Last week Ash Wednesday signified the beginning of Lent. Traditionally we have ash placed on our foreheads and remember we are dust and that to dust we shall return.
This year we are particularly aware of this truth. Some of us have never felt so vulnerable and alone as we have during this pandemic. On Wednesday there is another burial of ashes in the churchyard of a person who has died in their mid forties.
I haven’t felt the need to take up David Walker’s suggestions in his cartoon on how to ash during a pandemic. He suggests a potato print at the end of a fork, an ash postcard, sprinkling from a great height, using a long stick through the letterbox or self imposition. There are better ideas on the Church of England Birmingham you tube and face book channels.
This year has felt like a long lent with fasting from hugs, going on trips, meals out, singing together, holidays and seeing friends and family. I don’t need ash to remind me I am mortal. Ioften feel tired. Concentrating on prayer particularly when there have been so many changes, so much loss and lots of administration has felt difficult.
When we come out of lockdown and it’s safe to do so I am going to enjoy the freedoms we will be given, lent or no lent and live life to the full. Jesus came to set us free and give us life in all its fullness.
Whilst Jesus didn’t need to repent of personal sin, he chose to undergo a baptism for the repentance of sins and identify with the sins of his community and the institutional sins of his time. He identified fully with human beings. We have never been so aware of the sins of our time which have led us to the praecipe of climate change and this pandemic. We are aware that disaster looms unless we change our ways. The nations of the world, particularly the richer ones cannot go back to behaving as they were. We are drawn together by our suffering and recognise that if we don’t change our ways we will all perish.
Jesus entered into our predicament and our suffering. When he was baptised he made a public commitment to be obedient to his heavenly Father. He knew that way would lead to suffering and death on the cross. When talking to his closest friends who had forgotten they were called to serve and wanted to be rulers in the coming Kingdom, he compared baptism to being immersed in suffering. He asked them the question, “Are you able to be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” A few days later when Jesus was arrested and his friends ran away, it became clear that they couldn’t.
We feel helpless when faced with the sickness, suffering and death of others. It is important we do what we can to bring healing but ultimately we all die and cannot choose the way it will happen. In our weakness we struggle to bear the weight of sin and suffering. Thankfully, we don’t have to. “Christ”, 1Peter reminds us, “suffered for sins once and for all;” for our sins and those of the whole world, “for the righteous and the unrighteous in order to bring us to God.”
Peter was speaking to a church suffering unfairly. They were providing the social services of their time, caring for the sick and feeding the hungry. Instead of the authorities being grateful for what they did, they were torturing and executing their members for proclaiming the good news of Jesus and were having to respond in love to their persecutors. Their situation was dire and they couldn’t be faithful without the hope they had in Christ. They had a relationship with God because Jesus had died for them. The baptism of Jesus shows us what that relationship looks like.
Jesus didn’t face his time of testing in the wilderness, before his heavenly father had poured out the Holy Spirit upon him and given him his blessing. He could never have sustained forty days in the desert without food or drink and without God’s help.
As Jesus came out of the water after being baptised, he saw the heavens torn apart.
The word for 'torn apart' is a strangely violent word to describe such a happy occasion. It's also the word used to describe the moment Jesus dies when the curtain of the temple was torn in two. It's a word with resonances in the prophecies of Isaiah, particularly when he cries out to God, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down." (Isaiah 63:19).
In Jesus, God has torn open the heavens and come down. God cannot stand the separation between what happens in heaven and what happens on earth any longer any longer. When we repent of our sin and receive Jesus into our lives, God comes in and dwells within us and we are changed as we become more and more like Jesus.
The Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus. The Spirit also descends on our lives, gently, enabling us to live the life of Christ, bringing love and healing to a broken world.
God’s words to Jesus are personal, and powerful. “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.” Wrapped in these words of acceptance are the blessings of identity, worth, and unwavering regard
We need to hear those words from the Father. He says them to us before we are ready to receive them, when we receive Jesus and are born again, when we are baptized in water and throughout our lives as we live in Christ.
Christ identified himself with us so that we might take on his identity.
He didn’t just suffer and die for the sins of the world. He rose again and ascended into heaven. Joy followed the suffering.
When we are suffering we need to remember that death is not the end. We will receive new resurrection bodies. Baptism is a symbol of this.
The water of baptism doesn’t save us. Jesus does! It does however remind us that we are united with Jesus in our death and resurrection. It also, Peter tells us, appeals to our consciences prompting us to behave like Christ and live in the power of his Holy Spirit.
It also pushes us to proclaim and share what Jesus has done wherever we find ourselves.
Jesus, Peter tells us, proclaimed God’s love to the spirits in prison who did not obey or accept God’s way of salvation in the days of Noah. Peter compares the flood in Noah’s day to water baptism in our day. It’s a strange comparison. Noah and his family didn’t get wet while everyone else drowned.
There are many interpretations of these verses. Perhaps the Spirit of Jesus was in Noah as he pointed to the ark as God’s way of escape for Noah’s generation. Maybe Jesus went to the prison where fallen angels were incarcerated in the gap between his death and resurrection and preached to them. Perhaps he went to the place of the dead and preached to Noah’s wicked contemporaries.
I cannot envisage Jesus preaching to anyone in prison without him giving them the opportunity to be set free through the power of God’s love. I believe Jesus was giving these prisoners the opportunity to be saved through identifying themselves with him through baptism. They had already suffered the terrifying flood and drowned. That is one side of our baptismal experience. Unlike us they hadn’t faced death with a relationship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ so they remained imprisoned in their sin.
When Jesus proclaimed what he had done by dying for them, they had the opportunity to be set free and experience resurrection life with Christ and in Christ forever.
Jesus is our place of safety.
As we continue to look forward to being set free from our pandemic imprisonment lets enjoy our relationship with Jesus by spending time with him and not be too hard on ourselves. We are his beloved children equipped through his Spirit for whatever happens in the future.
Suffering and death will one day come to an end when we are released from our earthly bodies and receive new, resurrected, spiritual bodies as we walk united with Christ into eternity.
our lives are laid open before you:
rescue us from the chaos of sin
and through the death of your Son
bring us healing and make us whole
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen