The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Baptism of Our Lord—First Sunday after the Epiphany—Year C; Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. Video.
Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. Have you ever stopped to consider that this sacramental rite that is so much a part of our community is something that Jesus himself underwent? Maybe if we understand what’s going on for God and Jesus in his baptism, we might just understand something about what’s going on for us in ours.
It’s the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea, and Herod is ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip is ruling over the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis (in modern-day Syria), and Lysanias is the ruler of Abilene (also in modern-day Syria); it’s the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. This is the canvass upon which these events will play out—a complex political situation, with imperial power located in Rome and puppet rulers in Israel interfacing with religious power centered in the Temple. These are not good times for ordinary folk. They are longing for things to be different, but they have no idea how to make them different.
And John took to heart this wilderness that had engulfed the world around him, and instead of fighting it, or trying to distract himself from it, or numbing himself to it, he gave himself over to it and went more deeply into it. The wilderness was where John made his home. It was into this moment that the word of God came to John. Don’t blame John for his fiery prophetic talk—he’s only speaking the word that God gave him. Granted, he’s a little hard to follow, or maybe he’s pretty easy to follow, and we just don’t like what he says. He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That’s a mouthful. He quotes the prophet Isaiah and talks of preparing the way of the Lord and making straight his paths and filling what’s low and bringing down what’s up and making crooked things straight and rough things smooth. John reminds people of that grand vision of Isaiah where all flesh, all flesh, shall see the salvation of God.
Now then, people are flocking out to hear John and to be baptized by him. He is definitely not your warm and fuzzy spiritual director. He calls them a brood of vipers. He wonders who told them to flee from the wrath to come. He exhorts them to bear fruits worthy of repentance. He warns them of the dangers of tribal identity and thinking your tribe earns you anything. His words are fiery and leave no room for business as usual. Some listening get the urgency of the moment. They ask what they should do. “Share your coats, share your food, be content with what you have,” was what he said in reply.
These are the waters stirring in that wilderness place in that wilderness time; these are waters into which Jesus himself will be baptized. The people were filled with expectation and they are wondering about John. What he says touches something in their hearts. It speaks to that piece of them that knows things are not as they should be. Is this the leader they’ve been looking for? Is he the One? “No,” John says with piercing clarity. John may lack tact, but he does not lack clarity. He knows who he is, and he knows who he isn’t. John understands the limits of his role. John baptizes with water, but the One coming, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit. This One coming, he will do his share of shaking us up, too, what with that all that stuff about threshing floor, winnowing fork, wheat and chaff—but his approach is going to look a little different than John’s approach.
And somehow, all these exhortations that John keeps throwing out, the people, they hear them as good news. Sometimes, our way out of the wilderness begins when we can admit how far we are from the peace and wholeness and abundance and joy that God longs for us and the world to know.
So the people, they are ready to repent. They long to be forgiven of all the ways they have missed the mark. They go down into those waters to be cleansed of all that has stood in the way of realizing the dream of God for all creation.
And then, there he was. Jesus. He was among those who had gone out into the wilderness. He was among those who knew things were not as they should be. He was among those who longed for things to be different. He, too, wanted to repent. He, too, wanted to be forgiven of ways that he had missed the mark. He, too, wanted to be cleansed, and to set about realizing the dream of God.
But as he came up out of the waters, something unfolded in a different way. Jesus’ first action when he broke the water was to pray, was to open himself up fully and completely to God. And, in that moment, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Sometimes, people repent because they are afraid of what is to come. Sometimes, people repent because they want the future to be different. But Jesus shows us a whole other level to repentance. Sometimes, you repent to open yourself up completely to God, so that you can remember who you are at the most basic, fundamental level—“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, with you, I am well pleased.”
Whatever else building the dream of God will entail, it all begins here, in this moment, grounded in being God’s sons and daughters, grounded in being absolutely, fully, and completely loved by God, grounded in a deep, deep understanding that we are enough, right here, right now, and that in us, God is so well pleased. As children, isn’t that what we longed to hear from our parents and teachers—that they were pleased in us? As adults, isn’t that still what we long to hear—that the people who are important to us, that they are pleased with us? We may or may not have heard that when we were little; even now, as grown-ups, we may struggle to hear that from others still, and yet, all of us, young, old and in-between, in our baptism, this is exactly what is proclaimed by God who knows all the ways we miss the mark—You are my precious child, I love you with a love that you cannot imagine, and with you, I am so well pleased.
In the wilderness that is our lives and is our world right now, this is finally the solid ground upon which we can stand. And how solid is it? It is Isaiah again who helps us catch the grand vision—Thus says the Lord, who created you, who formed you: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; 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…Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
This core identity is not an avoid-all-pain-and-struggle proposition. No, that’s not the promise. The waters will come, the rivers will rise, the fires will rage, we will lose our way, as will our children, as will those we love with all our might.
The promise is that the LORD who created us and formed us has called us by name, and claimed us, and redeemed us.
The promise is that God has promised to be with us through it all.
The promise is that we don’t have to be afraid.
The promise is that God is relentless when it comes to searching out the lost and bringing them home. However far we, or those whom we love, lose our way, God’s love extends out farther and will catch us up and carry us home. The shepherd searches always.
Today, Jesus goes down into those waters, and so do we.
Today, he repents of any story he has been telling himself about his own unworthiness in his person or for the task at hand, and we need to do the same.
Today, he discovers what happens on the other side of repentance when you open yourself fully and completely to God, and we are invited to open ourselves as well.
Today, he hears who he has always been, and we are called to remember what God has declared about us.
Being God’s Beloved won’t spare us pain and struggle—one quick look at Jesus’ life will disavow us of that notion—but being God’s Beloved is what will give us the grace and strength and courage to keep making our way in the wilderness, hearts open, love flowing, embodying the very peace and wholeness and abundance and joy that is the dream of God.
The One we’ve been waiting for has come. The waters that poured over him have poured over us. He lives in us. No matter what comes, never forget today; never forget how Beloved you are. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 10, 2016