Epiphany 1/Baptism of the Lord, C
Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
When I contemplated the lectionary for this week, I was excited to realize that I had the opportunity to preach for the celebration of the Baptism of Christ. I researched the history and theology of baptism, wandered through the catechism and the commentaries. I visualized this marvelous, inspirational, educational treatise on the sacrament of baptism. I’m a sacramentalist, right? Baptism is one of the two great sacraments of the church. It is one of the oldest sacraments of the church, steeped in rich history, theology and spiritual depth. What a phenomenal opportunity!
Yes, well, as with many things in the course of our lives, the sermon did not go as planned. Whether by intervention of the Holy Spirit, or merely a confluence of life events, you will not hear that envisioned inspirational, educational treatise.
This week, for the first time, I had the honor of participating in the funeral of a colleague as well as the privilege of helping to deliver a new life into this world, both within a 24 hour period. This combination of events (in conjunction with my plans for the aforementioned educational treatise) paralleled my musings on baptism. Baptism is the death of the old ways, the birth of new life in Christ. It is the sacrament that most closely mirrors life’s greatest transitions.
In spite of that powerful symbolism, my thoughts kept returning to identity. The deceased person is described and identified as we mourn his loss. “He was a great doctor, wonderful husband, loyal friend, brilliant man and so on.” Even beyond the eulogy, I never fully realized before how many times a person’s name is used during the service itself.
At a delivery that precious bundle of new life is already being assigned identity. The name is a hot topic of discussion, of course, and almost immediately that baby earns identifiers based on weight, appearance, behavior during labor and pregnancy, not to mention that uncanny resemblance to Great Aunt Matilda. We define each other and ourselves, at the beginning and at the end, by our role and by our relationships.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus has reached a transition. Up to this time, we have heard about his birth and the immediate aftermath – the wise men, the flight to Egypt and so forth. One or two critical events of his young life are recorded and suddenly we have leapt forward in time well into Jesus’s adulthood. This is, as it turns out, the end of John the Baptist’s ministry, and the birth of Jesus’s.
In Luke’s account of the baptism, there is no drama, no fanfare. A crowd of seekers, sin-sick and soul weary, have gathered at the banks of the river Jordan with John the Baptist. Their lives as they see them are not complete – their identities not fulfilled in their current roles and relationships. They search John’s message for a glimpse of the glory of God, the hope of new beginnings. In the the Gospel of Luke, there is no special, separate baptism for Jesus, no direct interaction between Jesus and John. Jesus waits unnamed, unmarked among the hopeful. He is washed with the same water. He stands in community with the lost and the broken, identifying himself with the ordinary sinner. And then, he prays. He turns to that relationship that is most important to him. He opens himself to the Holy Spirit. He prays.
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Such an affirmation as we all long to hear, or more realistically to feel deep within. This is the promise of baptism. This is not at all the Father’s congratulations on his Son’s good works. Jesus’s ministry hasn’t even begun yet. This is a simple statement of an identity-forming relationship, a relationship of love, a connection of creation. “You are my own, and I love you.” It is a relationship God offers us as well. Our baptism is the sign and seal of our own already established identity as God’s children.
We are baptized only once. If you were baptized in the Episcopal church, or in most liturgical churches, you probably don’t remember that baptism. Most likely it was accomplished before you had developed sufficient cognitive ability to swallow your own spit, much less the ability to form a commitment to a lifelong convenant with God. Although the actual baptism happens only once, our lives are an on-going opportunity to relive and renew that relationship. As Gregory of Nazianzus said, “Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light. Christ is baptized; let us also go down with him, and rise with him.”
In a few minutes, we will renew our baptismal vows. This begins with a statement of faith, the Apostle’s creed, and then asks a series of questions: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? These promises are not simple; they cover all aspects of our lives, thoughts and behaviors, both public and private. There is an excellent reason the suggested response to these is not “I will.”, but rather, “I will, with God’s help.”
As my colleague did, as that new baby already was, as Jesus did, we take our identities from our roles and our relationships as well as our characteristics. I am mother, wife, priest, doctor, daughter, citizen. God offers us a relationship. “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” He does not hold back the waters, the fires still burn, but God walks with us. God walks with us in our ordinary lives lending them shape and meaning , if we choose to walk with him.
May we hear the Voice above the waters whispering ‘Beloved’. May we be Baptized into your unseen hope. May we heed the call to go with Christ into sacred spheres of ordinariness. Amen (adapted from the Rev. Suzanne Guthrie, Come to the Garden, January 7.)