Baptism of Christ: The Love of God Magnified For All

IMG_6092There are quite a lot of phrases and terms that we use in the Christian faith and particularly in churches that need to be explained. Like with any group these develop as shorthand for something that requires much more explanation. If we never pause to think what they really mean we can lose the deeper thinking that the shorthand stands for, or perhaps never really think about it at all. Some of these require quite a bit of mental gymnastics to understand because they stem from a long distant past or a very different culture that collides with our own – the Creed, for example, is full of them, and as we say it, our brains can get quite a mental workout. 

I have one of these moments every time I’m asked to sing the worship song ‘In Christ alone’, which you may know – I confess it’s not one of my favourites. My brain has to go through several leaps and jumps to get some of the phrases into a place where I can assent to them. The one that causes particular mental gymnastics is the one about the ‘wrath of God’ being satisfied as Christ dies on the cross. 

It’s plugging into the notion of God being angry when we sin and when there is injustice and oppression, violence and hatreds at work in the world; when people lose the plot and forget to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.  God is said to be angry and requires something to be done to appease him. This notion of wrath and anger is quite an anthropomorphism, where we attribute to God human emotions, but I get its point – there is passion and it matters. The Old Testament presents God getting angry at the people’s sin and rejection, and they are punished for it. They interpret any misfortune directly to this. Sacrifices aim to appease an angry God but just don’t fix things long term, because they have to be repeated. So what is needed is someone who can remove this and that comes in the person of Christ, who is God among us. 

So in other words, the one who satisfies God’s ‘wrath’, if that is what it is, is none other than Godself and Christ comes from the heart of God because God so loved the world. In doing so, in the thinking behind this notion, God deals with any anger or wrath or disappointment in and through God’s own self-giving love. The only one who can span the space between humanity, between human frailty, and God is God. So, in God’s grace, any disruption brought about by sin is cancelled out by Godself. We can only understand the phrase in the hymn if we have a highly developed sense of the person of Christ, what is called Christology. The way the line is often interpreted reflects, I think, a deficient Christology, but that’s another story.

All of this explodes in my head every time I encounter verses and phrases like that in the hymn ‘In Christ alone’ about the wrath of God being satisfied on and through the cross. It’s one of the reasons I prefer not to sing it, or when I have to, belt out an alternative phrase like ‘the love of God is magnified’, it just saves too much brain work, and says what I really think – but the authors have been clear that they will not allow changes to their hymn, which is another reason for not using it. It requires too much explaining to the casual singer, reader or listener.

Today we are celebrating the Baptism of Christ, which brings what lies behind our own baptism into the centre of our focus. In going through baptism himself, Christ hallowed the waters of new birth into a sign and instrument of his Kingdom and a sign of sharing in his life. In the words of the Collect, the special prayer for today, we rejoice to be called God’s children. There are multiple levels to this, not least Israel being the chosen people of God and seeing themselves as God’s children and household, and this being expanded to embrace all people everywhere; a radical redefinition. It is the love of God that is magnified in Christ Jesus which deals with the problem of sin and injustice and rebellion in God’s self-giving love. God removes the barrier and opens his heart to us because God chooses to. The chosen people, the new Jerusalem and new Israel, the people of God and his inheritors of grace, is no longer constrained to any race, nation, gender but includes all and excludes none.

This is one of the radical things about the Christian Church. From its very earliest days, even going back into the moments of Christ’s birth, the invitations go far and wide. As we journey through the Sundays of the Epiphany we see Christ being made know and drawing in a vast array of people. On Thursday, as we kept the feast of the Epiphany, the exotic travelling star gazers turned up with their wonderful gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Today, as we celebrate Christ’s baptism, we see him drawing in those who had gathered at the riverside, the test being nothing other than a heart that wished to be washed, anointed by the Spirit in the waters of rebirth. The embrace which counts us in, counts in even those we can’t quite imagine. The challenge for the church is always how much we live up to this and are all embracing in our words and actions, our loving and caring, our passion for justice and peace.

Today, as we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, we give thanks for the love of God magnified, expanding to embrace all. May we, as brothers and sisters of the household of God, his children, be agents of that open love that extends to everyone without distinction. 

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 9th January 2022

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About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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