Baptism of Christ – 10 am – Revd Sally Bedborough
A Change of Reputation
John Humphries made the headlines this week with his new slot on radio. Following his retirement from the Today programme on R4, he has been ‘reborn’, as it were in his new job as anchor for a Sunday afternoon programme on Classic FM.
One critic put it this way: it’s hard to believe that this John Humphries is the same person. It’s as if he’s been born again. He’s gone from being synonymous with grumpiness, interrupting and harrumphing journalism, to being the very image of mellow. “Doing a John Humphries” once meant furious interrogation, teeth and spleen; soon it may mean having a nice long bath and listening to some Elgar while planning what to grow in the raised beds this year. It just goes to show, there’s hope for us all.
Being reborn in this case is about a change of reputation. Presumably, John Humphreys had an element of mellowness within him, but he just wasn’t in the right seed bed for that mellowness to be apparent. Qualities that had previously been under wraps, to his public at least, now, with his retirement have come to the fore.
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ. Jesus who said we must be born again of water and the Spirit; both Jesus and John the Baptiser, used this symbol of water for our new birth, heralded by our baptism. Baptism is about many things, one of which is this: a change of reputation.
In our gospel reading, John takes issue with Jesus about his need to be baptised. It seems Jesus had among some people at least, a reputation as a godly person. To what extent at that time we are not told. But John certainly seemed to recognise that he, John, was not fit to baptise Jesus; it seemed to John that it should have been the other way around if anything.
But Jesus did not have that godly reputation among all people. ‘Let it be so for now’ said Jesus, and John went ahead and baptised Jesus. And the result was a more public recognition as Jesus came out of the waters of the Jordan river. The voice of God from heaven declaring this Jesus to be God’s own, precious son.
How fitting that we have the crib before us; the crib that describes that special story of a special birth, we come today to span the years between that special birth and this special re-birth of baptism. As the baby lies in the crib before us, we are reminded that this story is not just a childish story - warm and fluffy, but it heralds another story of birth, involving sonship, reputation, mission, and harder, more challenging, more adult themes.
And now I want to turn to another programme, to paint another picture of sonship and reputation. This was the story on our TVs last week of the Choir. Gareth Malone’s series and if you are familiar with the format, he goes into institutions and companies, gathers singers and non-singers to form a choir and then the programme culminates in that choir giving a concert. This latest offering in this series of programmes involved Gareth Malone going into a Young Offenders’ Institution in Aylesbury. Boy, was it hard. At the time the programme was made – summer of 2019 - there were 200 inmates aged between 18 and 21 years; all serving sentences between 4 years and life. Gareth found a handful of interested men with whom he could work. That’s a very different scenario from previous programmes. The culture of the prison seemed to be that it was not cool to care about anything too much.
I want to tell you particularly about one young man called Duvall who was serving a sentence of 4 years for stabbing and assault. He wrote a song with lyrics that had the lines: ‘couple of steps away and I blew it, I could have walked away but I never did it’; the chorus: ‘stopped in my tracks, on my way’. He spoke about the wrong decision he’d made when he was just so close to what he wanted for his life. His father spoke as well of how Duvall had changed after a friend had died in a motorcycle accident.
True to the format, there was a kind of concert at the end of the programme. And it was affecting. Parents and friends had been invited to attend. Among them, Duvall’s father. Each ‘resident’ had to be kept in a prison cell until the time came for their performance. When it was Duvall’s turn, we saw the emotion on his father’s face, we saw his tears; it was very moving.
After the concert, father and son were reunited for a short time. There were no words apart from Duvall’s father saying ‘I’m so proud of you, man’. then an embrace and more tears – we might imagine they were tears of regret, tears of frustration and disappointment with that present situation but a poignancy for the ‘success’ of Duvall’s performance and his owning of a new thread of his personality. Perhaps a thread, a quality that had lain shrouded but with encouragement it had had a chance to unfold. There was the raw reality of the situation: the lawlessness, the prison, but also there was the recognition by the father of the better nature of his son; there was pride, but it was bitter-sweet. They broke the embrace, Duvall turned away from his father, he broke down, again wordlessly. In that we saw the shame that he felt he had brought to his family and perhaps some insight into what might have been, reflected in the lyrics of his song….pray God that the experience inspires Duvall and others to grasp the possibility of change and a new reputation.
Where does that leave us, as individuals and as a church? As we reflect on, or anticipate, our baptisms in light of this unveiling of Christ’s true reputation as the Son of God?
This is where water is such a wonderful symbol of washing away what might be our false nature, our personas, and revealing what God would draw from us. And this happens not just at a one off event of baptism; this is our on-going calling: to be baptised daily, metaphorically speaking. So that those qualities that are unhelpful or destructive or unnecessary, might be rinsed off our souls and that which God would have us be, might emerge, sprout, unfold and grow.
Today let us focus on how our baptism can and may bring us a new reputation. We too can be known as God’s sons and daughters. We gain the title ‘disciples’ – followers of Jesus Christ. We may no longer be known by our job titles, by the roles we inhabit, by our character flaws and foibles. We don’t discount these, but instead, we value these less in order to revel in our new birth as children of God.
Our church may become known not as that big old building with the wonky tree in the churchyard, or the place that has the pokey toilets and the smelly kitchen area. But the place where lives are changed, where hope flourishes, where – to quote the line of a poem that came to my attention this week – where we become full of ‘stubborn gladness’.
In this new year, let us listen to the spirit of God calling to us, as individuals and as a church, and drawing out and declaring that new reputation which he alone can bestow upon us. Amen.