It is good to be back. May I wish you somewhat belatedly a Happy New Year! New year is a time for looking back and for looking forward. It is often a time to reminisce and a time to plan for what lies ahead. A time of reviewing the past and making resolutions for the future.
I don’t know if you have made any new year resolutions? I haven’t. From past experience, intentions to eat more healthily, take more exercise and, in the past, to stop smoking would all be consigned to the rubbish bin by January 4th. The beginning of a New Year has never proved a turning point in my life. But turning points there have been and sometimes when I was least expecting them.
As a young teacher I was asked by a colleague would I like to go to a regimental dinner with a friend of hers who needed a partner for the evening. The thought of a night out with good meal thrown in could not be resisted. That decision proved to mark a big turning point in my life. That blind date was my meeting with Alan. The rest as they say is history. When he arrived to pick me up in his best blues uniform, my sister who was never stuck for the appropriate phrase, announced that, “There’s a bus conductor come for you!” It was an inauspicious beginning to a relationship that has lasted more than fifty years and without which I certainly would not be standing here.
When I had completed my degree in Bacteriology and Zoology at Leeds I had hoped to stay on and do research. It was an exciting time in the field of cell biology. Viruses were being viewed with electron microscopes; the structure of DNA just being discovered and work on immunology moving apace. But unfortunately my father was taken seriously ill. I came home to help my mother and went into teaching. A turning point which I have never regretted.
At the end of my teaching career I was responsible for the introduction of teacher appraisal in Bury. This did not make me the most popular person in the world. But it was a challenge which I enjoyed. At one of the training sessions we were asked to identify something which you thought the person sitting next to you could do. My neighbour looked at me and said “Margery you can persuade people to listen to you even if they are not sure they like what you are saying.” That thought struck home and with other ideas going through my mind was influential in my decision to train as a Reader. A turning point that changed my life.
On Jordan's bank
Our gospel reading today in Luke 3 tells of a turning point in the life of Jesus. In only two verses we hear how he came to the river Jordan and was baptised by John. John did not believe that he should baptise Jesus. Rather it should be the other way round with Jesus baptising John. Ever since people have first read the gospel stories they have wondered why Jesus was baptised at all. Baptism by John was a baptism of repentance and if Jesus was free from sin there was no need for repentance and no need for baptism.
One of the earliest writers suggests that Jesus was baptised only to please his mother and his brothers. The writer of the Gospel to the Hebrews, one of the gospels which did not make it into the New Testament, has a passage like this: “Behold the mother of the Lord and his brethren said unto him “John the Baptist baptises for the remission of sins - let us go and be baptised by him”.
His mother and his family wanting to be involved in this new experience offered by John and encouraging Jesus to take part, especially to please his mother? We all know that one “O alright I’ll do it if it will keep her quiet.” But I cannot believe that to be the case because Jesus says it must be done to fulfil all righteousness. It must be done because it is the will of God.
In the past there had been no tradition of Jews being baptised. Baptism was only for those who had turned to the Jewish faith. Jews as the chosen nation felt in no need of baptism. They did not consider themselves in need of the repentance given in baptism. But through John, the Jews had become aware of the need for repentance and Jesus entering into this movement was a significant step. The baptism of Jesus was a public event. It involved the use of water, a dipping into the Jordan, just like that of all the others who were there. Jesus identified himself with those he came to save.
Moment of truth
So a turning point in Jesus’ life, when he finds himself by the River Jordan faced by John. After thirty years living in relative obscurity in Nazareth as he stands by the crowds being baptised, realisation comes that this the moment and he agrees to be baptised. He recognises that this was the moment that everything that had gone before was leading up to.
But of course the baptism of Jesus was different from the others for as he rose out of the water the voice was heard “This is my son whom I love and with whom I am well pleased.” The first part of that sentence “This is my Son whom I love” is from Psalm 2:7 which the Jews accepted as a description of the Messiah. It would certainly ring bells for those who knew their scriptures and who would recognise it as the heralding of the Messiah.
Jesus being so familiar with the scriptures would recognise the significance of the words and would know that for him life would never be the same. And many of those on the bank of the Jordan would know that they had been present at a significant moment in history.
Taking time out
Immediately after the baptism Jesus did not set out on his journey of ministry but took time out in seclusion. To think, to pray, to listen to his Father’s will. In short, having recognised the importance of his baptism he took time to prepare for the rest of the journey. For Jesus, his baptism was the beginning of his ministry – in the vernacular - the start of something big.
I assume that almost everyone here this morning has been baptised. For each of us baptism marked the start of our Christian journey. I doubt if many of us remember the occasion. Those baptised as adults certainly will. Those of us baptised as children may have seen the photographs, even still have the dress and the christening mug, but are unlikely to recall the event.
In baptism we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit as did the people baptised by the Apostles. Through that power we are able to achieve great things that would otherwise be impossible. But that transforming power is available not only at baptism but at any time in our lives. Yes, it may be there at significant moments such as Confirmation or ordination. But it can also be there when we least expect it. I don’t know if Jesus knew that morning what the day would bring but when the moment came he recognised it as a turning point.
Will we know?
Will we know when we encounter a turning point on our Christian journey? There are no clear criteria. Many turning points are to be found in the stories of the New Testament. Of course there are the dramatic events. The conversion of Saint Paul on the Damascus Road. But there are many which do not have that high drama. There's the calling of the disciples, fishermen at work probably never imagining that on that particular day their lives would be changed. The woman at the well who met Jesus as she was going about her everyday tasks drawing water. A routine housewifely task but from it came a transformation of her life.
For each of us, and it doesn’t matter if we are old or young, there will be times when the power of the Holy Spirit touches our lives. It may be in church or it may be in the supermarket. It may be in our homes or in our place of work. Perhaps it may be a sudden wake up call when we recognise that God is calling us in some way or it may be a gradual realisation? I do believe that the Holy Spirit can work in a drip feed way as well as the more sudden challenges.
God will certainly provide turning points in our lives. Let us pray that we may recognise them and like Christ, stop and listen to God to find out the way we should go.