The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 1/12/14; First Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
When last we met Jesus, he was just a little guy, a tiny baby, in great danger. His parents had swooped him away to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. Enough time passed, and so did ol’ King Herod, that it was safe to come back to his homeland. His parents weren’t too keen on going anywhere close to Herod’s son in Jerusalem, so they made their home in Nazareth. Time passes, like about 30 years, and Jesus makes his way out of Galilee to the Jordan River where his cousin John was in the habit of baptizing people.
In Matthew’s gospel, we don’t know a thing about Jesus from the time he was that little baby being whisked here and there all the way until now. But one might guess that Jesus and John kept crossing paths throughout those years, after all, they were second cousins, and their mamas were awfully close. Remember, Elizabeth and Mary had shared that wonderful moment in their pregnancies when John and Jesus recognized one another in the womb. The paths of these two men were destined from the beginning to keep crossing. No doubt, there’d been plenty of family reunions over the years where the boys played and dreamed about what their futures might hold. Can’t you just hear Jesus asking John, “John, what do you want to do when you grow up?” And John replying, “Oh, I don’t know—I think I want to eat locusts and wild honey and be a voice crying in the wilderness preaching repentance, repentance, repentance, and telling all the religious bigwigs that they’re a brood of vipers—yeah, that sounds like fun!” No doubt, Jesus looked up to his older cousin, and probably respected the heck out of him. John might have gotten a little weird, but of one thing you could be sure, he was one dedicated guy; he was dedicated to a demanding and committed spiritual path. The spiritual life for him wasn’t something to be played at; it was for keeps. And there is something awfully compelling about that—there was something about the fragrance of John’s life that Jesus wanted for himself.
At this point in Jesus’ journey, we don’t really know what his path will entail. In fact, it would seem that Jesus doesn’t even know what this path will entail; he only knows that at age 30, it’s time to get serious about it. It’s time to do something in a really tangible way to signal that whatever else his life might be about, it starts here and it starts now and it starts with baptism. The start of Jesus’ active ministry starts with surrendering himself into John’s hands. Even Jesus couldn’t baptize himself.
And so he comes to John, but John has always had a sense that it was Jesus who was destined for great things. Jesus coming to him seems backwards to him. John doesn’t feel worthy to do this for Jesus, and he tries to prevent Jesus from doing what Jesus has come to do. But Jesus knows this is essential for him, not essential for John, essential for him. He may not know why, but he knows he’s got to go down into those mysterious waters. And to John’s credit, he consents. He “lets this be” because all creative acts in the spiritual life start with surrender. Jesus surrendering to John; John surrendering to Jesus.
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.”
And in that moment, Jesus understood why he had to start here. At the beginning of this journey, even Jesus needed to hear and know without a doubt that he was God’s beloved Son and that with him God was well pleased. This is the only place that Jesus can start, and it’s the only place that we can start. Remember, at this point in the story, Jesus hasn’t done anything. He has performed no miracles, no healings. He has taught nothing spectacular. He hasn’t done anything. This proclamation deals only with his being, not his doing. This proclamation is about his essence, his core identity, the fundamental truth of who he is made to be—a beloved Son of God, one in whom God delights. Things will get rocky from here on out, but Jesus will always have this moment to come back to; he will always have this ground on which to stand, this firm foundation from which he can move out again into the work God gives him to do.
You can’t claim this identity until you surrender to it. God can’t seem to do much of anything with us unless we consent to it. That’s how much God respects our free will. Our world isn’t so hip on surrender, but it really is where new life is born.
[Later] Today, we [will] bring Bennett Glenn to the waters. Today, we [will] invite him to surrender to these waters. He’s not quite old enough to understand all this, but his parents and godparents understand it, and though they love him with all their might, they know that Bennett needs this moment. Bennett needs to hear that he is God’s beloved son, and that in his little being, God is so well pleased. Bennett has done nothing to earn this beloved status, and he can’t do anything to lose it—the bond established in baptism is indissoluble—it can’t be undone. Today, we [will] proclaim, loud and clear, that before Bennett is anything else, he is a beloved son of God. When God looks at Bennett, God sees God’s own divine reflection, just like when a human father or mother looks into their child’s eyes and sees their own reflected back—I remember that moment when I looked into Julia’s eyes as a baby and I saw my own eyes, and I thought, “This is what God sees when God looks at us.” This is what it means to be the apple of someone’s eye. When God looks at Bennett, God sees God, and nothing pleases God more than that. Today, we mark Bennett all over, with water, with the cross, with sweet smelling holy oil, and that’s just on the outside. On the inside, the Holy Spirit is marking this identity into his heart and soul and body and mind, just like a homing beacon, so that no matter where his life goes from here on out, he will always know the way back home.
The baptism in the Jordan River doesn’t make Jesus a Son of God; he was already that, and so was Bennett, but the public proclamation of this identity puts it out there for all to see, it puts it out there for Jesus and Bennett to see, so that Jesus and Bennett can move forward fully conscious, fully aware and awake to who they really are.
We are all sons and daughters of God, all of us; and in each and every one of us, God is well pleased, but if we never let these words wash over us, if we never surrender to these words, if we never lay claim to them, we will continue to live in the illusion that we have to work to earn God’s love, and work even harder to keep it. You are a beloved son, you are a beloved daughter, in you, God is well pleased. This is who you were made to be; this is who you are. Whatever else you may be, whoever else you may be, this is who you are, first, last, and always. Live from this unshakeable place, and you will have all the courage you need for the journey ahead, no matter where that journey takes you, even unto death. Even more, from this unshakeable place, you will discover what it means to be truly alive which means you will know what it is to truly live. Welcome, Bennett, beloved son of God, to an adventure beyond your wildest dreams. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 12, 2014