A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday after the Epiphany:
The Baptism of Our Lord
January 10, 2016
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, SC
Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.”
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Forget everything you think you know about baptism. Set aside the mental image of beautiful babies swaddled in heirloom lace smiling, or screaming, or looking up with shock and alarm as a priest pours a little water over their heads. Put away the sight of smartly-dressed parents and godparents bravely attempting to juggle Prayer Books, lit candles, wet infants, and bored older siblings, all while trying to answer strange questions about Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. Forget everything you think you know about baptism.
For today we commemorate the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. And if we are to understand what this day means and why it matters, we must banish from our brains everything we usually associate with the word “baptism.”
I say this not because our normal associations and images of baptism are bad or wrong. The baptisms that it has been my privilege to perform are among my greatest joys in ministry, and the many meaningful traditions woven into those celebrations are good and holy. But the fact of the matter 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 customary associations; any of our accumulated images; any of our cultural expectations for a baptism.
For as we go today in heart and mind to the banks of the river Jordan, we find a scene very different indeed from an ordinary baptismal Sunday at Trinity Cathedral. St Luke carries us to a time and place that is tense, dangerous, dusty, and dirty. As we hear again the preaching of John the Baptist, we find ourselves in the midst of a crowd fraught with expectation—with hopes, and with fears. What we find today when Jesus goes out to be baptized is a tangled mess of politics and theology—a thicket of national expectation and longed-for personal transformation.
So I say once again, let us forget everything we think we know about baptism. And then let us wade, deeper and deeper, into the muddy waters of the Jordan.
What we notice first of all is the rampant speculation that suffuses this scene. “The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”
Why? Why this eager expectation? Why this wondering about John’s identity and purpose? The practice of baptism—of ritually washing away sins—was not something that ordinarily 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. For 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.
And to many people, it seemed that this was precisely what John was doing. Because he was calling the people to repentance—because he was openly castigating the spiritual and political leaders of the time—because he was plunging his followers into the waters of the Jordan as a symbolic way of washing away their sins, people assumed that John himself was God’s instrument for the restoration of the nation of Israel. And so, ruled and ridden by their expectations, they willingly readjusted their hopes and reinterpreted God’s promises to fit the facts in front of them.
“Perhaps this business of baptism was what God had promised all along!” they mused. “Perhaps all God meant had been a symbolic restoration for Israel: a spiritual cleansing.” Perhaps some of the crowd listening to John recalled the passage from Isaiah we heard this morning: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” and said, as they watched John plunging people into the river, “Maybe this is what we’ve been waiting for and longing for and looking for.”
After all, Jewish rituals often called for a washing. Surely John’s baptism was the greatest of washings! Jewish tradition told the story 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 from the exploitation of their own corrupted leaders. Surely John’s baptism marked him as the man! Surely this must be what God meant when he promised a Messiah!
John wastes no time demolishing all their faulty speculations.
“I baptize you with water: but One who is more powerful than I is coming.” You see, in their eager expectation, the people were willing to settle for the opening act. In their desperation for deliverance, the crowd was ready to accept something that was merely preparatory. In their consuming certainty that the time was fulfilled, and that the Messiah had come at last, the nation was busy shrinking down God’s intentions to fit within the scope of what they could see and understand.
But John, the faithful forerunner of the Lord, will not allow the expectation of the people to turn him from the fulfillment of his true mission. “One who is more powerful than I is coming…and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s great work simply lays the foundation on which the ministry of Jesus will rise. Neither John the Baptist nor the God he serves will settle for the silly speculations of a shortsighted people.
For God’s purpose is not less than what the people had been expecting, but infinitely greater. God’s plans do not require a downsizing from real-world, practical deliverance to mere spiritual cleansing. On the contrary, God has something greater planned than what any of the people dared to ask or imagine.
Jesus’ ministry will not be concerned with the restoration of the visible, political nation of Israel. But instead Jesus’ ministry will create a new nation, a new chosen people. Jesus’ baptism will not be a ritual washing with water to restore some notion of religious purity. But instead, Jesus’ baptism is a soaking—an immersion—in the Spirit of the Living God, the power of the Living God, the will of the Living God. Jesus’ anointing as the Messiah, the holy deliverer of Israel, will not be inferred from his deeds or interpreted out of his preaching or conferred by the acclamation of the crowds. But instead, Jesus’ anointing comes from the Holy Spirit himself, and his identity as the great deliverer of God’s chosen people—and indeed of all people—is confirmed by the voice of God the Father: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
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 strengthens Jesus to do. When the Father rends the heavens and speaks his words of blessing and love on the Son, the fullness of divinity embraces the fullness of humanity, and a new union between earth and heaven is begun.
And that is where we come back into this story. For when we baptize here at this font, it is not with the baptism of John. That was an outward baptism—a sign and a symbol only. But the baptism with which we baptize—the baptism with which, by God’s grace, we have 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. The baptism with which we are baptized is a forge, and in that forge we are remade. The baptism with which we are baptized is a furnace, and in that furnace we are cleansed forever.
When we come to the font for baptism, whatever our outward age, inwardly we are infants. We come helpless, to receive what we could never earn; to be immersed in depths we could never reach; to die a death we could never face; to rise to a new life we cannot imagine. In baptism, God reveals a plan and a purpose—for each of us and for all of us—that exceeds our grandest expectations and surpasses our wildest hopes. For in baptism, we are made members of the Body of our Risen Lord. In Baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.
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, in fact, 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 follow the footsteps of our Lord. 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 by God’s grace they are spoken to each of us as well: “You are my son; my daughter; my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”