Year A, The Baptism of our Lord January 8, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my heart delights…”
Welcome to the season after the Epiphany, you hearty ones who braved the elements to get here today! As you see, it has all turned green! The deep blue of Advent transformed to the brilliant White of Christmas and now into the verdant Green of ordinary time. The calendar models what we call salvation history, the history of the world as understood in Kairos, God’s time, not in Chronos, by the clock and calendar human time. Advent is the time of preparation for the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ, the source of our salvation. Christmas marks His arrival. Epiphany his manifestation to the world, the world learning about his presence. Then we have the brief stint of Ordinary time, neither feast nor fast, which represents the life and ministry of Jesus, which of course leads to Lent, and the long hard road to the cross. After a black Friday, we arise with Christ in Easter, live the 50 days of Him with us in a wholly new way, and then as the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost, we spend the last half of the year in Ordinary Time again, representing the life we lead now, the point in history that we are in, life in the wake of the Resurrection. Which of course leads us back to the beginning, preparing for the arrival of God’s beloved, again, in a wholly new way.
Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, which since ancient times, has been a day to remember the Baptism of Our Lord. The Feast of the Epiphany is actually a complex of three epiphanies, or manifestations of our Lord. The first is the Magi, the wise men from the East representing the revelation of Christ to the gentiles. The second is the wedding feast in Cana, the revelation of Christ through the miracle of changing water into wine. And the third is remembered today, the Baptism of the Lord, and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and the voice of from heaven declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
I said in my sermon on Epiphany itself that I am concerned that commemorating such monumental epiphanies is counter-productive, because it sets the bar of what being in touch with God looks like. Stars that can be followed at their rising! Water into wine, good wine even! And this, a baptism in which the outward and visible sign of the God’s inward and spiritual grace was God, like really God, embodied like a dove and in a voice.
It is great to hear such stories, such inspirational stories, maybe they provide an example, but if we are expecting to hear God’s voice that plainly, like stars and wine and Paul being knocked of his donkey plainly, we’re going to be missing a lot of cues. And that is true. The vast majority of the time, the vast, vast majority of the time, God’s voice, God’s will is whispered to us, not shouted. And that’s a primary purpose of the religious life, to quiet it all down, to slow it down enough to hear that still small voice, to feel the tug of God at your heartstrings. All the solemnity and silence of the Mass, private prayer and contemplation and the focus of bible study aims towards that. On the other side, the vigor of singing, the ecstasy of dance, the rigor of hard work, these also quiet parts of us so God’s voice may be heard. This is why I talk about practice. We need to be practicing Christians. It doesn’t matter what you do, just do something, something to close the gap between Sundays that cultivates your ability to discern the will of God and help you keep the greater angels of your nature right in front of you.
The Baptism of the Lord, though, that might be a different story. What happened there on the banks of the Jordan so long ago… that was more than an inspirational story, something different came out of that.
I read a passage from a 17th century Anglican Bishop, Jeremy Taylor, that speaks of the “same ointment” of baptism that was laid on Christ’s head and trickles down on to his beard, “and thence to the borders of his garment: for as Christ, our Head, felt these effects in manifestation, so the church believes God does to her, and to her meanest children, in the susception of the holy rite of baptism.” (Susception is an old word that wouldn’t spellcheck. It means “taking upon oneself.”) We, the Church (with a big “C”), and we, “her meanest children” each of us individually in our own baptisms, we experience the same manifestation of God, through the Baptism of Jesus Christ, we experience that, we feel that, we too are counted among the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
Some of the old stories are myths, carrying truth to be sure, but truth that can be explained by saying, “I don’t know if this happened this way, but I know this story is true.” Some of the old stories are object lessons, truths we are to read, learn and inwardly digest. Some are transcendent in their beauty and majesty and you can experience God in their reading or hearing. And some, like the story of the Lord’s Baptism, carry the story of ontological changes, changes in the fabric of being. Christ coming into the world is one of these stories. The Crucifixion and Resurrection are others. So is the Baptism of our Lord. Something changed in the world in that moment. How did it happen? What actually happened? Great is the mystery of faith! But something happened, and we, each of us by nature of our baptism share in that shift. That is what today is all about.
The two principal sacraments are the sacraments of the church are the Eucharist and Baptism. They are principal because???? Christ instituted them Himself. The Eucharist at the Last Supper and Baptism in the Jordan.
But that is all such churchy talk: ontological shifts, sacraments instituted by Christ Himself… for some of us, that kind of talk is pretty tingly on the spine, makes you feel googly all over. For some of us it falls flat, nothing doing, no impact, no idea. For others of us it is magical gobbledygook that gets in the way of the moral teaching of Jesus. (FYI, gobbledygook does spell check). What is important is what happened in Jesus’ baptism and through that, the ointment dripping on to the hem, what happens in our Baptism.
What happened? Well it is all Mystery, right; the deepest, darkest, to the depths of creation mystery, which is another way of saying we don’t know (but since when does that stopped theologians or preachers from talking about it)? What we understand is that in this moment two things happened: 1. Jesus felt His union with God; and, 2. all the people there witnessed it, the Spirit’s descent upon Him, and the voice proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” That’s what happened then. Now? The ointment drips down onto us in the outward and visible signs of water and oil we receive the inward and spiritual grace of our own union with God in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We are joined with Him in his death and resurrection. We are born into God’s family, the church, we are forgiven our sins and are given new life in the Holy Spirit. That’s what the prayer book says. What does that mean?
It means that in Baptism you are ordained into the priesthood of all believers. You are ordained by God to do the work that you have been given to do: feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked… all those desperately important works of mercy. You have been ordered to treat nothing as God but God, strengthened to love each other even when love is the last thing you feel like you have to offer and commissioned to speak truth to power like we need to stop screwing around in this city and build a shelter. We’re going to spend how many millions on a new city hall and over a thousand people are condemned to be outside in this God-forsaken weather? In God all things are possible from resistance to the most horrible evil to openness to the sweetest touch. And it all begins in your invitation into the body of Christ in Baptism.
We are about to do what we do every year at this time, renew our baptismal covenant. Since most of us had this said for us as infants, it is good to go over what they got us into. And for those of you contemplating getting baptized, or maybe haven’t contemplated it but maybe should, consider it a warm up. Try the words on. Let them seep in. Look and see how it feels.
In baptism, something happens and you become different, set aside, held up by God and bathed in that same spirit that Isaiah proclaimed so long ago:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.” AMEN