Baptism of the Lord: Baptism and the Blackstuff

By the Rev’d Dr J. Hugh Kempster- Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11; Titus 2:11-14,3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16,21-22 

Do you remember the British TV series “Boys from the Blackstuff” from the 1980s? Set in the era of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, it followed the lives of five men - Yosser, Dixie, Loggo, George, and Chrissie – who had been laid-off from their jobs laying tarmac “the backstuff” on Britain’s roads, and plotted their struggle to find work. The drama, set in Liverpool, became hugely popular in the UK, capturing the reality of rising unemployment as it began to bite across the country during a time of change.

The Anglican Church is going through a time of massive change in our era. The 2016 census figures told a grim story. As The Melbourne Anglican reported at the time: “Anglicanism saw the greatest fall of any Christian denomination or faith between 2011 and 2016, with around 3.1 million Australians (13.3 percent) identifying as Anglicans in 2016, down from almost 3.7 million (17.1 percent) in 2011. The loss of around 579,000 adherents is more than double what the Anglican Church lost between 1996 and 2011.”

In my 32 years serving the church as a lay minister, deacon and priest, I have known this reality all too well, in a variety of different ministry settings. The letter of appointment for my first parish as Vicar, in Auckland, New Zealand, was for two years, and I will never forget this additional clause: “if financially viable.” After 2 years it was not, but there was great potential, and I am the sort of person who is determined to finish what I start. So, I chose to give up my full-time wage, and work part-time for two years while studying for a PhD, to give the parish a break from paying a full stipend. It made a big difference; gave us a budget; and with Ree’s sterling efforts working alongside me, we established a community centre, and over 9 years managed to pull the parish back up by the boot-straps. By God’s grace it is still a viable parish to this day … just.

St Peter’s is a very different parish; we are blessed with five non-stipendiary clergy, two full-time lay workers, and five other part-time lay staff. We have an average Sunday attendance across our four services of more than 150 people, we run numerous programs - such as the RMIT Chaplaincy, the Choral Concert Series, the Bookroom, the Lazarus Centre Breakfast Program, the soon to be launched Coffee Cart Social Enterprise - and our total budget for 2019 is more than $860,000.

But we are not immune from the challenges facing our sisters and brothers in smaller parishes. We all work so hard at St Peter’s to keep our mission to the City vibrant and relevant, but each year the Parish Council presents the Annual Meeting with a budget deficit; despite major cuts in our spending, such as reducing the number of stipended clergy from 2 to 1 last year, and every effort to increase income.

The words from Isaiah in today’s Lesson were written for a people in exile; perhaps we are in a form of exile in the church today, even at St Peter’s:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for her sins. A voice crys out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

It cannot be business as usual for churches in today’s world, be they large or small. As a parish community here at St Peter’s, we need to work together at finding new ways of being church in these challenging times. Our lection today reminds us of what was an Advent call just a few weeks ago: “prepare the way of the Lord.” Like the boys from the blackstuff (when they had a job!) we are called to straighten the road, put down the gravel, and lay out the “black stuff” the tarmac, to build a highway for the coming of our Lord.

Baptism is part of the mix; in fact it is the core ingredient of the bitumen. As St Athanasius famously wrote: “[Our Lord] became what we are that we might become what he is.” The crowds are pouring out into the wilderness to see John; is he the Messiah? He baptises them, a symbol of purity, cleansing, belonging, commitment to the faith. Jesus slips in among them; one of them; and he too is baptised. He is praying, and the heavens open, they all see it, a dove descends, the Holy Spirit, and the Father says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

As communicant members of St Peter’s, we have all received our Lord’s baptism, or most of us (9.30am mention Akoi) – come and see me if you would like to be baptised! We have been baptised by water, like John’s baptism, but the baptism of our Lord is more than that: “he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Have you been baptised with the Holy Spirit?  Have you been through a baptism by fire?

In many ways, I think we are going through a baptism by fire at the moment as a parish; and we are not alone. But is the fire of forging, the fire needed to prepare the blackstuff for the road. Times of change are uncomfortable, painful, but the promise of the Holy Spirit is at the heart of our baptism; she is the one who guides us, inspires us, comforts us. Her fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control. May we draw strength from her, and may we abide in Christ, our Messiah, as he abides in us. And may we work together, despite our differences, in prepare the way for our God. Amen.

Alae Taule'alo