A Sermon for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord  

 Year B – 11 January 2015

 John Edward Miller, Rector

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  – Mark 1:4-11

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.

On this day we recall in our liturgy the baptism of Our Lord. We do so not simply to remember an episode in Jesus’ personal history, but to celebrate the bond that we share with him in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. This occasion is meant for everyone who calls himself or herself, “Christian.” It is an Immanuel moment – an event through which we grasp what “God with us” means in our life, and in the life of all those who are baptized into the Church, the Body of Christ. As we celebrate this holy covenant, we also welcome into Christ’s fellowship two precious children – Reid Coleman Ash and Chase Arey Houghtaling – who in baptism have been adopted as God’s beloved, whom God promises to cherish forever. Today Reid and Chase join their Lord in the baptismal journey of service. Their ministries are yet to be articulated, but they will be guided and influenced by the creative Spirit who forms them in God’s image and leads them in the life of love.

All that we remember and celebrate this day hinges on the decisive instant when Jesus came to the River Jordan to be baptized by John. For Mark, this act signaled “the beginning the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[1] Unlike Matthew and Luke, whose gospels figure so prominently during Christmas season, with messianic prophecies and the Nativity, Mark plunges into his gospel account in Jesus’ thirtieth year of life. This, he thought, was the place to begin the Jesus story; this was the key to understanding his ministry of compassion, and the cost of discipleship.

Mark’s narrative starts with a strong affirmation of Jesus’ kinship to us in our common humanity:

As he waded into the water and asked to be baptized, Jesus made common cause with all humanity. It was his way of stating that, even as God’s chosen one, he wasn’t an exception to the rule. By presenting himself for baptism, he as much as said, “This river of repentance is for everyone, and I am in it with you.” His solidarity with the people was essential to his messianic mission. It showed the indispensable role that community plays in the life of faith. Moreover, it was his initial expression of the message that would soon be called the “gospel.” Unbeknownst to the people, and even to John the Baptist, this action would foreshadow the Messiah’s death and resurrection. And the Good News-in-the-making was that undergoing those Jordan waters was the sign that he was about to give them all the means of eternal life.[2]

But his relationship to us was not the only message proclaimed at the Jordan River. By his choosing to be baptized Jesus also endorsed John’s call to repentance. He agreed that sin is the basic human problem, and that it is important to admit guilt and show contrition, and to signal one’s intention to change by washing in purifying waters. However, I suspect that he knew that it would take more than a water ritual to keep us on track. Otherwise, he might have thought that John’s baptism was sufficient, and have gone on his way rejoicing, only to be tempted somewhere down the road. Or Jesus could have joined John’s band of disciples, urging others to repent as he himself did. However, these speculations are moot points; neither of those scenarios would ever develop because of Jesus’ open relationship to God, the Creator. That enabled something else to happen that day at the Jordan River: God chose Jesus as the Christ, and literally inspired[3] him, that is, “breathed [the divine Spirit] into” him, giving him the strength, trust, courage, and perseverance to commence, and to complete, his messianic ministry.

Mark says that just as Jesus arose from the water, he saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. In biblical terms, ‘heavens rent asunder’ indicates a revelation – a laying bare of something that is otherwise beyond the range of our discernment. Jesus saw and heard transcendent things – truths that empowered him to be the chosen one – God’s beloved son. His ability to perceive that extraordinary message was boosted by the Spirit, who fell upon him “like a dove.” That image is perhaps one that we wouldn’t expect. We might prefer the Spirit’s form to be one of vibrant power, such as an eagle, or flames of fire. But the dove image is also powerful in a radically different sense than these metaphors. Its kind of power is what Jesus would display as the servant of God. Like the dove, he would be humble and meek, persuasive and innocent. This way, the way of sacrificial love and service, would become his way, and through him, it would become our way. And the voice from heaven consecrated Jesus, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The gift of the Holy Spirit revolutionized John’s baptism of repentance. It embraced that ritual’s meaning and elevated it to a higher spiritual plane. Now those who “wade in the water” are beneficiaries of Jesus’ openness to the Spirit. In his name, we too are chosen as God’s sons and daughters; by his grace we are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life. And in the power of the Spirit, we also can be outfitted, and empowered for the work of ministry.

“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” That’s what the celebrant says to the newly baptized as she traces a watery cross upon his forehead. This act of sealing gives a new identity to the one who is baptized. It proclaims, “You are a new being; you belong to Jesus Christ. This is who you are now, so let your words and deeds make that manifest.”

In Christian baptism we are a new creation by water and the Spirit. The cross on our forehead is a telling sign of the new identity that has been given us.

Signing a document with a signet ring stamp in sealing wax reveals its authorship, and guarantees its authenticity. My ordination certificate bears the mark of the Rt. Reverend Robert Bruce Hall, 11th Bishop of Virginia. It is the impression of his distinctive episcopal ring in a blob of red wax, verifying that it was indeed he that ordained me a priest of the Church. In the case of Holy Baptism, the mark of the cross on the forehead is the indelible (though invisible) sign of the sacrament. It reveals the “pledge” that we are “Christ’s own forever.” The seal of the cross proclaims that we are included as members of the Body of Christ, the community of the faithful. Baptism, like ordination, rests on a unique gift that makes it happen. That gift is God’s Spirit. With it, the pledge of belonging and power is effective; without it, the ritual acts are simply words and gestures.

The good news is that living up to our baptismal identity – making the way of the cross to be the way of our life – is not our sole responsibility. The work of ministry is more than just difficult; it is demanding, and it is costly. All we have to do is to look to Jesus and we will quickly understand what loving and serving others can cost. Still, ministry is our calling; it is our bounden duty as followers of Jesus, the Christ. To fulfill that calling is beyond us; but it is not up to us to make it happen, to make the sacrament real, and effective. The God who creates us can re-create us for ministry of all sorts. God’s Spirit seals us in baptism and marks us as Christ’s colleagues in ministry forever. God’s Spirit is God’s presence. This is not wishful thinking. It is a reality – an abiding embrace, an indissoluble bond, that is accessible always. Our task is to be still, to listen, to breathe into our being the Spirit of compassion, and to know that God is with us always. Accepting that God accepts us as we are is our point of connection. Opening the portals of our heart, our mind, and our will is the way to permit the power of the Spirit to make us beloved, and pleasing to the Giver of all life.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, may it be so. Let us pray:

“All praise and thanks to you, most merciful Father, for adopting us as your own children, for incorporating us into your holy Church, and for making us worthy to share in the inheritance of the saints in light; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

[1] Mark 1:1.

[2] John E. Miller, “Taking the Plunge,” a sermon for the 1st Sunday of Epiphany, January 13, 2002, delivered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Goochland County, Virginia.

[3] “Inspire” is derived from the Latin, in+spiro, which means “breathe into.”