Epiphany I – Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ
Sermon preached by: Fr. Mark D. Stuart
One of the odd things about the Church Kalendar is that the baby Jesus grows up very fast! After His birth on December 25, His naming on January 1, and the visit of the Magi to the stable in Bethlehem on January 6, here we are just a few days after the Epiphany and Jesus is all grown up, striding off into the desert to find His cousin, John the Baptizer. No sooner have we taken down the Christmas decorations than we are catapulted into the beginning of Jesus’ ministry! In the Eastern Orthodox tradition the Baptism and Epiphany are closely associated, which makes sense because in Greek “Epiphany” means manifestation, or showing forth. Therefore, it is an explanation of what the birth of Jesus means to mankind.
We humans are a stubborn bunch. It takes a lot to convince us of anything, even if we see the evidence right in front of us. Christmas is no problem for most people. The message of Christmas, the images that are part of Christmas, are imprinted forever on our minds from our earliest years. And the images we carry with us are not just Santa Claus and reindeer and presents under the Christmas tree. There is a more central, deeper image we carry with us, despite the cultural clutter of the season. It is the image of birth, the birth of a child in a stable, the image of a real baby in a real place. After all, we know about babies; we have held them; we were babies once. And we understand in our deepest being that all babies are, in a sense a miracle. That miracle we have experienced gives us insight into the great miracle we celebrate in the season of Epiphany, a time of joyful explanation and enlightenment.
The liturgical traditions of the Church use images of light, of glory bursting forth, to explain the effect of the coming of the Messiah. That is the Good News of our salvation and that is why the scene of Jesus’ Baptism includes a “theophany;” that is, a powerful “manifestation” of God.
I remember back to my seminary days, that Jesus’ Baptism was always a good departure point to engage in the deep inquiries seminarians love to debate among themselves after lunch in the refectory. (Compounded of course at Nashotah House where at this time of year the brutal Wisconsin winter greatly increases the proclivity to be contentious!) So, my classmates and I would pose the question: when exactly was it that Jesus really knew who He was? Was it at His Baptism, or did He know at the age of twelve when He wandered away from His parents and went into the Temple at Jerusalem? Or did Jesus know from birth that he was the Son of God?
Our discussion on the matter would sometimes go from day to day as we each tried to defend when we thought that Jesus knew that He was the Son of God. Finally we would put the question to one of our theology professors. Now if you have ever had a discussion with a theologian, you know that they do not give short answers! The much abbreviated answer to our question was that we really do not know. While the Gospel of John would lead us to believe that the infant Jesus had the knowledge of the divine Logos even before He was born in the human form. But the Gospel of Matthew implies that Jesus knew He was the Son of God when in the Temple he tells His parents, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But all the Gospels agree that at His Baptism Jesus hears God proclaim Him as His Son.
In spite of the fact that each of the four Gospels reports the Baptism of Jesus in a slightly different way, one thing is for certain; only Jesus knew exactly what occurred. What we know for sure is that this marked a clear demarcation in His life. It was a moment of transition, when empowered by the Holy Spirit, He now begins His public ministry. The Epiphany of God was underway. In spite of this moment pulsating with divinity, Jesus could have gone back to His former quiet, obscure, and comfortable life. Instead, the journey Jesus began at the Jordan only comes to an end on the cross.
But the nagging question still lingers, why on earth would Jesus go out into the wilderness to be baptized if He is the Son of God who was “in every way as we are, yet without sin” as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it. Or, at least, why did He not baptize Himself? John the Baptizer, recognizing the contradictions in this situation, at first refuses to baptize Jesus, insisting rather that Jesus should baptize him. But as St. Paul declared in II Corinthians (5:10): “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself…” Or, to put it another way: in everything that Jesus says and does, God is at work, showing us how closely and intimately He relates to human beings who do sin, and who do need to repent and turn again. Jesus stands in the Jordan River, just as he lay in the stable as a baby, just as He will hang on the cross of His death, because God is in Christ, identifying Himself with us in every aspect of our births, lives, and deaths, in solidarity to us. This Jesus is, as we say, “Emmanuel,’ – God-with-us. No, Jesus does not need to repent. But through showing us His Baptism, the Gospel writers show Jesus doing what God in Christ always does: stands by us, stands with us, stands for us…While we are now in the season of the Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus is clearly a ratification of His Incarnation. He identifies with a community and with the people in that community.
The season of Epiphany is the season of the Church year in which the identity of Jesus is made clearer to His followers. In our baptism, we too gain an identity. At the time of our baptism, the priest makes the sign of the cross on our foreheads with chrism (the holy oil blessed by the bishop each Maundy Thursday enough for the whole diocese, distributed to all the priests) and announces that we “are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Thus we become part of what God has been doing in the world since Creation. Our baptism and the Baptism of our Lord are symbols of God’s delight in us: each time a person is baptized, it is a sign that God exists.
Every Sunday at the beginning of High Mass we are reminded of our baptism when the Celebrant sprinkles the congregation with holy water in the ancient rite called the Aspergus. (Just be careful, if you mention to Fr. Davies or me that one of us has missed sprinkling you and then you sit on the aisle the next week! We will make sure that you are fully reminded of your baptism then!
Over the centuries Christians have debated the exact nature of baptism, how it should be administered, to whom, and when. What baptism does mean, simply put, is that we are initiated by water and the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, but it doesn’t mean that we have become fully grown. We enter not necessarily as fully-matured people of faith, but more importantly, as persons fully-embraced by the loving arms of Christ. Just as Jesus’ ministry was unique to Him, each of us is called to our own unique ministry. We are called, in fact, to grow into the fullness of ourselves as we were created by God to be. Our calling after baptism is to discern just who we are called to be, and then to live it out as fully as we can – with God’s help. The rite of Confirmation is the mature response we make to our baptism as infants. This season of Epiphany is appropriate to spend some time remembering our role as the Body of Christ in mission to the world.
It is also a good time to renew the work of discerning who God has called us to be, individually, as the parish of St. Thomas the Apostle, and as a whole Church. Because whether or not you saw the Dove alight on you, whether or not you heard the voice say it, you – you, your very self – are a Child of God, a beloved one, and with you God will be pleased!
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