A Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany

The Baptism of Our Lord

Year C – 13 January 2013

John Edward Miller,  Rector


As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, 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.”

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


The Collect

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

 Baptisms are happening throughout the Christian world today. The reason is that, on this first Sunday after the Epiphany, we are celebrating the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Churches like ours regard this day as a time for following suit with our liturgies of Holy Baptism. At St. Mary’s today, the parents of godparents of Latham Christopher Staab will present him to receive the sacrament. Although Latham is an infant, this will be his rite of initiation as a Christian whereby we proclaim his full inclusion as a member of Christ’s one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We pray that in baptism God’s blessing of unconditional love may find in him the will to grow into the full stature of Christ. And we pledge our support as a community to help him reach that goal of moral and spiritual maturity.

There is nothing unusual about a baptism in the Episcopal Church, particularly one that features a beautiful baby as a candidate. We are familiar with this ritual; it is a deep and vital facet of our family life. I relish these events. Each one proclaims faith, hope, and love in ways that words cannot equal. As someone once told me, a baptism is like a fresh start for the human race. Every life is infinitely precious to God; every life has the potential to make a definitive difference for the good of this world. And through Jesus Christ every life has access to grace – God’s mercy when we fail, and God’s power to transform us when we accept help.  

These are good things; they are things that we count on, and need. But do you ever wonder why Jesus thought it necessary that he be baptized? Given who we believe him to be, why on earth would he have presented himself to John for baptism? Certainly he was not trying to make up for a personal deficit. Clearly he was not in need of enlightenment, or yearning for a “yes” from God. He went there conscious of his calling; he had a unique mission to commence. And he knew that John was just the man he needed to see.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

According to Mark, John the Baptist was practicing a ritual of repentance for the forgiveness of sins[1] as he baptized. He challenged the people to recognize the wrongs they had wrought, and to turn their life around. John demanded that the penitent signify their desire for righteousness by accepting the baptism of immersion. Those who waded into the Jordan’s waters and took the plunge admitted their sin and guilt, and asked to be washed clean. Apparently there were many who answered the Baptist’s call. John’s role in all four of the Gospels is a prominent one. He is a key transitional figure, acting as the last of classical prophets as well as the precursor to the Messiah. Even though John decreased as Jesus increased, we remember him especially as the man who baptized God’s anointed one.

When John dipped Jesus into the water, the heavens opened, and the Spirit of God enveloped the dripping Messiah. And a voice from on high was heard to proclaim, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

As electrifying moments go, I’d call that super-charged. In a flash everything was changed. That one act of baptism served as the turning point for all mankind. Through it Jesus became the union of nature and grace, man and God. Born of Mary, he was as human as we are; recognized by God as his Beloved Son, he was as godly as one can get. Jesus was a living bridge spanning heaven and earth. He had become what Tillich would call the New Being – a whole new creation conceived in love for the sake of love.

This momentous event was an epiphany. It was a window of truth. Through it we can see what God has in mind for each of us. Jesus’ life affects God, and it affects our life story. Paul the Apostle put it this way:

If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new is come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the message of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.[2]

 God was in Christ reconciling. In other words, God was as literally reuniting[3] parties that had been separated, namely God and us, in the person of Jesus. To do that God did not just draw near, or come close to whisper words of guidance in our ear. God became fully immersed in humanity. God, our Father, was in Christ (the Messiah), as was Jesus our brother. The two become one, and we are the beneficiaries.

The Baptism of our Lord enacts a great message. It tells us that God is not an absentee landlord or an alien-in-residence. In Christ God becomes human. God is totally immersed. God is all in, not partially present. It also tells us that Jesus, the man, was not a marginal messiah. Nor was his devotion to God tepid, or fair-weather, or subject to convenience and whim. The fully human Jesus of Nazareth gave himself to God fully. He too was all in – immersed.

If you’ve seen the Steven Spielberg film, “Lincoln,” then you know about the title character, played to perfection by Daniel Day-Lewis. His portrayal of President Lincoln is hauntingly real. Every aspect of Lincoln’s demeanor – from facial expressions and dialects to his profound melancholy – is authentic. Historians on the production team, including biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, kept everyone on track. The recreation of historic scenes photographed by Matthew Brady and others was exquisite. Daniel Day-Lewis became more than a great character actor; he became Abraham Lincoln. It was easy to believe that he had been fully immersed into the life of one of most revered and reviled men in the history of our nation.

Spielberg, along with Kearns Goodwin and screenwriter Tony Kushner, spoke about the film last weekend at the Richmond Forum.[4] When asked by moderator Tim Reid what the filming of the movie would you like people to remember, Spielberg replied that he wanted it known that Daniel Day-Lewis was completely in-character throughout the four months that his role was filmed in Richmond. He said that Day-Lewis, who is British, so fully entered Lincoln’s persona that traces of his own life and other roles he had played were totally absent.[5] ‘Lincoln’ spoke with the accents and patterns of speech that hailed from 19th-century Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as showing that he could parody an Englishman’s voice when telling a story about Ethan Allen while still remaining true to his historic personality.

Spielberg said that he never referred to Day-Lewis as “Daniel” during the production. Instead, he called him “Mr. President,” or “Mr. Lincoln,” and that’s what Day-Lewis would respond to.  At the end of production, Spielberg paid a visit to Mr. Lincoln’s trailer. His purpose was to thank him for his commitment to the film as well as his professional excellence. When Daniel Day-Lewis welcomed him, said Spielberg, he spoke in his usual voice – that of a sophisticated British actor with roots in England and Ireland. Having finished the part of Lincoln, Day-Lewis was again himself. He was all in as the president, but his immersion in the part was not a new creation. The actor’s life as Lincoln was temporary; his personal integrity knows its limits.

For the Christian, however, baptism is the sacrament of transformation. It is more than a transitory commitment, and it is more than an occasional duty. Baptism begins a lifelong process of change. Jesus is the pioneer and perfector of that process. For us and with us he took the plunge, and became God’s New Being. He beckons us to follow him, to join him in the water of life, and become the person God intends us to be. In that way, Jesus gives us the model for ministry, a ministry of reconciliation that has love as its aim, as well as its means. To love one another as Christ loves us requires full immersion. We cannot grow in true godliness if we are only willing to dip our toe in the baptismal water once in a while.

 Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean in the recent remake of “Les Misérables” gives the moviegoer a dramatic, and very graphic, look at total transformation. Valjean is a man who has rebuilt his life as a prosperous and upright citizen after having been reclaimed by the love of God. Earlier he was a paroled thief – a man who has suffered under the cruel lash of tyranny, serving an 18-year sentence for having stolen a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. But the turning point for Valjean came when he accepted the hospitality of a Catholic Bishop, who welcomed the ragamuffin into his residence and gave him food and shelter. Valjean repaid Bishop Myriel’s kindness by stealing his silver and skulking away into the night. After being captured and summarily dumped at the Bishop’s door, Valjean was in jeopardy of being returned to the slave camp. But the Bishop showed compassion on his ungrateful guest, telling the gendarmes that the silver had been his gift. He then had Valjean promise to live his life as an honest man, and that transformed him – almost completely.

Some years later, a remarkably prosperous Valjean was living under an assumed name. He has been serving as guardian to orphaned Cosette, who has grown up under his care, and has become a lovely young woman. He is devoted to her wellbeing and she to his, but she is also young and attractive. Cosette soon meets Marius, an idealistic young aristocrat turned revolutionary, and she falls in love with him. Valjean cannot bear to lose his beloved ward. His unredeemed self-interest seeks to possess Cosette, leading Valjean to move in order to prevent her from ever seeing Marius again.

However, when Valjean witnesses the violent repression of a revolutionary uprising, in which Marius is wounded and all of his comrades killed by government soldiers, Valjean’s better self makes a difficult, but loving choice. Although he is afraid of Marius’ influence on Cosette, he nevertheless decides to save the youth’s life rather than leaving him to die. The only route of escape is the sewer, and Valjean goes all in, dragging the unconscious Marius with him. In the process of saving Marius for Cosette Valjean is covered from head to toe in the excrement of Paris. His fouled form, carrying the body of the one he had viewed as a rival, is an icon of immersion. The redeemed Valjean realized that in Christ all things are possible – even an act of compassion for someone who posed a threat to his way of life.

“Les Misérables” closes with a musical message that sums up what it means to be immersed in life, empowered by the grace of God. Valjean is gathered unto the angels, having spent himself for goodness’ sake. As he breathes his last, a lyric of the finale gives us a word of hope. A trio of voices produces an enduring grace note that still rings in my ears. They sing, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” And they are right. That is the way, that is the truth, and that is the life. Jesus has tested the baptismal water for us, and promises that it is refreshing. Shall we join him?

 In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.   


 [1] Mark 1:4.

[2] II Corinthians 5:17-19.

[3] The English word, “reconcile,” is derived from the Latin, reconciliare, “again” (re) + “unite” (conciliare).

[4] The Richmond Forum featuring Spielberg, Kearns Goodwin, and Kushner will be broadcast on WCVE-TV on January 17, 2013, at 9 p.m.

[5] Katherine Calos of the Richmond Times-Dispatch (see link in the footnote above) quotes Spielberg thus: “I miss it because I had a profound experience with the actor playing Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), who became Lincoln for all of us. I forgot his entire body of work, and he’s made some profoundly genius movies in his relatively short career, and he wiped them clean from my recollection. I only saw the 16th president every single day for four months here in Richmond.”