The Baptism of our Lord Year A - January 8, 2017

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Baptism of our Lord

Year A

Sermon for January 8, 2012

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

 

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This past Friday, we held our annual celebration of the Feast of Epiphany with Messiah Lutheran and a visit from the three wise men, who were actually played by three wise women - Rachel, Kim and Megan!  Fortunately, the snow didn’t get in the way of the bonfire we ignite each year to usher this season of light and revelation.  We had a great time.

The word Epiphany means “manifestation, demonstration, or appearance.” When referred to Jesus, it means the manifestation of God’s love in Christ. Or, as the old hymn goes, “God in man, made manifest.” This is the season when the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clearer and clearer, and through our readings each week we are given different lenses through which we can observe this.

One of the most important of these Epiphany lenses is what we celebrate today, the baptism of Jesus, and this year we get to look through Matthew’s perspective.  But before we do, we first need to acknowledge that the church has, from the very beginning, had some problems with Jesus’ Baptism.  What, we have asked, was the sinless son of God doing in the water with a crowd of sinners in the first place? What did he have to be sorry about, and why was God’s beloved submitting himself to a scruffy character like John?

If you compare the accounts of Jesus baptism in each of the four gospels, you can’t miss their discomfort.  For instance in today’s gospel, Matthew elaborates on Mark’s shorter version by adding that John tries to talk Jesus out of being baptized:  “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me?” And when Jesus replies, “let it be so for now, for it is proper to fulfill all righteousness” it’s as if Jesus senses the awkwardness of the situation and gives both of them an out.

But, even though Matthew tries to solve the problem of Jesus being baptized by John, the question still remains: why is Jesus baptized at all? Given that we typically connect baptism to forgiveness of sin, if Jesus is the sinless Son of God, in what way does he need baptism? Or, more broadly, how does baptism benefit him at all?

On this point, all the gospels writer seem to agree: Jesus’ baptism is not a simply a mechanism for forgiveness but rather announces God’s favor and establishes his identity. When the voice descends from heaven, saying “You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus is reminded in a deep, deep way of who he is.  This is the core moment of Jesus’ public life and throughout his life, he continually claims that identity in the midst of everything.  There are times when he is tested, praised, times when he is despised or rejected, but he keeps on saying, “Others will leave me, but my father will not.  I am the beloved Son of God.  I am the hope found in that identity.”[1]

Which suggests to me that Jesus’ baptism is less about forgiveness than about establishing God’s claim upon him - that he belongs to God and is called to do God’s work in the world.  In other words, Jesus baptism was his commissioning, the inauguration of his mission, his ministry, and assurance of God’s presence through it.  It was a pivotal moment for Jesus - as Love Incarnate became intensified and empowered as Love Commissioned.

Of course, Jesus isn’t the only ‘baptized one’ here today. You, too, have been baptized. You, too, have been marked as Christ’s own and commissioned to participate in his project of incarnating God’s love in this world.  So much of the time, we focus on baptism as a washing away of sin, and while that is certainly an important element of baptism, I wonder if we haven’t missed the profound words of empowering grace that are spoken to Jesus, and also to us.  “You are God’s beloved, and God is well pleased.”

And this message, I believe, has never been more timely. Because we live in a culture that promises acceptance only if we are – and here you can fill in the blank–successful enough, rich enough, skinny enough, strong enough, popular enough, beautiful enough, young enough, and so on.  These messages are constant and insidious, which means that the message of baptism – that God has declared that we are enough, that God accepts us just as we are, and that God desires to do wonderful things for and through us – is one we desperately need to hear.

And yet, as we enter this season of Epiphany, we are naturally oriented toward seeking manifestations of Christ’s love outside of ourselves, searching for that gleaming star, that sparkling light, anything that promises to make our lives easier or better.

Sam Portero, one of my favorite Anglican writers, has pondered this tendency, and asks, “What are we looking for?  Or better, are we looking up, when we should be looking down, looking out when we should be looking in?”[2]

“We tend toward insecurity,” he observes, “toward a suspicion of our own gifts and the grace of God revealed within us.  This insecurity turns our eyes and our minds outward, leads us to look always beyond ourselves, never fully appreciating that what we seek may already be ours, in our possession.  If the season of Epiphany is the season of revealing light, the manifestation, of ‘God with us,’ then why do we not celebrate this presence?  Why do we instead look for some elusive star to guide the way out of our dark insecurity when the very light of God has come to dwell with us, in us?”

I cannot pretend to have an easy or clever answer to that question.  I can only confess that it resonates with my own experience.  I know how hard it is to accept that I, myself, am God’s beloved, and am called freely, as a result, to bear that love.  Deep down inside, I assume the reverse:  that is, until I learn how to give love perfectly or well, I am not worthy of God’s love.

“Maybe we’re hung up on performance anxiety,” Portero goes on to say, “afraid that we’re not good enough, a poor example, insufficient to the task.  I know that insecurities such as these have driven and continue to drive me, sometimes beyond reason and health, to work harder, but not always better.  I fear that in the end, such overcompensation only obscures whatever God might reveal in me were I more relaxed, more centered, less anxious.”

This anxiety is wonderfully and humorously treated in Rebecca Well’s great novel, “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  One of the characters, Sidallee Walker searches her mother’s life for evidence of the grace she seeks for herself.  Her mother responds, wisely,

“Good God, child!  What do you mean, you “don’t know how to love”?  Do you think any of us know how to (give) love?!  Do you think anybody would ever do anything if they waited until they knew how? Do you think that babies would ever get made or meals cooked or crops planted or books written or what…have you?  Do you think people would even get out of bed in the morning if they waited until they knew how to love?  You have had too much therapy.  Or not enough.  God knows how to love, Kiddo.  The rest are only good actors.  Forget love. Try good manners.”[3]

The mission of our baptism, as I see it, doesn’t have to be expansive or expensive. It is simply to allow the God who longs to be revealed to the world to be revealed in us, as we are.  To live lives of transparency, unafraid to let God be seen in us, through us. 

That doesn’t mean our lives will be perfect or even good, any more than the lives of our ancestors in faith were perfect or good.  Moses the murder, David the philanderer, Paul the persecutor – the list goes on.  Through the likes of these God was revealed, continues to be revealed.

For Sidallee Walker in the Ya Ya Sisterhood, her moment of epiphany comes when she is able to see and say, “My mother is not the Holy Lady…my mother’s love is not perfect.  My mother’s love is good enough.  My lover’s love is good enough.  Maybe I am good enough.”

“You are my beloved, and with you I am well pleased” are the words that establish Jesus’ identity at the Jordan and our own baptismal identity. You are God’s beloved, I am God’s beloved, all of us loved.  That is the Gospel of God, truly good news and the beginning of all wisdom – and while our own ability to give love may not be perfect, it is sufficient and God can and will do the rest.    Amen.

 

[1] Henri Nouwen, “You are my Beloved” in The Only Necessary Thing, p. 67

[2] Sam Portaro, Daysprings: Meditations for the Weekdays of Advent, Lent, and Easter (Lanham:  Cowley Publications, 2001), 50-51.

[3] Ibid, 51-52

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