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Paradox?

Psalm 29
Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-22

I wonder if you’ve noticed that the distinction between old and new is something which now troubles both the world we live in today and the church? Have you ever noticed, for example, that products can be advertised in quite contradictory ways? Sometimes we’re encouraged to buy something because it’s ‘new’ – the latest thing, you’ve never seen anything like it before. And sometimes we encouraged to buy something because it’s just like things used to be, it’s traditional, what your granny would have known. And so most of live in a world in which we drink tea ‘like tea used to be’ and in which our washing powder is forever ‘new’ and ‘improved’. We dread being ‘ashamed of our mobiles’, but we want antique, distressed pine in our kitchens. In the strange patchwork world that we now live, I believe it’s called post-modernity, we can’t decide whether old or new is best. And in the strange world of the church we often divide ourselves up according to whether we like ‘traditional hymns’ or ‘new worship songs’, or whether we’d rather have the old pews or buy new chairs, or whether we want our theology and faith more than anything to be faithful to our reading of the tradition or to be led by the concerns of the world. Sometimes in the church we marginalise those who are ‘older’ and long only for ‘young’ people and ‘new families’ to join us – and sometimes we are desperately frightened of anything new. We can’t decide whether to sing a new song to the Lord or to tell the old, old stories. Sometimes we make the terrible mistake of the thinking that the ‘old’ testament is simply superseded by the new, and then at other times we cling to an ‘old’ translation of the Bible even though scholars have found for us important new insights. We can’t decide whether old or new is best.

This Sunday we’re faced with contradicting ourselves. That’s not a surprise because we do that regularly in church, because church is a place where truths which seem to fly against each other have to be held together in tension. In that sense church is rather like a science laboratory where the basic properties of matter are studied. If you don’t believe me, just ask a physicist to explain how light is both a wave and a particle, and neither.

The starkest of the Christian paradoxes is that – so we say – God is all-powerful but – so it seems – we mortals can do much as we like. God’s loving will, we claim, will ultimately prevail, but we insist, too, that God does not deal with us like puppets on strings. We can, in the end, refuse God’s love. Some say that there are only two prayers: ‘Thy will be done’ and ‘My will be done’. The paradox is that both prayers will be answered.

The contradiction this Sunday in particular is between the noisy God described in Psalm 29 and the quiet God whose baptism by John is related in our Gospel reading. Psalm 29 is often read alongside the story of the Baptism of Christ. The God of Psalm 29 makes one hell of a racket. I wonder if you can imagine that the telly is on, your spouse is trying to talk to you as well, the kinds are taking some noisy toy up and down and up and down the wooden floor, and then the phone rings, and all you want is a bit of peace and quiet to read your book? That’s the noisy God of Psalm 29!

‘The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice.’ So powerful is his thundering voice that it shatters the cedar trees, strips the forest of its leaves, sets Mount Hermon skipping, and makes startled goats give birth before their time. Obviously this Psalm is read alongside the Baptism of Jesus because, in talking about ‘the voice of God over the waters’, it nicely anticipates ‘the voice from heaven’, the voice which speaks as Jesus, baptized by John, emerges from the waters of Jordan.

But if those one listens carefully to that ‘voice from heaven’, one might discover that the voice of God at the baptism of Jesus is saying who he is, and that is someone not at all noisy. Jesus is the one ‘in whom God is well pleased’. The words are a direct quotation from Isaiah (42.10). They speak of ‘the servant’, the unidentified figure, whom we meet in a series of poems in the later chapters of Isaiah, who will bear the sins of God’s people. That servant will suffer, but he will suffer silently. He is oppressed and afflicted, we read, ‘and yet he opens not his mouth’. At his baptism, Jesus accepts the identity, the role, and the mission of the silent suffering servant of the Lord. No doubt Psalm 29 is saying something important about the sovereignty of God, but it isn’t the message of the baptism of Christ.

Psalm 29 speaks of the God who is ‘enthroned above the flood’. At his baptism, Jesus is not enthroned above the flood. Far from it. He is engulfed by the flood. Its dreadful waters drown him. The tide of our sins and sorrows overwhelms him. His baptism in the Jordan is one with his baptism on Golgotha, that baptism which, throughout his ministry, he knew he must finally suffer and which, until it was accomplished, so constrained him. ‘The God of glory thunders’ says our psalm. Not the God we meet in Jesus.

We meet another paradox, if not a contradiction, with the images of water in the Bible. Water is the means of life and the symbol of all that is spiritually life-giving. ‘Everything shall live where the river runs,’ says Ezekiel. Jesus is the fountain of ‘living water’ and the one who drinks of him shall never thirst. But water is also the stuff of ‘waters’, the primal and malign waters of chaos from which God creates an ordered world, the waters which must part if God’s people are to go free, the waters which Jesus tramples underfoot, the waters which one day will be no more. Waters, so says today’s reading from Isaiah, are the adversity we may be required to pass through. John, who baptized Jesus, passed through those waters, and as we heard, he paid a costly price for that.

Remember, we baptised three children from one family just before Christmas. If those babies baptised that morning take their baptism seriously, they’re in for far worse than a splashed forehead. What does it mean to us that we’re baptised? How does it affect out life?