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: Messiah

“Christ, when for us you were baptized…”


(“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.”


“Blessed are your eyes, for they see…”

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

 Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

 -Matthew 13:1-17

“Which historical figure would you most like to meet, and why?” I always loved that day in history class when we were asked to answer that question. Language barriers and cultural differences were suspended for the sake of the exercise, and students were encouraged to think long and carefully about their choices. It was always so interesting to hear which figures my classmates settled on. Some went for the obvious and the easy: George Washington, Albert Einstein, perhaps even Elvis Presley. Fine choices all, but rather hastily made. And then there were those who had plainly given careful thought to the question, and had chosen a person in history whose interests they shared or whose passions they sought to emulate: Marie Curie, Frederick Douglass, or maybe Joan of Arc. With every answer, I could imagine a sort of patron standing behind each of my friends, telling me something about their aspirations and values. By the end of the exercise, our class was a constellation glowing with the borrowed light of history’s great and good.

In today’s reading, Jesus plays something of an inverted version of that game with his disciples. He does not ask them what figure they’d most like to meet—Abraham? Moses? Isaiah? Esther? Instead, he tells them that if all the great heroes of their faith were asked the question, “Which person would you most like to meet?” every single one of them would reply in the same way. Who would the great figures of Israel’s past most like to meet? No one more than the Messiah, the Christ—Jesus himself. The One with whom the disciples ate and drank, talked and prayed, traveled and taught: this One was the hope and expectation of untold generations. “Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

And what he earnestly wants the disciples to understand is that this privilege—this amazing opportunity—is not given in recognition of any special virtue or unique righteousness that his disciples possess. Jesus says simply, “To you it has been give to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven.” There is no indication that the disciples had worked to prepare in their hearts good soil for the sower’s seeds. There is certainly no reason to suspect that they were better, or wiser, or holier, or more faithful, or more fervent than all of Israel’s prophets and sages and righteous people of ages past. But in the fullness of time, by the grace of God, the longed-for One had been revealed. This is purest gift. As Jesus says to his friends, “To you it has been given to know…”

Beloved, one of the greatest challenges we face in this season of Lent is receiving that same gift of grace. In this time when so much of our focus is on us and our worthiness—Are we keeping our disciplines? Have we been faithful to our vows? Will we grow in our faith?—we risk forgetting that this season of repentance and preparation is a gift and a work of God’s Holy Spirit. The desire to undertake a Lenten commitment is not a sign of some deep holiness of our own. Much more wonderfully, it is a sign that the Lord is at work in us. The fear that we might not be perfect in performing our disciplines is not a reason to doubt and to worry. Much more powerfully, it is a sign that God is convicting us: turning over the fields of our hearts and revealing the heaviest boulders and the rockiest soil.

Do not let what remains of this season become an occasion for self-righteousness. Do not forget that our hearts so easily grow dull, our ears so hard of hearing, our eyes so tightly shut. The Good News of this holy Lent is that God has come to walk the road with us. The long-awaited One is in our midst. To us it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven. May we pursue that gift of knowledge with thankfulness and humility, following it even to the hill of Calvary. May we go with awe and expectation with the sad women to the quiet tomb. May we hear again the words of the Risen Jesus echoing in our grace-readied hearts:

“Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.”

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.”