The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks First Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A video link
The Feast of the Baptism of Christ. It sort of makes sense. We’ve just witnessed the birth. Jesus is a cute little baby. And since we Episcopalians often baptize infants, of course this is the next event in the sequence. Except for the fact that Jesus is now 30 years old and very much a grown man with agency. He has come from Galilee and sought out his cousin John who’s gone a bit to the wild side. John has become a radical. He’s out in the wilderness along the Jordan River, and he’s not mincing words. John’s talking about repentance, about turning around and going in a different direction from the way you’ve been traveling; he’s talking about getting a whole new mind, a larger mind, metanoia. He’s talking about confessing your sins, getting real clear about all those things that are blocking the flow of love in you and through you. John’s not interested in us gathering around to witness baptisms and ooooh and ahhhh; he’s interested in what’s going to change our lives.
But even John wasn’t prepared when his cousin Jesus came to him to be baptized. John had known Jesus since they were both in the womb. John knew, even then, that Jesus was different. John pushes back; he wants to prevent this—John needs to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around. But at some level, maybe beyond Jesus’ conscious understanding, Jesus knows he needs this. And so John consents. This word for consent in greek, it’s a complex word. It means to yield, to allow, to permit, but it also has this deep sense of letting go, of giving something up, of not hindering, of keeping no longer, of forgiving, of suffering, of letting something be. Consenting is hard.
Consenting is letting go of my expectation, letting go of my vision of how something ought to go, and allowing what is to unfold as it should. When we consent, we relinquish control, and there is always a certain amount of suffering in that. But, that consent, that letting be, also holds the seeds of the creative power that gives birth to something new. Cynthia Bourgeault notes that “In the beginning, God said, ‘Let there be,’ and creation was born. So, John’s consent allows baptism to unfold in a new way.
Let’s pause right there. On this 8th day of the new year, to what might Jesus be asking you to consent? What letting go is being asked of you? Where do you need to relinquish control? What are you being asked to keep no longer? What is that something that you need to let be so that some new creation can come into being? Maybe our repentance is first and foremost to be in this realm as we wrestle with these kinds of questions. Maybe our sins, those places where we are blocking the flow, are attached to those places where we are struggling to let go.
But back to the Jordan. John consents, and when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
John’s letting go and letting be and not hindering this unfolding allowed Jesus to see and hear something new in his baptism that forever changed him, and all of us who have been baptized into his body, the Spirit of God alighting and a voice proclaiming “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
From that moment on, we can’t see baptism in the same way. It’s not about groveling; it’s not about repenting and confessing so that we are in touch with how unworthy we are—it’s about repenting and confessing so that we can let go of all those things that keep us from seeing the Spirit of God alight on us, so that we can let go of all those voices in our heads that keep us from hearing that voice from heaven proclaim us as God’s Beloved Sons and Daughters, as those with whom God is well pleased. We, like John, have to consent for this baptism to unfold in a new way in us and in each other. For Jesus to hear this good news of who he is at the deepest level, John has to consent. For the people around us to hear this good news of who they are at the deepest level, we have to consent. Nothing happens in God’s world without our cooperation and collusion.
Jesus will have an amazing life and do and teach and be amazing things. He will embody justice in a way that will upend all of our thinking. He will heal in ways that seem impossible. He will defy violence and power and death itself by showing that life and love are always stronger. He will find third ways where others have only seen one or two.
But all that can only unfold because of this moment in the Jordan at the hands of his cousin John; all of this can only unfold because Jesus knows who he is in his core—he possesses the Spirit of God; he is Beloved of God; he is a Son; in him, God is well pleased.
Jesus will not live his life with a reflected sense of self, sticking his finger up to the wind to see how others perceive him, to sense if they affirm his decisions or not, to shore up a shaky sense of self. No, there is a solidity to Jesus. When you know who you are in your core, you are free to move in all kinds of directions; you are free to live a life of courage and to take risks and to love in ridiculous ways with abandon.
But this beautiful sense of one’s True Self is never meant just to be enjoyed by the individual. There is always a communal aspect to our core identity because love is always meant to flow. As Isaiah reminds us this morning, when God puts God’s spirit upon us, it changes us from the inside out. The servant of whom Isaiah speaks, the chosen one, the one in whom God’s soul delights—he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Oh, this is big. We aren’t just pebbles in a small puddle whose ripples go out a few feet, but our ripples will spread out to the nations. Our ripples will flow out in unexpected ways—
- this servant doesn’t cry, or lift his voice, or make it heard in the street;
- this servant will get bruised along the way, but won’t break;
- this servant’s light may be like a dimly burning wick, just a little bit of light, but that light won’t go out;
- faithfulness will be the hallmark of this servant, and that faithfulness will bring forth justice;
- this servant isn’t going to grow faint and won’t be crushed and won’t give up until this justice extends to the ends of the earth and everyone is leaning in, eagerly waiting to hear the teaching this servant will offer;
- this servant with the spirit of God has been given as a covenant to the people,
- as a light to the nations,
- to open the eyes that are blind,
- to bring out the prisoners from the dungeons,
- to bring out from prison those who sit in darkness.
Uh oh, being given the Spirit of God, hearing that we are God’s Beloved, those in whom God is well pleased, it comes with strings. God gives us this solid identity so that we will have the capacity to move the world by the power of our presence, not with the force of our voice; so that we will have the capacity to know how to bow and bend and not break; so that we will know that our little light can’t be quenched; so that we may know that, though tired, we won’t faint, so that we may know that we won’t be crushed.
God gives us this solid identity so that we, so that you and I, might be a covenant, a sign and symbol and embodiment of the relationship that God wants to have with all people.
God gives us this solid identity so that we understand that we are to be a light to the nations, that we are to be about opening eyes that are blind to injustice and blind to the worth and dignity that resides in every human being whom God has created and proclaimed Beloved.
God has given us this solid identity so that we will have the capacity to descend into the darkest places, the dungeons of this world that are forgotten, so that we can bring those who’ve been in prison and sat in such darkness, so that we can bring them out into the light where they can hear again that they are God’s Beloved and remember what it means to live as beloveds in community with one another. And sometimes, those in the strongest prisons are those who have the most by this world’s standards—those who have the most money and power and prestige and status—sometimes, these eyes are the hardest to open; sometimes, these prisons have the hardest bars to bend.
This baptism stuff is hard. It’s hard to hear how incredibly Beloved we are; it’s hard to hear just how well pleased God is with us; it’s hard to see that the Spirit of God is, indeed, alighting on us; and it’s hard to know that being given the gift of this identity, consenting to its unfolding in us, is going to demand so very much of us as we move forward in our life from this defining baptismal moment.
You do have a choice. You can withhold your consent, and none of this will go down. But the fact that you come here week after week tells me that you don’t really want to do that.
You come here with the expectation that you will be challenged and encouraged, changed and transformed. You come here expecting to be fed and nourished and sent out into that world to change it. You come here to be dusted off when you’ve fallen flat on your face and to get your wounds bound up, so that you can move out into that world as a servant of God, a light to the nations all over again.
Brothers and sisters, you know as well as I do that people outside those doors are in sore need of hearing that they are Beloved; you know as well as I do that blindness and darkness abounds; you know as well as I do that people have ceased to believe in things like covenants; you know as well as I do that people are longing for light; and you know as well as I do that nations are a mess and that our work has to be at the societal level as well as the individual.
Today, give your consent for this baptism to unfold in a new way—for Jesus, for yourself, for everyone you meet, and from that unshakeable solidity in your core be a servant of God shining light into the darkness wherever you go. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 8, 2017