A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 13, 2013
by The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut
Texts: Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.”
In the name of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we commemorate the Baptism of Jesus Christ, and we face a difficult task. You see, that word “baptism” is a church-y word. It’s a word we’ve seen printed in our Prayer Books, and stretched across the front of our bulletins. It’s a word we’ve seen enacted dozens of times in this very place. For many people, the word “baptism” conjures up an image of beautiful babies swaddled in long gowns of heirloom lace, alternately smiling, or screaming, or looking up with surprise and confusion as a priest pours a little water over the tops of their heads.
Now let me say that I do not wish to denigrate those images. The baptisms we perform at Christ Church are among the greatest joys of my ministry, and there are profound theological reasons to baptize those beautiful babies. But the difficult task we face is that we will utterly and completely miss the point of the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John if we weigh down that event with any of our associations, any of our accumulated images, any of our cultural expectations for a baptism.
For what we find today as we go in heart and mind to the banks of the river Jordan is a scene that is tense, dangerous, dusty, and dirty. What we find when we hear the preaching of John the Baptist is a crowd fraught with speculation and hopes and fears. What we find today when Jesus goes out to be baptized is a tangled mess of politics and theology—national expectation and personal transformation. So let us begin by setting aside every image of baptism floating around in our heads. Then let us wade, as deep as we can go, into that scene at the Jordan.
Our story today begins with St Luke telling us about the rampant speculation going on regarding John’s own identity and purpose. “All [the people] were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” Why this speculation? The practice of baptism, of ritually washing away sins, was not something heretofore associated with the Messiah. There’s nothing uniquely Messianic about baptism.
But by baptizing the penitent sinners who came out to meet him, John was doing something that the people expected the Messiah to do. The Messiah, God’s anointed servant, was to be the one who would purify the nation of Israel—the one who would turn the hearts of the people back to their God—the one who would renew and restore God’s covenant with his chosen. To many people, it seemed that this was precisely what John was doing. By calling the people to repentance, by openly castigating the spiritual and political leaders of the time, by plunging his followers into the muddy waters of the Jordan as a symbolic way of washing away their sins, John was God’s instrument for the restoration of the nation of Israel.
People reasoned that this business of baptism was what God had promised all along. Jewish rituals often called for a washing: surely John’s baptism was the greatest of washings. Jewish tradition told of the people crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land: surely John’s baptism was a new crossing over, a new arrival into the Promised Land. Jewish hope and longing was fixed on a coming savior, one on whom God’s favor would rest, one who would set their nation free from the bonds of foreign oppression and national exploitation: surely John’s baptism marked him as the man.
And yet look how John answers the Messianic expectations of the people: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.” John’s great work is merely preparatory. John’s great work simply lays the foundation on which the ministry of Jesus will rise. Not only are the expectations of the people subverted: soon they will be transcended.
Jesus’ ministry will not be concerned with the restoration of the visible, political nation of Israel. Jesus’ ministry will create a new nation, a new chosen people. He baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and with fire. The baptism that he brings is a baptism, a soaking, an immersion, in the Spirit of the Living God, the power of the Living God, the will of the Living God. This baptism is a consuming fire, a fire that burns away all dross, that purges away all sin, that plunges each baptized person into the forge and furnace of grace and brings them forth renewed, restored, remade. When Jesus comes to John to be baptized, this is the work that he inaugurates. When the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form as a dove, this is the work that he seals, and sends Jesus forth to do.
And that is where we come back into this story. You see, when we baptize here at this font, it is not with the baptism of John. That was an outward baptism—a sign, a symbol only. But the baptism with which we baptize—the baptism with which we have, by God’s grace, been baptized—is an inward baptism. It is a baptism with the Holy Spirit, and indeed with fire.
The baptism with which we are baptized carries, through water and the Spirit, the whole ministry of Christ. The baptism with which we are baptized is a baptism, a plunging, into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. In that forge, we are remade. In that furnace, we are cleansed. When we come to the font for baptism, whatever our outward age, inwardly we are infants. We come helpless, ready to receive what we could never earn; to be immersed in depths we could not reach; to die a death we could not face; to rise to a new life we cannot imagine.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that today we must set aside every image and expectation we have of baptism. That is not entirely accurate. What we must do instead is to allow this day to work backwards into every baptism we have ever seen, and forwards into every baptism we will see. We must allow this day to work back into our own baptisms. This day, this celebration of the Baptism of Christ, calls us to glimpse in every baptism the unseen work of the Holy Spirit. This day calls us to give thanks that in baptism we have walked with Christ. This day calls us to remember that in baptism we have died with Christ. This day calls us to rejoice that in baptism we have been raised with Christ. This day, at last, calls us to hear again those words spoken to Christ, and to know that they are spoken to each of us as well: “You are my son, my daughter, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”