Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Jan. 10, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Jan 10, 2021 in Epiphany, Feast Days, Sermons

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

January 10, 2021

I join with Bishop Greg, who yesterday wrote, 

My primary allegiance is to Jesus Christ.
My primary flag is the cross.
It is, for me, not about politics, but instead about the Gospel.
(Letter dated 1/9/21)

That Gospel speaks of grace and blessing today and comes on the heels of a week of pandemic, shock, fear, violence, and the leaders involved. A week which has perhaps redefined our country. Or maybe it has simply revealed that we are what we’ve tried to pretend is not who we are. To ignore the presence of racism, bigotry, hatred, is to thwart the very awareness which might eventually help us not to be what this week reveals of us. We cannot pretend evil doesn’t exist, that Christians don’t sin. We can however stand courageous as we face sinfulness; our own and others’. Stand courageous as we face evil, that which is done by us, on behalf of us, or against us. Denying it’s existence won’t make it go away, but it does not have to define us! That is what our baptism is for. We can be described as cynical, smart, funny, as a teacher, doctor, builder, programer, even as people who vote a certain way, but none of those define us. All of those are descriptors and changeable. Our baptism is not. One cannot un-baptize, or invalidate it. Our baptism does define us.

Over the years people have sought to understand why Jesus would need to be baptized. If he is the Son of God and without sin why have a baptism for forgiveness? The early church wrestled especially with those who said this proved Jesus wasn’t truly divine, but a human to whom God spoke. As we say the Creed today you’ll hear it got worked out! To get mired in that is to shortchange baptism and limit it to a sort of bartering with God. While baptism does promise forgiveness of sins, to me that secondarily comes out of the blessing upon each of us as a beloved child of God, and new life in Christ. This is the profound blessing of belonging beloved-ness, declaring at our baptisms that we “are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”

This might appear to be all about John and Jesus, it is also for and about us. In Jesus’ baptism I hear God preparing him and us. I hear God blessing Jesus and us. I hear God calling Jesus the Beloved, and us too. God speaks all of this into Jesus’ baptism, and into our own, through the Spirit as messenger of grace. This is true of that day at the Jordan River, true of last Wednesday, and of today—and will be true tomorrow. God prepares us, calls us and blesses us, and names us beloved children. When God speaks it is to make clear, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These words are not merely descriptive, they are declaring his identity, and ours.

John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan
John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan
14th century mosaic; San Marco, Venice, Italy

Many of you know I often pray with icons. The one I chose for our bulletin cover today is of Jesus’ baptism by John and the in-breaking of God’s blessing with the Spirit. It is a14th-century Byzantine mosaic from a church in Venice, and there’s a more contemporary Coptic version on page 11. At center is the Jordan river, richly symbolic throughout Scripture. While live-giving water is critical, crossing it is a daunting idea. One side is the wilderness of dessert, the other the Promised Land; there was no bridge. The Hebrew Scriptures tell of God dividing the waters so the faithful could cross to the other side, at times being chased and fearing for their lives. The river symbolizes death and danger yet seeing Jesus standing in it, baptized in it, filling nearly the whole of that river, invites us to see Jesus as engaging and surpassing that. The Jordan invites passage to new life, now through Christ’s baptism. He is blessing the water, not the other way around. Notice his hand in a position of blessing—the water and all creation. It echoes in our baptismal liturgy when we bless the water; 

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ…” Declaring, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”

Attendant angels subtly suggest the spiritual journey to the other side. Angels heralded his birth, ministered to him after the temptations in the dessert, and are at his empty tomb. Their hands are covered as a sign of reverence and to receive him who has been buried and reborn through the water. God’s realm is hinted at the top center and a ray emanates with the Holy Spirit like a dove coming forth. The words in the icon (you can’t see very well) are what is heard as Jesus comes up out of the water, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I wonder if everyone heard the voice? Was frightening, reassuring, awe-inspiring? 

Our psalmist says, “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.” God’s voice is not only in idyllic scenes or gentle messages. The psalmist also says, “The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire;… shakes the wilderness… makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.” This is no passive milquetoast God, these messages call us to attention promising God’s power and strength are present even in the face of turmoil, destruction, and death. Finally the psalm concludes, “The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.” (Psalm 29)

After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension we hear how the Apostle Paul meets disciples in Corinth who were baptized only “Into John’s baptism” and who never heard of the Holy Spirit. It reminds me how easy it can be for us to follow whom we think is ‘the One’ or doing so because it’s where we began and we looked no further, or were simply attracted to a compelling personality or person of power, rather than real substance of the divine. John did not look for any of that, he proclaimed quite the opposite. Jesus did not invite followers to a cult of personality either, and yet throughout the ages humankind has certainly used his name to advance whatever agenda or idolized a leader they held to. It was when the people Paul met learned they’d only heard part of the truth, and were then baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” that the Spirit came to them. 

The very first words of scripture come from Genesis; “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 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.” And so begins the story creation, and God will say it is good. In Jesus is a new creation. Again God moves over the waters. As Jesus emerges from the water the Spirit descends. That voice from heaven comes for us all; “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

This Christian faith we holds great gifts and beauty and promise. It sustains us in our torment, grief and pain. Our faith also calls us to be courageous, accountable, responsible, to discern and act with mercy and to seek justice. I hope we all share in Bishop Greg’s avowal, that “My primary allegiance is to Jesus Christ. My primary flag is the cross. It is…not about politics, but instead about the Gospel.” Christ’s gospel reveals us too. No matter what comes, our identity is from Christ, as we seek to live and walk the baptismal faith. 


© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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