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Homily - Baptism of the Lord - Bishop McKeown

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It took us a fortnight to get through the Christmas season. The stories in the scripture readings during that period were about a baby but were laden with hints of what was to come for Jesus – his rejection by the authorities and acceptance by unimportant people; the encounter with the Wise Men who represent non-Jews; the gift of myrrh, an ointment to anoint his body for its burial. Now we move quickly to what Jesus came for – telling people about the kingdom of God by words and by miracles. And that public ministry begins with his Baptism. What can we learn from today's feast?

Firstly, the Baptism of Jesus was not just a nice little ceremony. Rather it was the beginning of a new stage in his journey. When the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the scriptures, it marks the beginning of something radically new. Jesus has been anointed with the Spirit to bring Good News to the poor. Pentecost marks the beginning of a wave of energy. John the Baptist here talks about fire accompanying the Holy Spirit. That is precisely the sort of new outburst of divine energy that we need in this change of time. This is also the sort of energy that we are all tempted to be afraid of. We all prefer to be in control and are afraid of what change might imply. And it is important to acknowledge that and bring it to God in prayer.

But this Baptism of Jesus shows God breaking through into our frightened world. The voice is heard, and the Spirit is seen in the form of a dove. For Jewish listeners, the dove had been the bird sent out by Noah to bring back news that the Flood had ended. Here the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters of the Jordan as God promises cleansing and new hope. There is a need for a new missionary spirit in our local and national church. That change will be an uncomfortable experience for many. As we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public mission, we baptised are called to be open to being led by the Holy Spirit and to prepare a way for the Lord in the current wilderness. And we have to recognise where fears or lack of energy may be holding us back from letting the Lord lead our Church mission.

... this week we begin our training programme for those who will lead the synodal discussions in our parishes. Many people are frightened and feel inadequate about what will have to be done... Today's feast tells me that we have to start out from where we are. For Jesus it might have been tempting to go back to the carpentry shop in Nazareth. But that was not his call – and the world needed more than tables and chairs if the devil was to be faced down. This process will bear fruit if it is wrapped in the swaddling clothes of prayer. It will fail if it becomes merely a fight between loud voices, seeking power.

Secondly, this is not just an external event for Jesus. He sees more clearly than ever that he is the beloved Son of the Father. For Jewish listeners, the words from heaven echo the words of Isaiah. Jesus realises that his mission is to be a suffering servant on behalf of God's people. God the Father does not merely send Jesus off to do a difficult job. As that mission starts, Jesus is reassured of the Father's love which will accompany right up to the Garden of Gethsemane and Calvary where he accepts that God's will should be done and that he can commend his spirit into the Father's hands. The Holy Spirit is given to us all in baptism so that we can be energised to make Jesus known and loved. But the Holy Spirit is also given so that, even when things area terribly difficult, we can still trust that God is in charge. Our baptismal call insists that we give of our very best and resist the temptation to wallow in self-pity. At the present time, we need those who will acknowledge the problems and resistance that we face as church – and still trust that our often-uncertain witness can be used by God to save the world. Our call to be part of Christ's mission is personal, not merely organisational. God is faithful to you for the long haul because you are his beloved daughter or son. Whatever the circumstances you find yourself in, your life is meaningful, it is valuable and infinitely precious even when you think you have been labouring in vain or have made too many mistakes.

Thirdly, this week we begin our training programme for those who will lead the synodal discussions in our parishes. Many people are frightened and feel inadequate about what will have to be done. Will the process simply create deeper divisions in our parishes and church? Will we spend a lot of energy and gain little? Will we destroy ourselves with too many self-inflicted wounds? Will this be merely a piece of gesture politics? Today's feast tells me that we have to start out from where we are. For Jesus it might have been tempting to go back to the carpentry shop in Nazareth. But that was not his call – and the world needed more than tables and chairs if the devil was to be faced down. This process will bear fruit if it is wrapped in the swaddling clothes of prayer. It will fail if it becomes merely a fight between loud voices, seeking power. The temptation is often to think that we know best – and that we shouldn't let other voices be heard. The call to the baptised is to believe that the Spirit who dwells in our midst knows best. Parish communities where there is much prayer and silent adoration will be open to being led. Parishes that see themselves as mainly administrative structures risk being closed to the working of God's grace. Warm gentle hearts can be formed by grace. Closed, frightened hearts risk being broken when they face the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Today, we begin our annual Gospel journey with Jesus in his public life. We will see him dealing with sin and sickness. He will face resistance and criticism, ending on Calvary. In his way of living and preaching, he will show us the work that has to be done. And in his apostles, we will see temptations that they face to take the easy way. We journey this year with St Luke's Gospel. And that Gospel has key themes - the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit from the Annunciation to Pentecost; the role that prayer plays in Jesus' life; and a clear emphasis on the poor and marginalised. As we face to into the challenges of re-energising church life and learning to listen to God in each other, this Gospel of Luke can be a constant companion. Isaiah tells us that Jesus is present in power and like a shepherd gathering lambs in his arms. And when the going gets tough, can we apply the Gospel words to ourselves – you are my daughter/ my son, the beloved: my favour rests on you. As St Paul will write later on – if God is on our side, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

+ Donal McKeown


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St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302

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