2nd Sunday before Lent
St John’s, Upper Norwood
‘Do not worry’ saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ Jesus says to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel. For ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us’ Paul reminds the early Christians in the years after Jesus’ death, as we heard in this morning’s letter to the Romans.
Wherever we might be as Christians on our journey of faith, it is difficult to hear these words in the light of this week’s earthquake in Syria and Turkey, which has already claimed over 28 000 lives. In a part of the world that has already been ravaged by war and conflict, this sheer loss of life, combined with the further loss of communities and socio-political infrastructure, must feel, at times, simply irreconcilable with the heavenly vision of glorious redemption Jesus and Paul describe. How can we think of anything other than worry and suffering in a week in which we watched a tiny, newborn baby, pulled from the depths of the rubble in a forgotten part of northwest Syria, her mother buried somewhere beneath? The foetal cry of the infant girl – now called Aya, meaning ‘miracle’ in Arabic – surely mirrored the shouts of a whole nation crying out for an end to suffering, and a universe longing for the new creation of Paul’s letter. ‘Creation itself will be set free from its bondage…and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ Paul reminds the Romans. But, when will this freedom of the new creation come? And where, as Christians, should we be found standing when it does?
‘In the beginning’, this morning’s creation story from the Book of Genesis tells us, ‘When God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.’
As the rescue-workers went down into the formless void of the rubble left behind by the earthquake, searching for the tiny baby crying in the darkness, before bringing her up into life, we celebrate the life of another baby girl here this morning. Taylor, this morning, we celebrate with you as you become Christ’s newest disciple. Like many of us here today, you’ll be baptised in a way that symbolises Jesus’ own baptism, as he went down into the depths of the river Jordan, before coming up into new life, anointed with the Holy Spirit, with the words, ‘You are my beloved Son: with you I am well pleased.’ Created in the image of God, Taylor, like each of us, will be baptised into the same waters that baptised Jesus, and into the same darkness and watery chaos that was found right at the beginning of creation, when darkness still covered the face of the deep. For Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, was born to an ordinary woman in a forgotten corner of Palestine, into the chaos and darkness of the frightening and violent world of Herod. He was born into chaos and darkness, and yet the Spirit of God still anointed him at his baptism, and he was still named – and seen – as Jesus, the Christ, God’s beloved Son. ‘And God saw that the light was good.’ As baptised Christians, we’re called not into a life of wealth or of comfort or even of safety, but to stand with Jesus in the darkness and chaos of natural disaster and human suffering where the Word continues to be made flesh, and to look for and proclaim the good news of the light and glory of the new creation that is to come. This is our hope. And this hope in tomorrow might not remove the world’s suffering today, but it does change the way that we live our lives together and respond in the wake of natural disaster.
‘Do not worry’ saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ Jesus says to his disciples. ‘Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the Kingdom of God…and all these things will be given to you as well. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’
A few years ago, when I was a youth worker at a small church near Elephant and Castle, my friend Federico and I took a group of unaccompanied child refugees away for the weekend to Hilfield Friary in Dorset. Some of the young people had been living in London for some time, but others had just arrived from Calais a few nights before. Many of them were from Syria, but there were others from around the world. The friars were very much looking forward to having the young people to stay with them, and when we arrived, they’d prepared a nice meal, a game of football, and individual rooms for each of the young people with their names on their beds. Federico and I left them to unpack, but when we went up later to turn out the lights, we found that the girls had moved all of their mattresses into one room, and in the block next door, the boys had done the same thing. ‘We’ve decided it’s better to sleep together,’ one of the girls told me, ‘Because when we’re together, we don’t need to be afraid of the dark.’
This week’s earthquake in Syria and Turkey, which has hit a people already torn apart by almost a decade of war, is unfair. It is difficult for us make sense of the sheer loss of life. And yet, as we stand with Taylor in prayer and friendship, as she’s baptised into our community of faith today, we’re reminded that being baptised as a follower of Christ means growing in likeness of Jesus. And this means standing, with Jesus, in the midst of chaos and sin and the darkness of the unfathomable, like last week’s earthquake, and trusting, with Paul, in the hope that ‘creation will one day be set free’. It means leaving behind everyone and everything you know in the face of war, like our young refugee friends, and saying, ‘Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid. Because God made you, and God made me, and God sees that we’re good.’ Baptism is special, it is sacramental, and it does change the trajectory of our lives, but it doesn’t change who God calls us to be: instead, it affirms who we were made to be as individuals, and who we’re made to be together. God will never ask Taylor to be anything other than who she knows she is at the heart of her being, but Christ will call her to use the gifts that she has been given only for the building up of each other and the common good, and for the glory of God. As one baptised Body of Christ, God doesn’t ask us to be anything other than to proclaim the truth of what it means to be human together, made in the image of God.
After the tiny baby girl, Aya, was pulled up from the darkness of the rubble on Wednesday morning, thousands of people from around the world stepped forward to offer to adopt her. On a simple level, they saw a human in need, and they offered love. This is what humans are truly called to be and to do. Our role as baptised Christians is to remind the whole human family that’s the truth of who we’re called to be not just in extraordinary moments of human disaster, but in our ordinary, day-to-day lives. To stand together as one Body of Christ, when we like each other, and when we don’t, and to say, ‘Your heavenly Father sees you as you truly are and knows what you need.’ And ‘because you and I are both made in the image of God, I see you too, and so I can share what I have, and receive what you give me, and together we can reveal a little bit more of Christ’s light in the chaos and darkness around us.’
Taylor, Christ calls you into a new life with each one of us here today: it’s a new life that won’t always be easy, that won’t be free from worry or suffering, but it will be a life in which the Good News of the new creation, of the new heaven and earth, can be made visible through you and through us, even in times of extraordinary darkness. May it be a life in which you choose to love Jesus revealed in strangers like Aya, and every other God-given life, with the same unconditional love that Christ offers to you today, in the hope of the new creation that will come tomorrow. And may it be a life in which you remind each of us as baptised Christians to change our experience of today’s world through God’s love: not only in the wake of extraordinary disaster, but, every day, even in the ordinariness of life here in the forgotten corners of Upper Norwood. Amen.