Sermon – January 10th 2021
Previous version preached at Dunbarney and Forgandenny, January 7th 2018
Today, we begin with the beginning of the book which begins the Bible – Genesis. The first verse of that wonderful, imaginative account of how all things began when God created creation, begins, ‘In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth …’ (1:1) – you can’t get more beginning-like than that. Our Gospel reading comes close, though! At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel – chapter one, verse one – we read, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (1:1)
Immediately, we are plunged into the River Jordan, with John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus. And here, above the baptismal river waters, God’s Spirit is present, hovering, bird-like, over the waters of the river, just as traditional translations of Genesis 1:2 tell us ‘the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’ of darkness and the deep at the beginning of creation; hence one hymn concerning the Holy Spirit, which goes, She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters, hovering on the chaos of the world’s first day.
For, to begin with, God is present. In fact, God is present even before things begin; that’s the conviction with which biblical faith begins. Before anything was … there was God. Rather than identifying God with some part of creation, perhaps with one the celestial bodies – the sun, the moon or the stars –ancient religions in the ancient world did, the biblical view is that God preceded the heavens and the earth. God was there before creation, was brought into being.
In these verses from Genesis, God begins creation by separating light from darkness, naming them “day” and “night”; or to put it another way, God is present even before time begins. Now isn’t that something to try to get your head around even as we have only just about recovered from celebrating Christmas and New Year; before time – God.
So, the first thing to hang on to as we journey through 2021: God is present with us. God was here before we or anything else came into being, and we and everything else depend upon God for our existence. God is the creator and we are created beings – creatures. We human beings exist as one element in a whole inter-related, inter-dependent company of all the creatures of creation. And before all of this God was already present, in all of this God remains present, and beyond all of this God will still be present in times to come.
And we can have confidence that God will stick around and be with us because God takes pleasure in God’s creation. ‘And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good’ – was pleasing. (1:3,4) In fact, creation is so good, gives God such pleasure, is so loved by God, that when things are not right in one part of it – planet earth – Jesus Christ comes to be born and live here. So, in Bethlehem he is visited by Magi, guided by the light of a star. Then he is baptised in the River Jordan, the symbolic entry point to the new and promised land.
And at that point, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, in the moment when Jesus is emerging from the baptismal waters, he has a vision: ‘he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, and with you I am well pleased.’ (1:10, 11) Divine revelation combines with divine pleasure!
Divine revelation: this is my Son. This is the one who is of the same stuff that I am. This is the one who has the family reality and resemblance so that when you see him, I, God, am revealed to you. The ministry, the mission, that Jesus is about to commence, is God’s ministry and mission, undertaken for the sake of the world; and that’s revealed about Jesus in this moment when the Spirit descends like a dove over the waters and the voice of God comes from heaven.
And then there’s divine pleasure in Jesus, baptised in solidarity with human, created beings, and now shortly to embark upon his ministry of proclaiming and bringing in God’s reign on earth, or as Mark describes it in the opening words of his Gospel: ‘the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.’
Since the path Jesus takes is one that is pleasing to God –‘with you I am well pleased’ – then it follows that we should follow Jesus along that way. Inspired by Christ, we seek to lead our lives in ways that are pleasing to God. Since, through Jesus, God reveals what God is and what gives God pleasure, we ‘re expected to live our lives in the Jesus-way. In our feelings, thoughts and actions we seek to love God and we try to love our neighbours as we would want to be loved ourselves.
And given these connections between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and beginnings of creation; considering that God takes pleasure from creation just as God takes pleasure from God’s Son doing God’s will and work; one way our love for God and neighbour needs be expressed is through how we treat this part of God’s creation, planet earth.
I’ve mentioned before my favourite sign in a Lake District café. It read, the future is uncertain, best eat dessert first. Well the future is certainly uncertain in 2021! How will things work out in the coming months for us as individuals, as a church, a local community, a nation or a world? I don’t know!
I’ll tell you what I do know though, which takes us back to where we began. Whatever happens, God is present with us, for God has been so since before time. God is present in the person and ministry of his Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. God is present with us now through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world.
And I’ll tell you another thing I know: the God who is present with us is pleased with us – not because our good actions make us deserve God’s love but because we are a precious part of God’s beloved, good creation. Yes, God is both present with and pleased with us.
And I’ll tell you one more thing: the God who is present with us, the God who is pleased with us, calls us to follow the path of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to take the path of caring for ourselves and others, and do so in the context of caring for creation for which God cares.
So, in this Epiphany season, may God enable us to enjoy God’s presence, to follow God’s Son, to be guided by God’s Spirit, beginning now and in the days ahead. Amen.