The Baptism of Our Lord, Epiphany 1(A) – January 8, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

God, our strength and our hope, grant us the courage of John the Baptist, constantly to speak the truth and boldly to rebuke injustice, with eyes open to recognize God among us.

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 season when we celebrate Christ’s baptism, and the miracle of the wedding at Cana. The 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. Who was John the Baptist? Why was he baptizing at the Jordan River, and why was Jesus there?

John is considered a historical figure who is included in the accounts of the contemporary historian Josephus. According to Josephus, John was a popular prophet and holy man who was a contemporary of Jesus. Herod was afraid that his popularity might lead to an uprising and had him imprisoned, and later killed. John is recognized by Christians as the prophet foretold to prepare the way of the Lord. His life is closely linked with that of Jesus. The celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, six months before Christmas Eve, may be the oldest commemoration of a saint, dating back at least to 500 C.E. when the feast was celebrated much like Christmas in the early church.

Let’s start by noting that John did not invent baptism. 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. Immersion in a natural body of water, especially flowing water, could effect the ritual of purification. Archaeological remains of mikvehs from the time of John and Jesus have been uncovered in Israel and in other ancient Jewish communities.

The Jewish world in first century Judea was diverse. 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 at Qumran, in opposition to what they saw as the corruption of Jerusalem and the temple. After centuries of oppressive rule by foreign powers, the Essenes heard the words of the prophet Isaiah, and looked for the promised Messiah. Life in the desert community protested the worldliness and corruption of Jewish worship in Jerusalem, and the oppressive, colonial rule of the Romans. 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. The ruins at Qumran include the mikveh for ritual immersion. It has been speculated that John the Baptist was a member of the Essene community; certainly he had some beliefs and practices in common with the Essenes.

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 the holy man, 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 may have been a follower of John; certainly he would have heard of John and his message of repentance; he traveled all the way from Galilee to the Judean desert to be baptized by him. 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’ 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.” John and Jesus have acted together in obedience to God. Encouraged by John and anointed by God, Jesus is ready to follow the straight path that has been laid for him.

God is certainly pleased that Jesus is ready to commit to a mission and ministry of justice. Perhaps he is also pleased that Jesus and John have come together. The two ministries were inter-related. Both preached a message of repentance and renewal, freedom and justice. In John 2: 35-42, we learn that Jesus’ first two disciples were drawn from the followers of John the Baptist. In John 3: 22-30, 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.

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.

It is no coincidence that the World Council of Churches’ Week of Prayer for Christian Unity occurs during the season of Epiphany, with its themes of mission, unity, cooperation, and ecumenism. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, congregations and parishes all over the world exchange preachers or arrange special ecumenical celebrations and prayer services.

We can easily imagine a pulpit exchange between Jesus and John. Perhaps we can envision ourselves joining in that special ecumenical prayer service and celebration of common baptismal vows of faith, respect, justice, and peace.

Together we might 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.

Together we might go forth, delighting God, delighted by God, strengthened in our own ministry and mission to live and work in hope, unity, and peace.

Let us close with the lyrical language of Isaiah 42: 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.

Gracious God, we thank you for your anointing in the waters of baptism, for your powerful voice, for your strength, and for your blessing of peace and unity.

(To the people): Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

(Response): I WILL, WITH GOD’S HELP.

Amen.

Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.  

Download the sermon for Epiphany 1(A).

Baptism of Our Lord, 1 Epiphany (A) – 2014

January 12, 2014

Isaiah 42:1-9Psalm 29Acts 10:34-43Matthew 3:13-17

Having a baptism today gives us something to celebrate. Whether the person to be baptized is a child or an adult, a baptism done on this day is more than special, it is triumphant.

In a world that celebrates life achievements mostly for celebrities, the church rejoices at the baptism of a person into the church as well as into their own unique relationship with Jesus, as they are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.

But even if there is no baptism in this congregation today, it’s a good opportunity to renew our Baptismal Covenant, the promises we made, or if we were infants, that others made for us. This is a day to renew our commitment to Christ and each other.

The readings today particularly stress the nature of Jesus’ baptism and our own. The passage from Isaiah gets right to the heart of the matter: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”

Recently a congregation was present for the baptism of a 55-year-old man who had just started coming to church. His first question was “What do I have to do to be baptized?”

On the day of his baptism, with the bishop present, he stood at the small font, a tall, athletic man, and bowed his head as the priest poured water on him and the bishop sealed him with chrism, marking him as Christ’s own forever.

Afterward, he shared how moving the experience had been for him. He told how something had always been missing in his life. He had been a counselor until retirement, and he now realized the wholeness given to him, just as he had often tried to help others find it in their lives.

He is now a servant, volunteering at a food pantry, and on Christmas Day he offered to help cook and serve Christmas dinner for others at a local health clinic. He spent Christmas weekend with his family, but the day itself was marked by his servanthood.

The second reading today is Peter’s dramatic speech about life in the Spirit, and how he now realizes that God shows no partiality. In our baptismal vows, we take that realization seriously as we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” We also promise to respect the dignity of every human being. The reality of refugees and migrants among us brings this issue right to the front of our minds and hearts. We approach all persons, especially the alien, the stranger, as gifts from God to us, and we extend our hospitality to them because “anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

In the gospel reading we are shown our Lord’s own humility because, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Righteousness has to do with the way God intends things to be, and God obviously intends us to submit to one another in service and sacrifice.

Recently, a woman found herself being prodded to do something about the lack of housing for the poor and homeless in her community. Among them were people who were undocumented, people who were out of work, single mothers with children, and several who were simply alone.

She tried to get the attention of her church about their plight. A committee was formed, but nothing happened. Then she decided to take matters into her own hands and began meeting with the people themselves. They organized a housing co-operative and before long they found a small vacant motel they could buy. Having no funds, they began to search for resources, and through a process of diligent work and generosity, put together a financial package to buy the motel. They found a man willing to be their residential manager, and now on cold winter nights and in the heat of summer several dozen people have housing. Her church has now become an integral part of the enterprise as well.

This is what baptism can lead to: a strong sense of servanthood, and mission that fulfills what it means to be righteous. While the baptism of a child is precious, an event that leaves us all smiling and joyful, we cannot know what God has in mind for this person if they are nurtured in the love of the Lord. Often we don’t get to see “the rest of the story”; but if we, did we would be amazed. There are countless stories of people who go on to a servant’s vocation, backed by their vows of baptism and their bond to Christ and his church.

Take a moment now and reflect on where your baptismal journey has brought you.

What have you done as a result of your life in Christ? How has Jesus led you to use your talents and gifts for righteous actions? What has been joyful for you on this journey?

Then look around at your sisters and brothers, and give thanks that together you can celebrate your life in Christ and look forward to further adventures.

 

— Ben Helmer is a priest in the Diocese of Arkansas. He lives with his wife in Holiday Island and is currently vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Eureka Springs.

Baptism of Our Lord, 1 Epiphany (A) – 2011

January 9, 2011

Isaiah 42:1-9Psalm 29Acts 10:34-43Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus joins the crowd at the river Jordan. His cousin John has been baptizing people with water – the water of repentance. Only a few weeks ago in Advent, we heard John tell those gathered at the river that one would come – whose sandals John was not worthy even to hold – who would baptize them with fire and with the Spirit. That day John hurled at the Pharisees and Saducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now the axe is at the root of the tree!”

Back then in Advent, we could imagine the excited murmurs that might have rippled through the crowd. “Baptize with fire?”

“Someone so great John won’t hold his sandals?”

“Someone who will wield an ax to cut down – what? Maybe the curse of the Roman occupation?”

We wonder whom they thought they’d see. “Oh, let’s hope someone powerful and mighty – maybe on a horse.”

Then Jesus joins the crowd at the river Jordan. His cousin John is there and only he can pick Jesus out. Only John recognizes the greatness of the Messiah. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” No flourish, no parade of horses, no axe, no fire, nothing different. Yet.

In Sunday school, many of us may have asked at one time, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized if he didn’t have any sin?” We learned that baptism is initiation. Forgiveness of sins is only one part of the grace of baptism; but more, baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, our catechism says.

So Jesus, by being baptized, was showing his solidarity with his community, his willingness to be counted among these people of God. The Word Incarnate was again showing that God was content to pitch a tent among the people and live with and like them. As the gospel tells us, by doing this, being baptized by John, Jesus was fulfilling all righteousness. So, the folks then might have wondered, where was the fire and Spirit? It’s not what they may have expected. This was just the beginning. There was, of course, a little excitement – the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and a voice declaring, “This is my Son which whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is baptized and anointed with power and the Spirit, more will come. For Matthew, this is the point at which Jesus’ mission and ministry begins.

After this, various scripture passages bring us back to baptism. In the reading from Acts today, Peter explains to new followers that the spreading of the message of peace preached by Jesus Christ began in Galilee after Christ’s baptism. We know other stories, such as the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Phillip and the baptism of the prison guard’s whole household by Paul, and of course, the baptism of more than 3,000 after Pentecost. Baptism is critically important to our understanding of who we are as a people of God.

For too long we understood baptism only as the sign that original sin was washed from our souls. For centuries people put off baptism until moments before their death, believing that with baptism their sins were washed away and they were guaranteed heaven regardless of what kind of life they led. Fortunately, the liturgical renewal of the 1950s onward restored our understanding of baptism as an initiation – a recognition of our status as children of God.

When we consider our baptism we might think more consciously about that beautiful verse in Genesis 1: “So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” Yes, we believe baptism cleanses us from sin, but even more, it gives us power and grace to accept our own ministry and mission as offered to us by God.

It’s tempting to compare our baptism with Jesus’ baptism and for us to come up wanting. He was anointed with power and the Holy Spirit. He went on to preach, teach, heal, and collect a vast number of followers. He suffered, died, and rose again. He was, after all, both human and divine. And us? Our baptism surely must be less. We aren’t divine. We can accept baptism and then go on to live ordinary lives, forgetting perhaps even the day of our baptism. Or can we?

Absolutely not. The church reminds us every year at this time about Jesus’ baptism. That should be a clue that our own baptism is vitally important. We should remember the day. We should celebrate the fact that we too were baptized with power and the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that descended on Jesus like a dove. We might not get the visual of the dove and the sky broken open, but we are equally graced, filled with the Spirit, adopted as God’s own, and given a ministry and mission for our lives. It is just that important.

Baptism should be life changing. Imagine what the church might look like if each baptized member grasped hold of and used the power that is freely given us by God in our baptism. In Isaiah today we heard these words of the Lord: “I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” We know these words were used in Isaiah’s time for his community, and we now use them to talk about the Messiah, but we must understand that they are meant for us too. Doesn’t Jesus constantly tell his followers, and us, that we must take up Jesus’ ministry and continue spreading the good news? Aren’t we supposed to care for the poor, build up the weak, and spread peace? Each baptized person makes five promises. Each of us promises to God five things that, if we take them seriously, could change the world. Can we recite those promises by memory? We should be able to. It’s just that important.

Could we change the world or have we given up in despair? The church gives us this celebration of Jesus’ baptism every year, maybe in the hope that it will make us think again about our own baptism. Maybe that memory will ignite the fire that smolders in our souls. That fire is there. Baptism gives it to us, and it never goes out. We often call the people who let that fire burn brightly “saints.” But again, imagine what our church would look like if we all let our fire burn. Remember the words to the hymn: “I sing a song of the saints of God … and I mean to be one, too.”

We are created in the image of God. We are loved beyond measure – all God’s people are loved beyond measure. Imagine the church. Imagine it on fire with the power of the Spirit. Imagine the explosion of peace and joy that could be ours. God says, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”

This is our anointing.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tenn., and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of “Tuesday Morning,” a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.