Sermon for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 42:1-9 Psalm 29 Acts 10:34-43
I was talking with a friend who gave up social media for the new year. She was trying to make friends outside Facebook while applying the same principles. Every day, she walks down the street and tells passersby what she had for breakfast, how she feels, what she had done the night before, and what she will do tomorrow. Then she would give them pictures of her family, her dog and her garden. She also listens to their conversations and tells them that she loved them. She was bragging about how it was working. She already had three people following her – two police officers and a psychiatrist.
The Baptism of our Lord comes quickly after the Magi leave. Each year it begins the season of Epiphany. In our lectionary, we jump from the birth of Jesus to his baptism in the Jordan River as a thirty-year-old adult. My how time flies. In the three-year lectionary cycle, Jesus baptism rotates through the synoptic gospels. This year we have Matthew’s account.
Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus combines the idea of the servant and the king, although the story itself speaks of Jesus as God’s Son. The baptism inaugurates Jesus’ ministry, in which he proclaims God’s righteousness in terms of the Servant’s actions of justice and compassion. As God’s Son, Jesus is the true king, whose concern is truly for the strength and peace of his people.
Matthew’s account differs from the other synoptic gospels, Luke and Mark. The context of the story within Matthew’s narrative, the brief dialogue between John and Jesus, and the choice of the reading from Isaiah provide a distinctive slant. We are struck with how differently John receives the Pharisees and Sadducees and Jesus. Earlier in this chapter, the former group has claimed being descendants of Abraham but ignore the responsibilities of such heritage. John rejects them and demands that they bear fruit worthy of repentance. They are warned of coming judgment.
In the beginning of their interaction, John initially refuses baptism to Jesus. His reluctance is due to his awe of Jesus. He perceives in Jesus the “more powerful one.: While the Pharisees and Sadducees apparently lack remorse and a sense of sinfulness, Jesus appears to John to have no need for baptism. John needs Jesus’ baptism, not vice versa.
Now in very few words, Matthew will transition from the end of John’s preaching mission to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus’ baptism provides the hinge. The people are wondering if John might be the messiah, but John tells them that someone more powerful is coming. One who is empowered by the Holy Spirit is coming. We know that during Advent, John’s ministry is all about preparing for the Messiah’s coming.
According to Matthew’s account, we don’t get a sense of how many people may have gathered in the Jordon River. Jesus presented himself to be baptized as an act of solidarity with a nation and a world of sinners. Jesus just got in line with everyone who had been broken by the worries and woes of this world. Some of them had given up on themselves and on God. When this line of downtrodden, broken, world-weary folks formed, they were filled with anticipation and hope for new beginnings. Jesus joined them, knowing all that he was to do. At his baptism and throughout his ministry, he identified with the damaged and broken people who needed God the most.
A couple of years ago, standing in the Jordan River baptizing and blessing folks, all of that history came flooding back. I was in charge of sprinkling people, while someone else dunked others. Dipping my hand into that historic water, brought back so many memories. Memories of the people of Israel fleeting into divided waters, the plagues Moses brought forth to set his people free…the water that we drink today that refreshes and cools us. The Jordan River was an ending for John and a beginning for Jesus. For me, it helped bridge the Old Testament and the New Testament. It helped me to connect to all of that history – to all that God was, that God is and is to come.
If the church is to be a hospital for sinners instead of a hotel for saints, then we need to do our part. If Jesus got in line with sinners, we need to sign up and we need to get in line. We are all works in progress and there is no magic formula or time frame that makes us worthy. Jesus’ love and grace and mercy and compassion make us worthy. It is not anything that we need to do, other than accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
In Matthew’s account of the baptism, Jesus talks with John. Then the heavens opened, and God affirmed his Son, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In Luke’s account, Jesus is not only coming to us sinners, he is also coming to God in prayer. He won’t begin his public ministry of teaching and healing left to only his power and abilities. The source of his strength will come from beyond him. The Holy Spirit will encourage him all the way, even as the way becomes more and more difficult. The disciples will learn this approach of prayer from Jesus, as they travel the road to Jerusalem, and the Spirit will give them stamina and patience to love and love again in faithful ministry.
So another question echoes through our walls – “Do we depend on the Holy Spirit and our prayer connection with God to help us go into the world and make a difference in people’s lives through Christ?” How do we respond when we hear a need? Perhaps, we know that our God connection is a lifeline for all of us followers of Jesus. It is necessary for every individual, ever congregation, every diocese, every ministry. It is important to realize that this intensely spiritual experience Jesus has after his baptism happens while he is open to God. Identifying with sinners in the waters of baptism, Jesus will now be claimed as God’s Son. As Clarence Jordan says, “the sky split, the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove came down upon him, and a voice came from the sky saying, ‘You are my dear Son; I’m proud of you!’
At his baptism, Jesus is ordained as Messiah by God, God who loves him and doesn’t hesitate to tell him so. This powerful affirmation, this calling from God, will sustain Jesus through his time in the desert where he is tempted. This powerful affirmation will sustain him through the joys and trials of his faithful ministry.
My father was a member of the “greatest generation” described by Tom Brokaw. He spent so much of his life providing for his family, a family he dearly loved. But he was never able to say that he loved us, was proud of us, or any other affirmation. So during most of my life, he provided for my needs and loved me in his own way. It wasn’t until about six months before he died that he had a stroke. That stroke freed up that part of his brain that wouldn’t allow him to express his heart and he was able to tell us that he loved us. It is one thing to know it, but something quite different to hear it from the person you love. “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
So, does it help us to know that God claims us as God’s children and is proud of us for bringing God’s love to all people? Yes it helps! We need to hear this affirmation from God and from each other. These are life-giving words that every human being upon this earth should hear: “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” When Jesus heard those words, they changed his life forever. They will do the same for us, for our children, our neighbors, our spouses, our church family, and as Jesus promised, even our enemies.
Matthew uses a few words to share with us the baptism of our Lord. But those few words lead us to the very deep wellsprings of joy. They lead us to identify with all people, to depend upon God in prayer for the strength to live and to love, and to hear the affirmation of your God as the source of your calling and purpose for life are the most enduring joys of life. These are the blessings of our life together in Christ as a church family.
In baptism, God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s body, the Church and inheritors of the kingdom of God. We don’t have to wait until we have it all together to be baptized. We don’t have to wait until we have it all figured out to be baptized. It is in baptism, that the Holy Spirit empowers us and moves us forward.
At baptism, we, as a community of faith say that we are willing to help bring these people up within the church, to help all of them know Christ and to equip them to become Christ followers. It is something we all say we will do. It is something that we are called to do, to be the hands, heart and feet of Christ. God honors our efforts, and God honors the intentions of our hearts. When we say it to them, “You are children of God, God’s beloved and with you we are well pleased.” God is pleased too. Amen.