Sermon For the first Sunday after the Epiphany
You might have been surprised to arrive this evening to discover the church still decorated with the greenery, wreaths and Christmas tree. I mean really, shouldn’t all of this been taken down once the 12 days of Christmas had come to an end? There is, though, a tradition of leaving the church decorated through to this day, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, because this is, in some real sense, a birth story as well. In fact, in the Gospel according to Mark, it is the only birth story told. Think about it. Luke gives us the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, which Matthew parallels with his story of the visit of the Magi. Luke also offers the story of the presentation of Jesus at the temple forty days after his birth, as well as that lone biblical story of Jesus in childhood. You know the one: Mary and Joseph have taken him to Jerusalem on their annual pilgrimage, and he worries them half to death by disappearing, only to be found in the temple engaged in deep conversation with the teachers.
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And then just like that, Luke transitions to the proclamation of John the Baptist and then to the baptism of Jesus. Birth story. Long silence. A glimpse of Jesus at twelve. Longer silence. The appearance of Jesus on the banks of the Jordan River the age of thirty… and now the story moves into full gear. Something new has begun—has been birthed—on the banks of that desert river.
This is actually the third time in just over a month that the lectionary brings the figure of John the Baptist into view. We had a first glimpse of him back on the Second Sunday in Advent, and then a more thoroughgoing introduction to his fiery message on the Third Sunday of Advent. Tonight in the imagery of the winnowing-fork and the chaff being burned in unquenchable fire we actually get a repeat of some of those verses from Advent III: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming [who] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John’s baptism marked repentance—a turning and committed new beginning in preparation for the coming of the Messiah and the inbreaking of the Kingdom. There’s an urgency and intensity in John’s proclamation… get your life in order before the anointed one arrives. John is clearly drawing on existing Jewish purification rituals of immersion in water—among other things it was required of Gentiles converting to Judaism—and he is probably also drawing on the practices of the rather austere Jewish sect that located itself at Qumran, but he’s made it a very public act; public, and also outside of the confines of synagogue and temple.
Water imagery courses through the Hebrew scriptures, and while it is often a positive symbol of life and sustenance—think of the line from the 23rd Psalm, “he leads me beside still waters”—it can also mark danger, threat, even chaos. We all know this, of course. You can’t live for more than a few days without drinking water; plants wither and die without it; and nothing feels better on a hot summer day than stepping into a cool, clear lake and feeling your body come back to life. Yet in this part of the world we also know the power of those spring floods, and just think of the devastating force of a tsunami. That same water that gives life can become a force that destroys. More personally, I have to confess that if I have anything resembling a phobia, it is a fear of drowning. My wife Catherine can happily dive and snorkel by the hour, and positively lit up like a Christmas tree when she learned to scuba dive. I sat on the boat and watched as she disappeared under the surface of the water for a full forty-five minutes, my heart in my mouth at the very thought of doing that.
Given all that, I hear these words from today’s reading from Isaiah in a very particular way:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
The prophet is saying that even the very thing that gets my heart pounding is not to be feared, for God is with me. In Isaiah, these are words that God speaks to a displaced and exiled people, a people who had experienced themselves as having been overwhelmed and swept away; swept into captivity in Babylon.
But now thus says the Lord,
the One who created you, O Jacob,
the One who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
I have called you by name, you are mine. So trust me.
Come down into the river and be baptized, John had proclaimed. Repent—do a 180-degree turn in your life and practices—and immerse your body in the water. When you break the surface again, know that something has died and something new has been born.
In Matthew’s account, John is unclear as to why Jesus has come to him for baptism: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Mt 3:14) If you are who I think you are, then you have nothing to turn from; nothing to repent of; nothing to let go of or let die. Yet Jesus is insistent that John baptize him, and so he does.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
That’s the moment when you realize that this really is a kind of birth story: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” While Luke has already related all of those infancy stories that let the reader know that Jesus is the beloved Son, it is at this moment that it “goes public” so to speak. Now things are to be set in motion.
The next thing that happens—the next step in things being set in motion—is that that Spirit of God, signified as a descending dove, will lead Jesus deeper into the desert for a forty day sojourn of fasting and prayer; forty days which culminate with him having to face down the deepest of temptations, namely to seize power and control in ways contrary to his deeper calling. We’ll hear that story in just a month or so, when the season of Lent begins, so for now just know that sometimes the call to follow the guidance of the Spirit can take us into rough, challenging, and soul-searching terrain. And yet still we must not lose sight of those words from Isaiah: “I have called you by name, you are mine.” So trust me. In deep waters or in arid desert; trust me, I will be with you.