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Fountains of Grace

January 7, 2018

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using Isaiah 42.1-9 and Ephesians 2.1-10 at Mattins on Sunday 7th January 2018, the First Sunday of Epiphany, Baptism of Christ.

This morning’s collection of readings is such a hopeful set for a new year. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God” and “ I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand. I have given you as a light to open the eyes that are blind…See the former things have come to pass and new things I declare.”

The old year has passed and those new things are just around the corner and this is also the day in which the church remembers the Baptism of Christ. The Baptism of Christ is one of a number of manifestations that occur during the season of Epiphany. The word itself means manifestation.

Firstly, at Epiphany itself, we celebrate the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the form of the Magi. Christ is presented as the Messiah not simply of the Jewish nation, but of all humanity and all who seek for truth, represented in these travelers from the East.

This is followed by today’s feast, remembering the manifestation of the Trinity at the river Jordan: The father’s voice of love and affirmation, the Spirit descending in the form of a dove, and Jesus in the water, not simply beginning his ministry as a human Messiah but as the Son of God.

Yet to come is the manifestation at the wedding of Cana of Christ’s first miracle, turning the water into wine and prefiguring the transformation and renewal of all creation and this gospel will be read at the Eucharist on the 21st January.

For Orthodox Christians the word Epiphany specifically meant the manifestation of Christ’s divinity, some call it Theophany which means the manifestation of God, and the focus of the feast for them is of Christ’s baptism. St. John Chrysostom once preached “Why do we call this day Epiphany? Because Jesus Christ manifested Himself to all people, not when He was born, but, rather, when He was baptized. Until that time He was unknown to the people, as testified by St. John the Baptist, saying,: ‘There stands among you One, Whom you do not know!’ .”

There is a tradition in Eastern churches on this day of blessing the waters at Epiphany, going to a local running stream, river or sea and blessing and throwing a cross into the water. Keen youths then compete to be the first person to retrieve the cross and bring it back to the priest for a special blessing. The ceremony is a reminder of Christ, who in entering the waters of baptism himself, made the very water itself holy. He did not need to be baptised by creation, creation needed to be baptised by him.

I have presided at a ceremony of the blessing of the waters myself, but using a slightly different method. No-one had to dive into a freezing cold river. We took river water from the Aire in Leeds placing it in a large glass bowl. As members of the congregation added small cups to the bowl  we prayed over the water and the town, before returning it in procession to the water’s edge at the end of the service, where it and our prayers flowed through the city. It was a lovely ceremony and praying for the waters that flow through our towns so publicly is a powerful witness of our care for those who live beside the waters edge in an age when we can be all too aware of the destructive power of water, through flooding and tsunami. The week I moved to Winchester the city was threatened by terrible floods, and the Cathedral works department were filling sandbags because they feared that the Deanery was about to go underwater. Water is powerful, and we can underestimate its power and its danger sometimes. Yet it is also a symbol of life and a symbol of God’s grace, that grace which was spoken about in our reading from Ephesians today. God’s gifts freely given to all who will accept them like an immense waterfall bringing life to all the places within its reach. Never running short, never rationed or ending, eternal and ever flowing freely. Grace which does not have to be earned, it simply has to be accepted.

Last year was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and, as a result there were a number of television programs and lectures dedicated to the story of Martin Luther. In his life as a monk Luther struggled to find peace with God. He devoted himself to fasts, flagellations, long hours in prayer and pilgrimage and constant confession of his own sins. Yet, despite all this work Luther still felt that he was going nowhere in his spiritual life. His superior encouraged him to study so that he would spend less time focusing on his own faults, and Martin followed humanist principles in his learning, going “ad fontes” as the humanists say, to the original source of the text, which in Luther’s case was the teachings of scripture in the original Hebrew and Greek, accompanied by the early church fathers’ teachings. For Luther this became more than an academic source; it was genuinely a fountain of life for him, for in those writings he discovered God’s grace for the first time and experiencing that grace set Luther free from his striving to earn his way into heaven. Luther experienced the liberation of bathing in the unending fountain of God’s grace and in turn he longed to bring that liberation to others through his preaching, thus, following our first lesson’s words from Isaiah, opening the spiritual eyes that were blind, bringing out prisoners from the dungeons of their own guilt and self-loathing, bringing light to those whose lives were dark and lacking in hope.

And so, as this new year begins, may be too experience the liberation of being children of grace, and his words of the Father ringing in our ears too “You are my beloved son –  you are my beloved daughter.” Amen.