says ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’.
The world is indeed changed by this moment as it heralds the time of Jesus active ministry, and the start of his teaching. Teaching we still rely on and take to heart to govern our days two thousand years on. It is rightly described as a new beginning and seasonally a significant epiphany moment.
In Victorian times another new beginning was also marked at this moment of our epiphany season. If we get in touch with our Victorian forebears this Sunday was traditionally known as Plough Sunday and celebrated on the next Sunday after Epiphany. It speaks of a time before farmers had their own ploughs, the communal plough decked with ribbons would be brought into the village or town church where God’s blessing would be asked for the work that it was to do. It is quite likely this happened here in Victorian days. After the service, the plough would be paraded around the village or the town, usually with dancing and stopping at every pub for refreshment! The farmers who were going to use it would give contributions towards the cost of its upkeep, and often to the upkeep of the church where it had been blessed. The work officially began on the following Monday – though if the revelling was excessive sometimes Tuesday or even Wednesday. In medieval times – some ploughs were kept in the parish church, and some churches kept a ‘plough-light’. In days when work was scarce in winter, the observance of Plough Sunday looked forward to the time of sowing with the promise of a harvest to come. We are so much more detached with our supermarkets and accessible food supplies from the impacts of poor harvests than our forebears were.
Times have changed, ploughing tends to follow harvesting and therefore much more an autumnal activity. Nor do we, in England at least, still use shared village owned ploughs. Remembering Plough Sunday, once again is a tradition to help us connect with the agricultural year, to reconnect us to times and seasons, and with a focus on praying for all aspects of the world of work. This last year, 2020, has been very difficult for almost everybody in different occupations, walks of life and times of life. It is important to pray for our rural economy and all who work to farm and steward the land around us. We have come to cherish and be more thankful for our farmers and their endeavours, and what can be sourced locally has been much more obvious to us.
At the start of this new year, it is pretty clear that we are still in the grips of this pandemic with this very unwelcome new and more virulent strain of the virus More restrictions are now in place to help prevent the spread. At this time of new beginnings it is important to pray for our world of work. This has been impacted in so many ways by our pandemic, with people furloughed alongside others losing their livelihoods completely (and levels of unemployment rising). It has been even more difficult for those for whom their usual line of work has been pretty much impossible, which encompasses much of the arts and those involved in exhibitions, county and country fairs, and the like. Maybe we know people amongst our family and friends where this is the case, and times are hard, it is especially important to pray and to be of practical help if we are able.
It also a time of new beginnings for the roll out of vaccines and we must particularly pray for this too. Logistically, this is going to be very difficult so let’s pray for wisdom, tenacity and safety in those organising and involved.
Returning to Jesus baptism, as I was saying this was what we would call a real epiphany moment for him. We understand that the word epiphany means a manifestation of God or the divine or a superhuman being (like an angel from God). This is the most true definition to the origin of this phrase, which comes from the Greek epiphaneia, which is used in the New Testament letters. It describes Jesus’s appearing (either when he came originally – and the divine broke through into our world as it did at his baptism). All the events we remember through this epiphany season point to this kind of wonder.
Interestingly we have come to use the word epiphany to mean something other but related in recent times. In common speech today as well as it meaning an encounter with the divine, we also tend to use it to describe real light bulb moments we have had. Moments when we suddenly see order where there was chaos or understand something fully for the first time! This meaning is much more commonly used as a sudden or striking revelation, when we don’t see things in the same way again. In the main epiphany moments in this sense are positive and enlightening, but they can be life changing.
I cannot speak for you, but I am conscious of a string of ‘epiphany’ moments of this sort in this last year. Particularly what is important and what really matters. I am expecting more epiphany moments as the days lengthen, the snow drops herald the spring once more and the impact of vaccinations begins to make the difference we need. Let’s take stock today as we mark the baptism of Christ and Plough Sunday. Maybe take time to think back and write a list of our 2020 epiphany moments. Then pause and give thanks, reconnecting them with what they say of our encounter with the divine – the God that loves us so much he sent us Jesus. God is saying to us just us much as he did to his son Jesus – You are my beloved. Let’s rest in his presence and love in our epiphany moments and the ones to come, and our new beginnings, whilst focusing our prayers for those who work the land and the world of work as a whole, and all those involved in healthcare and the vaccine roll out programme. Amen
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 – some material from rootsontheweb.com