St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

Home Who We Are UAM What Is On Sermons Contact Us


January 12th The Baptism of Jesus, 2020                         John Marsh

Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

I must begin with a confession – some, perhaps much of what I am about to say is imaginative in nature…

However, this is not to say that it’s of no value - our suspicions of imaginative thought are generally misplaced. In fact, we live in a culture which is suffering from an impoverishment of imagination, which, for example, explains our usual inability to understand that one can deeply respect and honour our roots and be radical at the same time.¹

In the simplest of terms, we need to honour our imagination more than we do.

Let us now turn to our concerns for this day…

Have you ever noticed, in the readings for Advent and Christmas particularly the gospels, the prevalence of texts from the book of the prophet Isaiah?

The book of Isaiah with its descriptors of suffering and oppression, its visions of alternative paths and divinity’s desires for justice, compassion and wellbeing, is a rich imaginative source of language and metaphors which capture the experience of those who encountered Jesus.

Those who encountered Jesus, came to believe, or at least to hope, that he was the expected one sent by god as the fulfillment of ancient hopes and desires.

However, I imagine that the preponderance of Isaiah texts is not simply due to the hermeneutic reflections of the companions of Yeshua, the texts themselves or the creativity of the gospel writers.

I have a hunch that the texts also spoke powerfully to Jesus’ experience of the sacred within everyday life.

I have a hunch that the descriptors of social burdens and the deep desires for wellness found within Isaiah were the texts which provided Jesus an interpretive language, a hermeneutic lens with which to understand and express his experience of his world, his tradition and his following of the sacred path.

I have a hunch that the echoing of today’s Isaiah passage by Matthew’s baptismal narrative is more than the narrative genius of Matthew’s author:

And when Jesus had been baptised…the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘‘this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:16-17

Or as the Isaiah text states:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him…” Isaiah 42:1

I have a hunch that the Isaiah text is a glimpse into Jesus’ self-awareness, his understanding of his mission. Given his experience of the world in and around Nazareth, which was bearing the economic, social and political brunt of occupation, the Isaiah texts were, perhaps, an inspiration to him capturing his heart and imagination.

And beyond today’s passage, in the gospel of Luke (See Luke 4:18ff), we have Jesus self-identifying with another Isaiah text:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…to comfort all who mourn.                                                                                                                                  (Isaiah 61:1-2)²

The Good News of Deliverance

The Good News of Deliverance

The Good News of Deliverance

I have a hunch that Isaiah’s prophecies were on Jesus’ mind as he lived, worked and meditated upon life lived in his world.

And after his wilderness experience, which immediately follows today’s readings, it seems that Jesus rejects the imperial way of ‘power and might’ or, if you will, the way of ‘shock and awe’, expressed by today’s psalm; it seems that his inspiration, motivation and vision were deeply nourished by the Isaiah texts.

(An aside: there exists within our sacred narratives tensions between more conventional imperial narratives and those which speak of the path of justice and compassion, between the way of power and might and the way which attends to the powerless. It is not that the way of ‘shock and awe’ is simply wrong – again, take note of psalm 29 – but it seems that it is not the way of Jesus; his way is not the way of mighty and controlling power but the way of the non-violent hesed of the holy.³ It may be that the experiences of ‘shock and awe’ are an understandable response to the ‘power and might’ within the world; it may be that the way of non-violent hesed, perhaps the way of justice, is that which is inscribed within, haunting power and might. Yet, god knows that we have not sufficiently attended to, been responsive to god’s hesed, preferring instead admiration and expressions of imperial ways, almost always giving way, no matter our pretensions to serve justice, to ways dominating, demanding, destructive and often, decidedly violent.)

I have a hunch that the experience of his baptism was a critical experience which eventually led Jesus to leave John’s movement and to embark on another path, a path inspired and traced by the Isaiah texts.

I have a hunch that Jesus, deeply inspired by Isaiah, chose to walk the path of the non-violent pursuit of justice, compassion, healing and transformation.

I have a hunch that encouraged by the Isaiah texts, Jesus chose an alternative hermeneutic way, perhaps an impossible way, a smaller interpersonal way not a dominating imperial way, a transformational way not an enforced way, a radical relational way not the conventional way of custom.

I have a hunch that Jesus’ baptism and his ensuing mission calls to our baptism and our mission.

I have a hunch that this call is to understand baptism as far more than the removal of sins; our baptism is, like Jesus’, vocational, more calling than cleansing.

We are called to a way of life which transcends, is more than, institutional policies, plans and programs.

I may be wrong but I have a hunch that we are perhaps uniquely positioned, because of our situation and size, to hear, perhaps to be more communally and individually responsive to spirit’s spectral voice.

I have a hunch that we are, hopefully, uniquely positioned to be responsive to spirit’s haunting lure.

Perhaps, if our imaginative exercise still holds, we may hear echoes of Jesus’ voice and be stirred by fragments of Isaiah’s dreams…

Perhaps, so stirred, we may push further still, considering who we are, allowing who we think we are to haunt us, considering where we have come from, imaginatively probing the unknowable, yet paradoxically, pursuable possibilities of our future, impossible though they may seem…

Perhaps what has happened in our past, what may be happening in our midst, is the prompting of the spirit – if we risk response…

Perhaps we need to let go of imaginings rooted in former things, former realities…

Perhaps a few need to own the extent of their projections...

Perhaps we need to be wary of walking old tired paths in but new guises.

To be clear, this is not to advocate an erasure, a forgetting of our past; we have, after all, come from this past, it is our origin, it is where we begin, which is to say, ignorance of our past will demand endless repetition. Rather, it is to advocate, with eyes wide open, with our senses attuned, beginning where we are, that we risk asking, ‘Do we sense, discern alternative ways impossible though they seem?

Perhaps we need to risk vocational calls within our baptism, calls which do not, in and of themselves, alter anything, calls calling, inviting us to the difficulty of the work of alteration, exposing the difficulty, calling for risk, risking, responding to voices of the other, those on the bottom of the pile, perhaps to move beyond the traumatizing effects of racism in a fuller embrace of First Nation issues, dare I say the UAM, risking the unknown realities of authentic reconciliation, risking, chancing, future possibilities of we know not what⁴…     

Perhaps, we may respond to vocational calls within our baptism moving toward more dispersive expressions of our giftedness, more deinstitutionalised embodiments of ministry, understanding church as less an institutional entity, more of a project, an ever elusive yet beckoning calling, of a religion beyond religion, a religionless expression of love, justice and compassion, stirring within lives responsive to the lures of god beyond god. For it is here that demarcations between sacred and secular give way to human hearts, dreams, where life is lived responsive to desire and passion – and yes there is down side to dreams, desires and passions as they may express less than our better selves; yet, if there is no possibility of a downside there is no authentic choice, no life worthwhile…

Perhaps we may move to more fully embrace liturgy not simply as an ecclesial ritual but a ritualized life force, a ritualized life movement playing with symbols, texts, a response in movement and song in which beauty is expressed within contextualized rhythms of human faith and frailty, hope and despair, love and loneliness, the painful glory of the human condition. This is liturgy intentionally expressed within ecclesial settings hopefully carried into the world, the world framing, undermining, liturgical expressions within the complexity of traditions inherited, respected and hermeneutically processed. In other language, we may ask, “What are we doing when we pray, converse, sing and eat liturgically and why?

Perhaps, if our imaginative exercise still holds, we may risk conversations, disagreements, confusions, ever searching what making real our faith, hope and love may mean…


God help us…

 ¹ The word radical, from the Latin ‘radix’ meaning root, is concerned with our roots. However, I cannot resist saying, radicality is not the seeking of a single common root, be it a social or religious tap root. Truth to tell, there is no single universal root but a rhizomatous root system not unlike some weeds which gardeners love to eradicate. Perhaps this explains the church’s anxious fear of heresy, it is very difficult to eradicate, appearing to pop up from nowhere. Perhaps this explains the church preferring its own voice as opposed to that which surprises, disturbs but which may contain spirit song. Perhaps…

 ² Aside from Luke 4:18, the Isaiah text is also echoed in Matthew 11:5 and Luke 7:22.

 ³ Hesed is a Hebrew word exclusively used of the holy one but which has no direct translation in English. Its meaning is a unique expression of love, compassion, justice, wellness, passion and deep desire for all of creation and the world.

 The common failure of structures is to confuse the call to alter with alteration. In so confusing the task, they remove the difficulty, calling off the difficulty instead of calling it out. It is the difficulty which directs the specificity of our work. If we are to be community of the way, a community of the Christ, Christ crucified, will we risk, are we risking the work, willing to risk exposure to the difficulty of the work? With regard to exposure, it is here that legal minds get concerned as they wish to shield the client from exposure; it here that puritanical minds express concerns over what the client is exposing wishing to shield the client from risk and danger. To be clear, their concerns are not without merit. What is without merit is the thought that protection can be forever secured. Vulnerability is inherent to life at least any life worth living. The question of life is are we open to attending to the dynamics, the interplay of safety, risk and respect for humanity?