That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Baptism

“Christ, when for us you were baptized…”

the-baptism-of-christ

(“The Baptism of Christ” by Giotto, c. 1305)

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.”

AMEN.

“Have you anything here to eat?”

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: I John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

We tend to draw a sharp distinction between material things and spiritual things, don’t we? It’s the dividing line between Church stuff and world stuff, between prayer and work, between a daily quiet time—those few minutes given over wholly to spiritual reflection and study—and all the other business we have to attend to—the busy-ness involved in earning a living, keeping a home, and caring for ourselves and our families.

The distinction between physical and spiritual is surely very present in the minds of those members of the Daughters of the Holy Cross who have been studying the Biblical duo Mary and Martha this year. Perhaps you remember the story from St Luke’s Gospel of Jesus in the shared home of these two sisters. Martha bustles about, trying to get dinner on the table. She attends to the physical, material, temporal things of this life, in all of their urgency and importance. Mary, on the other hand, sits at the feet of Jesus and listens. Her focus is on the spiritual and the eternal–the deep yearning for God in the heart of human beings. The difference between them is sharp and clear…and, it would seem, irreconcilable.

The way we read the Mary and Martha story is just one expression of our tendency—our drive—to look upon things physical and things spiritual as two great opposed realities. They stand like paired mountain-peaks: distinct and unbridgeable. We recognize that both are interesting and desirable. We see that both claim our attention and our commitment. And so our lives, it would seem, are lived out in the valley below those peaks. Sometimes we find ourselves climbing the rugged, ever-growing mass of physical stuff and stability: the things that the world around us tells us we need to have to be happy. Sometimes we find ourselves drawn to the airy heights of spiritual practices and spiritual purposes: the things that preachers and gurus tell us we need to do to be holy. But whatever we do, we always find ourselves moving—always vacillating between the two peaks, always pulled between the spiritual and the physical, always without a resting place, always without a lasting home.

Perhaps you expect me now to turn to Scripture to find a way out of this dilemma. But look again to today’s readings. What hope do they bring us as we sit and listen from our dwelling place in that deep valley between materiality and spirituality? The First Epistle of St John thunders down at us from the heights of Mount Spiritual: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” John’s soaring, beautiful words call us to glimpse the spiritual reality of our identity—the fact that we are daughters and sons of God—shining through our physical exteriors. This seems so clearly to settle the question in favor of the spiritual.

But then, from the mighty slopes of Physicality booms the story from St Luke’s Gospel this morning, where all is heavy with materiality. As the disciples cower from what they think is a spirit—a ghost—Jesus gives them abundant physical evidence that he is no specter, no spiritual reality only, but that he is also a risen physical body. “Look at my hands and my feet…touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And as if his appeal to his physical body isn’t enough, Jesus takes things one step further: he asks them for something to eat. The Risen Jesus engages in the basic physical activity necessary to fuel our basic physical bodies. As John makes the powerful case for spirituality, so Luke strikes back hard for the material and the physical. And we are left stuck fast in our valley—pulled between the two great poles of our present reality—unable to rest in our rushing back and forth.

That is, until, we turn again to consider the promise hidden in our Epistle reading this morning. To be sure, John speaks only vaguely of our yet unrealized spiritual nature. But “what we do know is this: when he is revealed we shall be like him, for we will see him as he is.” When Jesus is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

Inclined though we may be to read John as the high-minded spokesman for all things spiritual, we must pay careful attention to what he says here. For in this moment, John pushes all of our hope, all of our yearning, all of our anxiety, all of our fretting, all of our vacillating between the spiritual and the physical onto Jesus. And what do we find in his presence? What can we see by the light of his glory and grace?

In the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, we see a God who is Spirit, and who must be worshiped in spirit and truth, taking on our human flesh in all its physical frailty and material need. In the ministry of Jesus the Messiah, we see feeble, fainting, fallen human bodies become the canvases on which are displayed the spiritual power and purposes of God. In the death of Jesus the Savior, we see a human body and a human soul bearing the fullness of human pain both physical and spiritual–and we simultaneously see the divine Son of God reconciling in his own sacrificial flesh this physical creation with the spiritual justice of its Great Creator.

And in the Resurrection of Jesus our Lord, we see at last the hand of God undoing the false dichotomy and the fake distinction between body and soul—between the material and the spiritual—between God and humankind. For to look upon the Risen Jesus is to see God’s purpose for human beings finally restored. To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see the realization of God’s intention when he first formed us in his own image: when he shaped Adam out of the dust of the earth—out of the stuff of Creation, out of the heavy, messy, physical material of this world—and breathed into human nostrils the breath of the Holy Spirit. To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see that, at last, there is no great war, no dividing line, no irreconcilable division between the spiritual and the material: for God has taken our physical nature to himself. And in the Resurrection he has not discarded it, but he has rather redeemed and sanctified it.

To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see, beloved, that there is no “Mount Spiritual” and “Mount Physical”, distinct and incompatible. There is, at last, only “the mountain of the Lord’s house”, “beautiful and lofty over all the earth, the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of our great King.”

This reconciling promise is made manifest to us in the gift of sacraments in the life of Christ’s Church. For in this holy place–this physical building consecrated by the prayers of the saints and the presence of God–material things become for us the means of spiritual life. Unremarkable words spoken from this pulpit become, by God’s grace, the Word of life and salvation. Ordinary water poured into that font washes our souls from sin and ushers us into new birth. Plain bread and wine taken, and broken and eaten at that altar in remembrance of Christ’s life, and death, and resurrection become for us the Body and Blood of Our Lord—the Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation. All of these gifts and more have been entrusted to the Church—a flawed and fallen human institution nevertheless filled with the indwelling Spirit of God.

And this reconciliation of physical and spiritual—this sanctification of material things for the good of both bodies and souls—does not stop at the doors of this building. It flows from here with the force of a mighty river with Good News for all people, and indeed all creation. For as the Risen Jesus commissioned his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, so too he commissions us today: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Christ’s Name to all nations.” To be reconciled is to become a reconciler. To learn in the sacraments that God has overcome the false division between the physical and the spiritual is to become a teacher of that extraordinary truth. It is to become a messenger of the Good News that these bodies and this world matter in God’s sight. It is to remember that the whole of God’s good creation rejoices at this announcement.

It is to embrace the promise we have heard this morning. “When he is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Come and see him as he is–as he reveals himself–in the gift of the sacrament upon this altar. Come and be made like him through his transforming presence in this place. Come and be filled with the risen life of Christ the Lord. And then go forth to announce to all nations–to all creation–the power of his resurrection. AMEN.

Jesus is the Answer

A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 18, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Questions. Our readings this morning are filled with questions. We began with Paul asking the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Do you not know that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? Do you not know that you are not your own?” Then in our Gospel, we heard Nathanael ask Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” just before he asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” And after earnest Nathanael makes his remarkable confession of faith, finally we heard Jesus himself ask, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?”

Yes, questions abound in our Scripture today. And when it comes to facing an enormous pile of apparently unrelated questions, I must claim one distinct advantage over my esteemed clergy colleagues: I live in the same house as a four-year-old. Any of you who have spent time with a young child will know what I mean. The questions in our home are constant, and run the gamut from the serious and sacred to the surprising and absurd, often all in the same conversation, sometimes in the same breath! My wife and I frequently find ourselves fielding a question as difficult and important as “Mama, where is heaven?” and then as if attempting a reasonably plausible answer to that question weren’t hard enough, it’s often followed close behind by a question as straightforward and mundane as, “Papa, why is ketchup red?”

Four-year-olds have a special gift and calling to explore the world through their questions, and to help their grown-ups see and think a little differently. But that basic human need to question, to wonder, to seek, never really goes away. Adult men and women may not ask every single question that pops into our heads, and that’s probably for the best. And yet, we still have questions—we still yearn to know.

And so it is that our readings today confront us with some of the most important questions in the Christian faith and life. Now it may not seem that way at first. It may seem to you that our readings this morning are nothing more than St Paul ranting about an uncomfortable topic, and Jesus showing off to Nathanael with a little parlor trick. But let us attend more closely to the questions we hear this morning. Let us listen for the answers that break forth from God’s Word.

It’s Paul’s rhetorical questions in First Corinthians that grab our attention first, not because he seems to be discussing anything profound or spiritual, but because he talks about sex. Nothing like the phrase “Shun fornication!” ringing out through the church to make us sit up and listen. And yet Paul’s intention in this passage was not to shock and startle the good Christian folk of Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina one January morning in 2015. (Or at least, that was not his only intention.) Rather, Paul writes so boldly and bluntly to the Corinthians in order to address a larger question of enormous importance: What part do our bodies play in our spiritual lives?

That’s a more difficult question than it may seem at first. You see,  there were some in Corinth who reasoned that, because God had released and renewed them spiritually, it didn’t matter what they did physically. They took the freedom that Christ had won for them as an opportunity for license, arguing that “All things are lawful for me.” For the Corinthians, this apparently meant approaching meals–even the Eucharist–with a greedy, gluttonous mentality. And it also seems to have resulted in utter lawlessness in sex and sexual relations. “Who cares what I do with my body? All things are lawful for me!”

This tendency to discount or downplay the importance of our physical bodies in our spiritual lives has always been a temptation for Christians. Knowing ourselves to be free from the constraints and demands of the ritual laws of Moses—knowing ourselves free to eat without worrying about kosher laws, free to dress ourselves without worrying about clothing laws, free to pursue our business without worrying about commercial laws, and free to worship without worrying about ceremonial laws—the Church has, in some times and some places, almost forgotten that bodies matter.

The Church, and her members, have almost forgotten that we human beings are incarnate, enfleshed creatures—not simply creatures with bodies, but creatures that are bodies. Neglecting the reality of our physical bodies does not only open us up to all the temptations and tendencies that would dominate and enslave us–the pursuit of wealth, and the pursuit of sex; the tendency to overeat, and the addictive traps of drugs and alcohol. But neglecting the reality of our physical bodies also denies the miracles at the very heart of our faith: the mystery of the Word made flesh and the wonder of Christ’s bodily resurrection.

So what Paul sets out to do in this morning’s passage laden with sharp rhetorical questions is to remind the Corinthians that not only do their bodies matter: their bodies have been purchased, claimed, and consecrated. To belong to the Church—to be a member of Christ’s body—means that they are now free in new and wonderful ways: free from the sins that enslaved them, free from the hurts that haunted them, free from the fear of death itself. But it also means that they are now bound in new and wonderful ways: bound together in the mystical body of Christ, bound in obedience to their Lord, bound by the knowledge that “you are not your own. For you were bought with a price.” And in that announcement, everything changes.

Now if Paul’s questions to the Corinthians tackle the practical problems of living the life of faith in and with our physical bodies, the questions we find in our Gospel lesson appear to swing us in the opposite direction, entirely into the realm of spiritual ponderings. This morning in John’s Gospel we meet Nathanael, “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” earnestly pursuing what we might call his own spiritual journey.

That’s what the first question in our reading reveals. As amusing and surprising as Nathanael’s query may seem—“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”—he does not mean it as a put-down of Jesus’ hometown. What that question shows us is that Nathanael is a serious student of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that he is eagerly seeking after the Messiah. He knows that no promise of prophecy looks for the anointed Savior of God to rise out of Nazareth. Nevertheless, Nathanael accepts Philip’s invitation to “Come and see.”

Faithfully pursuing his spiritual quest, Nathanael is not prepared for what happens next. For just as Nathanael’s first question about Nazareth is not a put-down but a sign of his earnest journey, so too is Jesus’ reply to the question, “Where did you get to know me?” not a parlor trick, but a moment of revelation. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Jesus says.

And after all of his seeking, all of his asking, all of his yearning to know, Nathanael finds himself known in an instant. When his path of wondering leads him into the presence of Jesus, Nathanael suddenly finds himself not the subject of his own sentences, but the object of another’s pronouncement—not the one doing the seeking, but the one being sought. And in that moment, everything changes.

Beloved, I said at the outset of this sermon that the questions that confront us today are some of the most important in the Christian faith and life. And so it is. For still today, we must ask ourselves about the appropriate use of Christian freedom when it comes to our bodies—in what we do, and in how we live. Still today, God claims us wholly, completely, and in every aspect of our lives. And that claim chafes against our own hungers and lusts—our own drives and desires. Still today, we can find ourselves stuck on a pendulum, swinging between the assertion that bodies don’t matter and we can each do whatever we please, and the belief that what we do with and to our bodies can change our relationship with God.

And still today St Paul calls to us, reminding us that our bodies do matter: not because they can become our pathway to God, but because this flesh has already become God’s pathway to us. For what Paul describes and what Jesus reveals today is not a God who sits distant, bidding us each pursue his own path—each follow her own questions—each seek out the truth that fits for each and each alone.

What we see, instead, in our question-colored passages this morning, is a God who steps down into our wondering. What we find among the queries and the quandaries of our Scripture this day is a God who knows us intimately, who cares for us deeply, and who claims us fully.

For the power in our passages today comes not from the force of the questions nor the eagerness of the askers. The power in our passages comes not from the strength of human seeking nor the certainty of human answers. Rather, the power of our passages this morning comes in the resounding response made by God himself.

When Paul asks his biting, incisive rhetorical questions, he asks them in response to the Corinthians’ human ponderings and expectations. But Paul answers them not according to human thought but in light of what God has done. Because Christ Jesus dwelt among us in human flesh, our human flesh now belongs to God. Because Christ Jesus bore a body like ours, the way we use our body reflects on him. Because Christ Jesus gave his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out, our lowly flesh and blood have become the dwelling place for the Holy Spirit of God.

And when Nathanael poses his earnest, practical question to Jesus, he poses it as if he is asking a remarkable human being. But Jesus answers with the knowing, loving voice of Almighty God. To Nathanael’s straightforward, “I’m sorry, have we met?” comes Christ’s cosmic reply, “Dear child, I know you better than you know yourself. I know your sitting down and your rising up. I discern your thoughts from afar. I know that you are fearfully, wonderfully made, for I made you: I knit you together in your mother’s womb, and I hold all the days of your life in the palm of my hand.”

For Jesus is the end and answer of all our questions, because in him, the God whom we seek comes seeking us. Jesus is the answer, and we may say this not with the glib certainty of the fundamentalist nor with the cold caveats of the skeptic, but because in Christ Jesus God grasps us. Jesus is the answer, not because in him we have found our own private, personal path to God, but because through him, God has been pleased to draw near to us.

Jesus is the answer because in him, God cuts through all of our questioning, all of our seeking, all of our searching. In Jesus, God pierces through all of our desires, all of our doubts, all of our hungers, and all of our hopes. In Jesus, God claims us, body and soul. God purchases us—all that we are and all that we have—with the priceless currency of his own blood. God calls us, and sends us to invite others, to “Come and see…the One about whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote,” the One who was foretold and who is come at last.

And in Jesus, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves; the God who loves us more than we either desire or deserve; the God who has given himself to be the great answer to all of our questions; the God who uses common water to wash us throughly; the God who makes ordinary bread and wine to nourish our souls: this God promises us that we shall yet see greater things than these.

AMEN.

The Forge and Furnace of Baptism

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.”

AMEN.

Expect the Unexpected

A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 12, 2014

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This Christmas, I was given a copy of The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s masterful history of the causes and early battles of World War I. The story is gripping, especially as we enter the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of that conflict. The events that led to the Great War—the War to End All Wars, as it was falsely dubbed—unfold with all the inevitability and all the hubris of a Greek tragedy. Ancient grudges and contemporary tussles; national pride and personal ambition; long-held beliefs and newly developed technologies all coalesced into a perfect storm of violence and destruction.

And yet what I find most striking in Tuchman’s riveting account is the power that expectations and cherished certainties held over the minds and lives of all the kings, presidents, parliaments, generals, and ordinary soldiers who went to war in 1914. Each side expected a quick victory. Each side expected their plans to produce steady progress. Each side was certain that the war was worth fighting; that they would achieve their aims; and that the good of humankind would be advanced by the contest of arms.

Those certainties and expectations died in the trenches of the Western Front, along with a generation of Europe’s youth. But they did not die quickly, and the persistence of those expectations and the unwillingness to abandon those certainties ensured that the war would extract the ultimate cost, claim the largest number of lives, and lay the foundation for another, even greater conflict just two decades later.

That sense of the power of our expectations was with me as I read the Scripture lessons for our worship this morning. The two stories we have heard today are, in fact, stories about what happens when human expectations and cherished certainties collide with the power and purposes of God. The people who went out to be baptized by John in the River Jordan were waiting expectantly for the Messiah. The excitement surrounding John the Baptist’s ministry was one of preparation. The baptism with which he baptized was a baptism of repentance, a baptism that got people ready for something even greater that was about to happen.

The Messiah was coming. Everyone knew what that meant. Everyone knew that the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one for whom the whole nation looked eagerly, would be a mighty warrior-king who would purify and restore God’s chosen people, and then lead them in triumphant battle against the occupying Roman legions. John himself made it quite clear that he was not the Messiah. But he also knew that his task was to prepare the way for God’s anointed. And so John, like the other faithful Jews of his time, watched and waited with expectation for the one who would come to renew Israel—the one who would come to transfigure and transform a broken people.

Matthew, whose account of the scene we have just heard, does not tell us how John knew that Jesus was the one for whom they had been waiting. He just knows. Immediately, John recognizes Jesus for who and what he is: the Messiah, the Christ, the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and expectation. And that is why, when Jesus wades out into the muddy water to be baptized, John objects. The Messiah is the one who will do the work of cleansing: he doesn’t need to be cleansed! The Messiah is the one who will lead the people in battle: he doesn’t need to follow John to Jordan’s bank! “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John asks in bewilderment.

The long-held expectations and the cherished certainties of the people of Israel have blinded John to the reality of the Messiah’s ministry and mission. John wanted a warrior-king who would lead the people. What he got, instead, was Jesus, the beloved son, coming down to him in the water to be baptized. John wanted a prophet-priest who would rise above the common crowd and purify the flock of God. What he got, instead, was Jesus, the humble servant, stepping into the lowliness and suffering of humankind. (As one hymn for this day puts it, “The sinless One to Jordan came, and in the river shared our stain.”) John expected a fierce and mighty leader worthy of his own fiery proclamation of repentance. What he got, instead, was the Spirit of God descending, like a dove, on a humble carpenter from Nazareth. John received, not the Messiah everyone hoped for, but the anointed One whose coming and whose purpose was beyond all human hoping or imagining.

It is harder to see the expectations surrounding our reading from the Acts of the Apostles because this passage has been rather unhelpfully lifted from its context. (For that, you can blame the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary.) To understand how radical, how earth-shattering Peter’s simple sermon is, we need to know a little about the early Church, and the ministry to which Peter was called.

Though he was a devoted follower of Jesus, Peter was also a loyal son of Israel. He was proud of his Jewish heritage, and Peter would have considered Jesus to be the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed Savior of the Jewish people—and of them only. That was the default position of the early Church. Jesus was Jewish, the disciples were Jewish, and their earliest converts were all Jewish. They saw nothing inconsistent about professing faith in Jesus as the Messiah and continuing as devoted Jews. Indeed, they believed that through their life and fellowship the restoration of their beloved Jewish nation had already begun. The early chapters of Acts make clear that the first Christians continued to worship in the Temple at Jerusalem, to keep the Jewish feasts, and to obey the Law of Moses. And as they did all this, they proclaimed to their Jewish brothers and sisters that the long-awaited Messiah had come in a way that no one expected, and that through him God was doing something new and wonderful for his chosen people.

Imagine, then, Peter’s surprise and astonishment at what happened one day just before lunch. Peter was praying up on the top of the house where he was staying. The midday meal was being prepared, and he was hungry. While he was praying, he fell into a trance. And Peter received an astonishing vision. He saw an enormous sheet lowered out of the sky. Within its four corners were all manner of unclean animals: reptiles, birds of prey, and other creatures. A voice from heaven commanded, “Rise, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter was aghast. As a faithful Jew, he would never dream of eating anything unclean—anything forbidden by the Law of Moses. But the voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call common.” Three times this vision was repeated. Three times Peter was enjoined not to call common or unclean that which God has cleansed.

And just as he puzzled over what this vision could mean, three men arrived from the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. The men invited Peter to join them, to share his Gospel message in the home of their Gentile master. And Peter realized that the vision commanding him to eat unclean animals was in fact a revelation urging him to carry the Gospel to people whom he, as a Jew, considered unclean. The Holy Spirit was answering the Church’s first difficult question, telling the early leaders that Yes, the News about Jesus is News for the Gentiles as well as the Jews: Yes, the word of Christ’s triumph matters for all nations as well as the chosen nation: Yes, the Messiah of the people of Israel is also Lord of all the peoples of the earth.

And so Peter went with the men to Cornelius’s house, and announced those expectation-overturning, certainty-abolishing words we have heard this morning: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Beloved, perhaps by this point some of you are asking yourselves, “So what? What does it matter if God works contrary to our expectations? What difference does it make if God overwhelms our certainties?” It matters because, if we are honest, we will recognize that we today are not so different from the ancient people of Israel or the early followers of Jesus. Like national leaders at the time of World War I, so often we march into the battles of this life or the trials and tribulations of our walk of faith full of misguided expectations and false certainties. So often we fail to grapple with the fact of our fallenness, the dread of our mortality, or the depth of this world’s pain. So often we look for the world to make sense in a way that we can grasp. So often we want God to behave as we would behave, were we omnipotent: to bless the good people, to punish the bad people, and to shield the innocent from harm. So often we project our expectations—and our certainties about who is good and who is bad—onto God…no matter how many times the reality we experience throws those expectations back in our faces.

For the hard truth is that we live in a world where bad things happen to good people. We live in a world riven and ripped by the horrors of war and the banalities of Sin. We live in a world where many, many people lead lives of quiet desperation: praying and not receiving, hoping and not realizing, striving and failing.

And if we let go of our expectations and certainties—our desires and demands for God to act in the way we want, in a way that makes sense to us—what are we left with?

Beloved, consider that the Jewish people in Jesus’ day would have been content only to have their nationhood restored and their sovereignty renewed. But God’s everlasting purpose was that the whole creation should be restored, and his own sovereignty proclaimed and renewed in realms once held captive by Death. Consider that the Church in Peter’s time would have been content only to preach to fellow Israelites in their backwater corner of the Roman Empire. But God’s everlasting purpose was that the whole earth should ring with the preaching of the apostles, and that all the nations of the world should stream to the brightness of Christ’s shining light.

For when we turn away from our own expectations, our own vain efforts to codify and control the purposes of God—when the world tears away from us our certainties and our cherished notions—all that we are left with is God’s self-declaration: the light of God’s self-revelation in the face of Jesus our Lord.

Abandoning our expectations means not trying to read in every challenge we face or in every blessing we receive the marks of God’s opprobrium or approbation. It means, instead, seeking out and following the marks, the footprints, of Jesus of Nazareth who has walked the path of this life before us. Abandoning our expectations means not trying to interpret our fortunes and our futures in the stars, but looking instead to the one bright, shining light that led the Wise Men to kneel at the edge of a cradle. Abandoning our certainties means not raging and railing against what we imagine to be a cruel and capricious God who makes us suffer. It means, instead, lifting up our eyes to behold Jesus hanging on the Cross of Calvary, and seeing there the assurance, the unshakeable promise, that God is with us in our sorrows and in our darkest hours. Turning our gaze away from what this world would teach—from the certainty our minds crave and would invent—means, at last, stepping into the unfathomable brightness of God’s resurrection light, and glimpsing the fullness of what Christ has accomplished for us.

Beloved, may we with joy and gladness yield up our expectations and give over our certainties. May we sacrifice our demands for comprehensibility and surrender our desire for security. May we come to expect the unexpected, and to follow not the promptings of our fickle hearts, but to hold always to the promises of our faithful God. And may we, at last, join our voices with John the Baptist, and St Peter, and all faithful people in every age, in the great hymn echoing before the throne of the One whose goodness surpasses what we can grasp, and whose love endures forever: “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.”

AMEN.