Year B, Epiphany 1 (Baptism of Our Lord) January 7, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him, And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
Well Christmas is finally over. The trees are down. The greens are in the compost pile. The last of the egg nog has been drunk up and the stockings have been put away for the season with care. I hope you had a joyous Christmas. We really stretch it out in our house, marking each of the Twelve Days of Christmas with carols and gifts. It is really fun having that much Christmas and it really takes the overwhelmingness out of Christmas morning with its stacks of presents from Papa and Nana and the rest of the family back East.
But it is over now. We celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany last night. The Epiphany, or The Manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles is our commemoration of the revelation of Jesus Christ to just that, to the entire world. The Magi are the primary symbol of that manifestation. They traveled from far off lands to pay homage to the newborn King, and presumably, they would bring word of Him back with them. But there are other symbols, liturgical or ritual actions that we use to mark Jesus’ light shining into time and space. One is the reading of the Wedding Feast at Cana, that was where Jesus turned water into wine, that was His first pubic act in the gospel of St. John. The other is what we are talking about this morning, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, on which we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord.
Baptism is one of the two great sacraments of the Church. What is the other great one? __ Eucharist. How many sacraments do we have? ___ Seven. They are: confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction. Why are Baptism and Eucharist great? ___ While the others evolved under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gave Baptism and the Eucharist to us directly. We received the Eucharist when He broke the bread and poured the wine with His friends at what would be the Last Supper before He was crucified. And Baptism we received in the story we heard this morning, His own baptism in the Jordan under the hand of St. John the Baptist, the heavens opening, the Holy Spirit, descending like a dove, and the voice of God proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
So today we are going to talk about Baptism: Jesus’ baptism, what it meant then and means now, and your own baptism, what it meant then and what it means now. Now I know that some of you here are not baptized; some of you younger folks and some of you older folks. Our radical Resurrection hospitality extends from our parking lot and our Egan and breakfast and family shelter and Home Starter Kits all the way to this open table here, meaning that everyone is welcome, baptized or not. That is against church canon, but our Bishop allows for pastoral generosity, and I feel in my heart that Jesus would, too, so when we say “This is God’s table, all are welcome here,” we really mean it. You are welcome here. And if you don’t feel called to Eucharist, please feel free to come forward for a blessing at the rail with your brothers and sisters. It is nice to be up here together.
So what is Baptism? Well, the outward and visible sign of Baptism is water, a ritual cleansing in the name of God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. So what actually happens? Good question. Remember this is a sacrament, a site of eternal and actual encounter with God through God’s vessel, the church. Another way to say that is that it is “Who knows?” This, like all sacramental encounters is a mystery. How and what happens, it is a great and holy mystery, beyond our ability to understand let alone accurately describe. Sacraments are not evidenced based, you can’t measure it, but that does not make it one iota less real, rather the sacraments are experienced based. Billions of our brothers and sisters across millennia have been joined with God in this very particular way, and if you let it, it can, it will change your life.
Sacraments are a mystery, but with experience and a bit of holy imagination, we can talk about them. Here is what wemight say about Baptism: “In (the water of baptism) we are buried with Christ in His death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Any guesses where that came from? The BCP. Not the catechism part, but the Baptismal rite itself. Really, if someone asks what Episcopalians believe, you can with only a touch of snarkiness hand them a BCP and say “This.”
That’s a lot, though. A lot that we imagine going on in this sacrament. Buried with Christ in His death. Sharing his resurrection. Rebirth by the Holy Spirit. Welcome into his fellowship. There is a lot going on in the water of Baptism. The same water that we heard of from Genesis, that God’s breath moved over, the same water that Israel escaped bondage through, the same water that Jesus Himself was baptized in. That’s some water. What does it all mean?
As Christians, as we try to figure out something about God or the world, Scripture is a good place to start. The most basic way to understand baptism is that it is a call to mission, a call to activity by and in and through God. That is certainly how the story of Jesus’ baptism in St. Mark’s gospel, the story we heard today, is framed, a call to mission, and that call comes in two distinct forms: anointing and appointing. Let’s look at the scripture.
For St. Mark, the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is important. John had been anointed as a prophet, a prophet who herald’s the coming of the Messiah. St. Mark wants to be sure that we know that Jesus is the one that John has been waiting for. John was very popular, and no one doubted his authenticity as a prophet. It was important to Mark that everyone knew with certainty that Jesus was the chosen one of God, that He had been anointed by God, that he was the one John was talking about. And that message comes in such a Jesus-y way, doesn’t it? He, Jesus, was the one being baptized, not the one doing the baptizing. The baptizer is sort of the one in charge, right? Reading the book, saying the prayer, pouring the water. But that wasn’t Jesus. No, in perfect Jesus fashion, He showed how strong He was, how great He was, how holy He was by assuming a posture of humility. On his knees, under that water. Like the cross, His submission was His strength, His death was His (and our) victory. So Jesus is the one they’d been waiting for, that lesson is for us, AND, just maybe, this is that word getting to Jesus for the first time. Mark doesn’t start with a nativity story. No, it starts with John the Baptist, proclaiming “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight.” Then Jesus appears from Nazareth and is baptized and then sees the dove-like spirit and hears God’s voice. This is not only a revelation to us, but this, in Mark’s gospel, is Jesus’ call. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is anointed by God in the waters of Baptism, marked as Son, Beloved, in whom God is well pleased.
So Jesus is anointed, and then He is appointed to His mission. And His mission? To be a savior. He came as a savior, not as a judge, though that may happen, not as a king, though He is held in royal esteem, but a Savior. He came baptize not with water, nor with fire, but with what? The Holy Spirit. He is here to catch us in our headlong plunge, to cast God’s net far and wide and scoop us all up and hold us and heal us as a friend, as a brother, and as God. Now that is a mission.
And it is explicitly messianic. Messiah, Christ, that word simply means anointed, the anointed one. The anointing happens in the descent of the dove and the voice of God proclaiming God’s favor, but this anointing itself becomes an appointing. He is The Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one of God, and carrying that title was a burden, it was a mission all its own.
By receiving baptism, Jesus was anointed as God’s chosen, and was appointed to serve us, to save us as messianic Son of God and the suffering servant that Isaiah prophesied. His mission was to proclaim His solidarity with us, the guilty, the sinful, the separated from God, and in proclaiming His solidarity with us, all the way up to experiencing death, human death and descent to the dead, Jesus saves. Saved. Us. All of us. You. That was the mission given to Him from God by the hand of John the Baptist. Wheh… all of that in the scant and muddy waters of the Jordan river.
When you were baptized (or when you are baptized), much the same thing happens to you as it did to Jesus. In that water, be it a dribble from the silver shell, a bucket’s worth in a feed trough, or a full on river dunking, you are anointed as “Christ’s own for ever.” Your sins are forgiven, meaning that the distance between you and God is gone, there is no longer any separation, and in that, you are raised to a new life of grace. Now that’s some anointing.
And our mission? Our appointment? The rite is quite explicit: “Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” Surrender to the actuality of God, spread the good news and serve by loving God with all our heart and all our mind and all our being and loving our neighbor as our self. You are ordained into the priesthood of all believers. That is a pretty tall order, so the rite continues, and we pray that God give us the tools we need to fulfill the mission we are given: an inquiring and discerning heart, courage to will and persevere, a spirit to know and love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. All of that together means that you have what you need to figure out the mission God has appointed for you, what work God has given you to do. But that is on you, figuring it out. Discerning vocation, your life’s purpose and how that purpose serve’s God’s will. And in a moment like this, with chaos in our leadership, crisis in our climate, poverty spilling out into our streets, it is time to get cracking. You have what you need. Pray on it.
We have some baptisms coming up. One in a couple of weeks, a baby, and there might be three or four, adults and children, at Easter Vigil, the most traditional day of the year for Baptisms. That is pretty exciting. And in just a moment, we are going to go through and renew our Baptismal Covenant as we do every year on this Sunday in memory of Our Lord’s Baptism so long ago. Ponder those words in your heart. They are for you. AMEN.