Jan. 7, 2018 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Jan 7, 2018 in Epiphany, Feast Days, Sermons

The First Sunday after the Epiphany:
The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Jan. 7, 2018

The Judean wilderness setting for Jesus’ baptism as told in the gospel according to Mark is wonderfully real, earthy, and tactile. We hear of people crossing the countryside and being baptized in river water, a man who wears camel’s hair and leather, who eats bugs and honey, the image of the thongs of Jesus’ sandals to be tied. You can imagine that sense of him coming up out of the water himself, it running off his face, then hair and shoulders, and dripping from his clothes as he is startled by seeing the heavens ripped open, and God’s larger-than-life voice that only Jesus hears. It keeps us from pretending baptism is a nice tame ritual, domesticated and abstract in it’s power. No – this is all about the real, tangible presence of God crashing into this world in a new way! Picture that Spirit as a dove descending on him—was it gently lofting down from fluffy clouds, or was it part of that ripping open of the heavens, diving down on John, Jesus and the others at the river, bearing the power of God’s in-breaking just as Jesus hears those words? Did people look up in serene angelic adoration, or did they duck to avoid the Spirit’s swooping speeding path, peeking at the last to see where it landed? I like to think it was the latter and more dramatic real-world scene.

This earthy convergence of God’s divine self, Jesus’ self (in this case, at baptism), and the Holy Spirit, are quite inextricable. We have this immense love from God flowing to and from the Son, a love so powerful it is it’s own namable entity or person, uniquely present in this moment of connection. Anglican Theologian C. S. Lewis explains it this way; “You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence… rather like a person…What grows out of the joint life of the Father and the Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God. This Third Person is called, in technical language, the Holy Ghost or the ‘spirit’ of God. Do not be worried or surprised if you find it (or Him) rather vaguer or more shadowy in your mind than the other two. I think there is a reason why that must be so. In the Christian life you are not usually looking at [the Spirit]. It is always acting through you…God is love, and that love works through mankind-especially through the whole community of Christians.” (Mere Christianity, Harper Collins,1952)

This is what happened that day at the river. It is this which Mark is trying to put into words, and this very thing which we come together today to do as well. In our coming together to baptize, we are acting in the role of the body of Christ re-membered. We love God and God’s love is clearly present, and in our prayers of this ritual the uniqueness of this flow of love and faith is where we know the Holy Spirit. C. S. Lewis said that for Christians the Spirit is not something lighter than earthly matter, as if an entity of some non-tangible world, rather it is heavier! The Spirit is the real presence of God acting in this real creation, in this moment, this gathered community, this font, and certainly this child. His parents came looking for a place where this is visibly true, and where God’s love is shown to be genuine and deep, where children are truly welcomed as God’s own. (They found it!) The Spirit is always connected to what is material in our world—real bread and wine, real water, real flame, real people. Consider the trajectory following baptism, both ours and that of Jesus; The Spirit fills him, and then drives him out into the wilderness to wrestle with Satan and be served by visiting angels, repeatedly affirming his love of God and his faithfulness. Each week the Spirit fills us, here in this place, and then drives us out into the world’s (suburban) wilderness, where we too wrestle with what is evil or wretched around us, and where we too encounter the ministrations of the angels and see our faith both tested and strengthened. It is in this real, rich, and very earthy mix that we live out our baptismal covenant, serving God and serving one another.

Today is such a point for Alexander (Ander) René Trudel-Payne, the child we will soon baptize. And if you think his very young age exempts him from any of this – think again! Even at this age he faces temptations and frustrations, angels and their ministrations. Just looking at him you see God’s blessing on his parents Paul and Jamie, and on anyone who is fortunate enough to come into the orbit of his presence. Ander, like other little ones we baptize, is love personified—right here among us! We are reminded of how the Spirit is present and fully real in baptism, in that holy water poured on him and then shared liberally with the congregation, in the vibrancy of our voices joined together in lovingly claiming him as a child of God and as one for whom we are all responsible for raising in the knowledge and love of God. We will know it as we renew our baptismal vows, making loving strength audible alongside his parents Paul and Jamie, and his godparents, Emily Ken and Joel, as they make these vows on Ander’s behalf. We feel it as hands anoint and bless him, and all our hands share the blessing and peace of God—skin touching skin. This communal ritual is so powerful because in it the Spirit is vibrantly present, as it was that day on the Jordan River. And this is true for the sacraments of Confirmation, reception, and ordination, and for the sacraments of marriage, anointing, and burial. Spirit is not etherial weightless ‘out there’ stuff, it’s right here, present in the tangible of these sacramental moments and in many more.

There is no birth story in the Gospel according to Mark, and this is Jesus’ first appearance in it. We are clued in to the raw power of the moment by the heavens being torn apart, ripped open! We hear the echo of Genesis, that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light!’ ” God creates by sweeping over the face of the water, God re-enters ripping open the heavens to again bring holy light to the world. While that day only Jesus hears the voice from heaven speak (according to Mark), we do too. The message combines two pieces of scripture which are wonderful signposts for our understanding this moment; “You are my son” is God’s declaration of sonship at the coronation of a king in Psalm 2:7. Then from Isaiah 42:1 is drawn the description of the Suffering Servant of the Lord. Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” and then, “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” His authority and his humility are not in tension or separate things, they are one reality in him — in his identity as Savior and Redeemer of the world.

Mark bookends the gospel with this combination of the verb σχίζω (schizó) meaning ‘torn or ripped apart’ and a declaration of identity following it. We hear it in today’s scene at the very first appearance of Jesus, the heavens ripped open and Jesus identity confirmed by God’s words (Mark 1:11), and again at the end, when Jesus dies on the cross and the temple curtain is “torn apart” after he breathes his last. Then it will be the Centurion guard who declares his identity, saying, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39).

Framed by new life in baptism and then death which points the way to resurrection—this makes sense to us especially, as we will shortly pray blessing over the water of Baptism, saying, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his holy resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” We hold the fullness of this gospel moment in our faith, vowing to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord along with the humility of his servant-hood, and our call to follow declaring and embodying both praise and servanthood to a justice and love-hungry world. How? Through remembering that our baptismal vows aren’t tame and domesticated, but real and earthy and alive. By being present together in prayer and praise which gives living voice and presence to the Holy Spirit in these tangible ways, and by remembering that we are moving this ancient gospel forward—just as those gospel writers and disciples did. God in-breaking in Jesus didn’t scrap and restart humanity, and John wasn’t the first to prepare the way. There were also the voices of Abraham, Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David, Isaiah and others, and yes, John the baptizer. God prepared the world to receive this Son throughout the ages. And God is still doing this by sending proclaiming messengers in you and me, by sending those next to you, and by sending Ander. At the same time, we also faithfully follow the One whom God sent.

© 2018 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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