First Sunday AFter Epiphany: January 12, 2020
The Baptism of our Lord
Year A : Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
At the time of posting, there was no audio recording of this sermon.
We are in the season of Epiphany, the season of growing light, the season of the Magi and the revelation of Christ to all the nations – the day in our church calendar when we celebrate Christ’s baptism. A season when we celebrate Christ as the light of the world. A time to reflect on mission and unity.
In today’s gospel passage from Matthew, we read the story of an encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus. Why was he baptizing at the Jordan River, and why was Jesus there? And what does it matter?
Someone asked me earlier this week about baptism. Baptism has ancient roots. In the book of Leviticus, God instructed the people of Israel to cleanse themselves from impurities, especially before sacrificing in the temple. Ritual cleansing before approaching God was a part of Jewish life. Special pools called mikvehs were constructed for the purpose. Archaeological remains of mikvehs from the time of John and Jesus have been uncovered in Israel and in other ancient Jewish communities.
And who was John? We understand him to be the cousin of Jesus, but he was also part may also have been a part of a sect of Jewish people called Essenes. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two sects of established temple religion, while the Essenes were a renewal movement that lived an ascetic life in the desert. Suddenly, the descriptions we hear of John make more sense. The Essene rule of life placed emphasis on purity, ritual bathing, and obedience to God’s commandments, to be ready for the coming of the Messiah and God’s kingdom.
Thus John, like Jesus, was a Jewish man who led a renewal movement within Judaism. People were deeply stirred by the words, deeds, and example of John. Picture a revival meeting, down by the river, folks wading into the water to proclaim the renewal of their faith, emerging clean and ready to encounter God. A popular movement, from the grassroots, countering what they considered to be the corruption and petrification of the religious structure of temple worship centered in Jerusalem.
Jesus traveled all the way from Galilee to the Judean desert to be baptized by John. John had a genuine calling to ministry, one that Jesus recognized and sought out. In turn, John recognizes Jesus’ ministry. Indeed, John says he is not worthy to carry Jesus’s sandals and hesitates to baptize one whom he recognizes as God’s anointed. But Jesus respects John’s ministry, and he insists: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism, his faith and purpose renewed and sealed, ready to begin his public ministry. And God’s spirit descends on him like a dove, and God’s voice, echoing the prophecy of Isaiah, says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God is certainly pleased that Jesus is ready to commit to a mission and ministry of justice.
Perhaps God is also pleased that Jesus and John have come together. John and Jesus have acted together in obedience to God. Their two ministries were inter-related: both preached a message of repentance and renewal, freedom and justice. In the Gospel of John Chapter 2, we learn that Jesus’ first two disciples were drawn from the followers of John the Baptist. In John Chapter 3, we find John and Jesus baptizing side by side. They share a common message, criticizing corruption and calling for the cleansing of public life. They urge their followers to live a life worthy of the kingdom of God.
In Isaiah, we hear that God’s faithfulness is from forever, and we know it in Jesus. It says, “I have called you in justice, … give you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” And what does it say he will do? “Open the eyes that are blind, bring prisoners from the dungeon.”
Jesus is about far more than being good or kind in personal relationships. Jesus calls us to stop being blind to the suffering of those around us: the poor, those who can’t make it on wages that won’t maintain them or who can’t get proper healthcare. Jesus calls our society to stop being blind and imprisoning people through racism, antisemitism, and other shared demons where some groups are made to suffer because of the color of their skin or where they were born or who they love.
You might say to yourself there’s nothing we can do about all that.
We can do more than we think. I was amazed to read about an Episcopal Church in Alabama that just wiped out $8.1 million in medical debt for 6,500 residents of the county they’re in. You might be thinking “there’s no way we can do that?”
Maybe not. But let me tell you how it works. The church purchased the debt for $78,000. Pennies on the dollar. And 6500 people no longer have crushing medical debt, which is not something you willingly take on, to worry about.
Our own Baptismal Covenant reminds us that we are called to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as oneself.” Whenever it was that we “came up from the water” of our own baptism, whether recently or decades ago, we sealed as Christ’s own forever, a child of God. Our baptism unites who we are today with the power of the Christ, the “Beloved” with whom God is well pleased.
For Christians, baptism is a public proclamation of faith and intention to live a life that pleases God. When we renew our baptismal vows, we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, to resist evil, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
In baptism, we give ourselves to God. We receive new life and hope and meaning through God’s grace. In baptism, we promise to renew our commitment to our covenant as God’s people, to repent of our blindness, to rejoice that God sent Jesus to be the light of the nations, to show us the way of justice for all.
Christ dwells with us today. He is still here to be seen and discovered by those who, like the Magi, are willing to journey far to meet Christ.
The Magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Like the Wise Ones from the East, we must be willing to leave the comfort of our preconceptions and prejudices. We must bring the gift of ourselves as we encounter Christ alive and present in the elderly, children, and all the vulnerable and defenseless people of our world. We must be willing to look for the Christ in places others refuse to enter, whether it is a shelter, a soup kitchen, or a stable, a synagogue or a mosque, nursing homes, college campuses, prisons – Christ will be in all of those places.
Jesus is God’s Son, God’s beloved; he lived with compassion and generosity and the humility and courage of one who always respects the dignity of every person, no matter how lowly, even at great cost. Jesus is our teacher, our Savior, and our Lord. Together, we must go forth in Christ, delighting God, delighted by God, strengthened in our baptism and our own ministry and mission to live and work in hope, unity, and peace.
 Matthew 3:15, NRSV
 Book of Common Prayer, cf. The Renewal of Baptismal Vows, p. 293; The Baptismal Covenant, p. 305
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