By Simon Cuff
“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.” Genesis 1:2
“This is your last chance. Everything must go by midnight.” “Only 48 hours left. Don’t miss out!” “One more hour to get this crazy deal!”
If your inbox or letterbox is anything like mine, it’s full of these sorts of slogans at the moment as the post-Christmas sales grind to a halt.
We’re invited to spend a little less of the money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, whilst being threatened with the possibility we’ll miss out and have to spend much more when we come to realize we do need them after all, that our life won’t be worth living without this or that product. Of course, when the sale ends, the same items remain on sale at similar prices.
And if we do succumb to the threat that this really is our last chance, we do really need this or that, we find that the children have outgrown whatever it is we’ve bought them by the time it arrives, or the kitchen utensil or gadget we gave in to doesn’t quite live up to the life-changing promises made in the advert.
Today, our celebration of the Baptism of Christ reminds us that in the Church, things are different. God doesn’t do last chances. There isn’t a “repent now or you’ll miss it” offer in God’s economy. Today’s readings are all about the new life which God is always willing us to give.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. An event in the life of Christ which poses something of an embarrassment for all our Gospel writers. Why does Christ, the Word made flesh, need to be baptized at all?
What potential for sin does the one who cannot sin have that might need to be washed away?
St John the Baptist makes this clear in our Gospel reading today: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”
Not only is St John the Baptist not the Messiah, as the heavenly voice reminds us, his baptism is inferior to Christ’s too: “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Those who are ‘baptized’ by John are only baptized in the literal sense, ‘dipped.’ They will need to be baptized in a Christian sense after the Ascension, as our reading from Acts makes clear. Those who receive John’s baptism still await the gift of the Spirit, still need to be grafted into the Body of Christ through the water of Christian baptism.
So why is Christ baptized by John?
Christ isn’t baptized for his sake, but for ours. Christ isn’t renewed by water. Water is renewed by Christ.
In this baptism he sets aside water for its new role, as the means by which we enter the Church. In this exchange, all water is hallowed with the potential that it might be the means of new life.
The clue to all this is in our first reading.
Just as God’s Word is active at the beginning of Creation, bringing order to the waters of chaos, so now. Here is Christ, the Word made flesh, repurposing water for our sake. Here is the voice of the Father pronouncing it as good. Here is the Spirit hovering over this new creation.
All of which means it is never too late. God who creates all that is, is calling us even now into new life. God who became one of us in Christ, has set aside water for our baptism, has given us means to join that life through his Church. God who wills for us all to live that life anew, is always ready for us to come back to him.
So whilst outside in the world, we might be fooled into thinking there’s a time limit on a good deal, a last chance for a good price. In the Church, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s never too late to make amends with God, to confess our sins, and to find ourselves once again made new – as refreshed as we were on the day of our Baptism, renewed by his Spirit, ready to walk with Christ toward our heavenly home.
Until we fail again, and, as we will. Even then we’ll find ourselves back where we are today. Called by our heavenly Father, waiting and willing us to return to him, offering himself to us as in every Eucharist in the Body and Blood of his Son, giving himself to us gift of his Spirit poured into our lives, all in the hope that we might once again give ourselves for him.
It’s never too late.
The Rev. Dr. Simon Cuff is tutor and lecturer in theology at Saint Mellitus College, London.