Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Second Sunday of Advent: Using our imagination to learn

2 Peter 3:8-15
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’


Do you remember the high winds we had on Tuesday? During those I was sitting at a third floor window waiting for someone to arrive for a meeting when I watched a bird fly past. It struck me that as it tried to fly across the wind so the poor thing got flung this way and that by the strong gusts, and then it turned around in the direction of the wind and got such a boost that it probably ended up flying faster than it had ever flown before.

My first thought was that is a great metaphor for how we deal with the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The Spirit blows in the direction of God’s choice and if we try to tread a path in a different direction we are easily blown around and possibly spiritually buffeted for going in the wrong direction.

But if we allow ourselves to be turned to go in the direction that the Spirit leads, then we might suddenly find ourselves filled with passion for something new and achieving that which we might never before have dreamt of. So that was my first thought. But my second thought was more conceptual. I found myself thinking about what I had just done with what I’d observed.

You see when you see something like that you can do one of two things with it. With a purely observational hat on you can say something clear and scientific. If a bird tries to fly across the direction of a high and gusting wind it will be blown off course. If, however, it turns into the direction of the wind then the power of the wind will be added to the power of its own flapping wings and it will fly much faster. That’s the scientific view.

But what I had done, without realising, was perhaps a more artistic, symbolic approach. I had observed the same thing but tried to learn something symbolic from the physical reality. I’d stepped away from the obvious description into a more symbolic meaning. And that then got me wondering as to which approach we normally use when we read scripture.

Do we normally look for the clear and obvious teaching, the ‘Thou shalt not’ approach. Or do we look for something deeper, more symbolic and artistic and see if there may be more that the Spirit can teach us from what is written than the obvious surface meaning. And with that in mind I looked at today’s Gospel reading.

Mark’s Gospel, which is the Gospel we’ll be studying for the next year, is quite different from Luke and Matthew in the way that it begins. For Mark there are no stories of how Jesus was born or anything from his adolescent life. Instead we get this great proclamation, ‘The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God’.

It’s meant to take our breath away, and indeed that is exactly Mark’s style. Throughout the opening chapters of his Gospel one sentence after another begins with, ‘And then’, or ‘And immediately.’ It has sometimes been called, ‘The Action Man Gospel’ because of this style of one thing Jesus does crashing in to the next thing that he does.

But the action actually begins with John the Baptizer. The Good News starts with a baptism of repentance and so I want us to think more symbolically about what we read there. I want us to rediscover a sense of wonder, awe and mystery, of layers waiting to be discovered, of God as an artist painting symbols for us to ponder.

So let’s think in those terms about the sacrament of baptism. Firstly what do we think baptism is actually about? Well with the scientific mind set we look for the obvious explanations:-

Baptism in water is symbolising a washing clean, and indeed that is exactly what John’s baptism was primarily meant to be indicating. If someone had repented, then when they were washed in water it was symbolic of a greater washing that God was accomplishing within them. It is also sacramental in that it is symbolising outwardly what God is doing inwardly.

But there is more to baptism than that. A second, deeper symbol, is of death and resurrection. In the Church of England our general practice is not to immerse people fully in water, although for adults that can be arranged if so desired. But in the Baptist and other non-conformist churches the practice is to use a large baptistry rather than a small font, and for the person being baptised to go deep under the water.

There we see another symbol, which is one of death and resurrection, that the person is being baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, that they die with Christ and are raised with him, and this too is sacramental, as it makes real what it is symbolising. But there is more to baptism if we allow our imaginations to run riot with the artistic imagery.

You see the baptism picture can also be one of freedom from captivity, from slavery. Looking back through Jewish ancient history we come to the story of how the Israelites were set free from captivity and slavery in Egypt. The words came to them from Moses that God wanted to bring them out of Egypt to their own land, the Promised Land.

And so, following the plagues and the death of the firstborn of Egypt, still remembered each year at the festival of the Passover, the Israelites left Egypt. In order to make their escape from slavery they had to pass through the waters of the Red Sea which parted for them, and this too is an image, a symbol, of baptism.

So with our artistic pallet we can see how someone who is baptised is also being set free from slavery. What do we mean by slavery? Again it’s not the obvious scientific description but more the symbolism of slavery to a particular kind of behaviour, or to a way of thinking, or to having to be like modern culture tells us we should be. The list goes on, and once we start to let our artistic side paint pictures we find all sorts of potential in the image of baptism.

I think that another deep symbol in there is one of childbirth. All children are born as through ‘water’. A common expression that childbirth is immanent is when, for the mother to be, her waters break. What might that have to say of baptism? The obvious one is that of being born again, born from above, born of the Holy Spirit, all of which are descriptions of being a believer.

But I think there is more to it than that. Childbirth is very rarely easy, so I’m told. It’s a process and sometimes, perhaps often, it’s a very painful process. I think this too is an effective baptism imagery because it reminds us that the journey into faith is rarely an easy one and usually requires a lot of effort from us, some of which may be painful.

We are squeezed in ways we don’t want to go and our first breaths of the Spirit, the wind of God, may even be accompanied by tears. As an imagery of baptism I think childbirth has a lot to teach us about the pathway into belief and discipleship.

So what I want you to take from this morning is an inquisitive spirit; to leave here with a determination to look for symbols of God in the world around us and ask yourselves what God may wish to teach you, not just about baptism but about anything. Look at the world with new, artistic and imaginative eyes and ask God to reveal himself to you by the Spirit. You may be surprised at what he may wish to teach you. Amen

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