The First Sunday after Epiphany,
The Baptism of Our Lord, Year C
In the name of God. Amen.
In our staff meeting last week, we began our work, like we always do, with a short Bible study of the Gospel lesson for today, followed by a short time of prayer. I said in the Bible study portion, only half jokingly, that I found myself almost salivating over the prospect of preaching today. Most Sundays, it’s almost all I can do to keep from preaching about baptism. So much of who we claim to be and who we try to be as Christians in the Episcopal Church can be summarized in the words of that liturgy. If a preacher were of a mind, it would be very easy to relate almost every Sunday’s sermon to the Baptismal Covenant.
That would probably become a bit stale for everyone, so for the sake of all of us, I usually try to hold back. It’ll slip through now and then, but usually…
But today, on the other hand… Today I can let lose!
But in all seriousness, we often get lost in our thinking about baptism. With the sweet innocence of little babies, and with glowing parents and grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and with the excitement of the crowds that tend to accompany it all - with all of that we can sometimes miss the point.
Baptism is one of the two, so-called “great sacraments” - along with the Holy Eucharist. They are the two sacraments that bookend the formal ministry during the life of Jesus. His ministry began by joining the crowds of people and participating in their ritual of cleansing, but then making it his own - a baptism less about washing away impurity and more about taking on the blessings of God.
And his ministry ended with the Eucharist - the Great Thanksgiving. In it, he and his friends joined in the solemn ritual of the people, celebrating and giving thanks for their freedom, but even in that, he made it his own - a meal less about remembering God’s deeds of the past, but more about celebrating God’s deeds among us even now.
In both of these great sacraments, Jesus met the people where they were, but then pushed them farther.
This is the real heritage of our faith: that we keep pushing the limits of all that we find, until it leads to something more - something deeper and truer.
Frankly, it can be pretty tough. Have you ever been in that position? When you’ve passed the goal, but still have to keep pushing?
Parents talk about that sort of thing all the time. Like, when you’re just trying to get through the “terrible twos”, only to realize there’s more work in the years to come… Or, when you’ve been pushing through for so long to get them off to college, but you remember that even then they still need a parent, just in new ways.
And it’s true in most of our relationships with each other. It’s been said that real love is defined less by passion or affection, or even proximity, and more by determination - the decision to keep loving, every day - even when it seems most foreign to try.
It’s that same way in our relationship with God and with our experiences of faith. The call is intense. It’s hard. At times it may even seem impossible. But even so, it is our calling to push through the challenges until we find something more - something deeper and truer.
While Christianity takes a great deal of tenacity, tenacity alone will never be enough. As was true for Jesus, community and prayer must undergird us. We hear in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism that he falls in line with the people to receive the baptism of John. Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the act of baptism, other than it happened. The real power of the moment, however, came afterwards - when Jesus was praying. It was then that the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended, and the voice from heaven came proclaiming, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It’s the same way with us. Most of us, if we were baptized as infants, wouldn’t remember the actual event. The ritual and the liturgy are significant, because they put us on this road. They bring us into this community where we covenant to live our lives in such a way that the community and the prayer will undergird us. But the ritual and the liturgy, alone, are not the whole story.
The real focus of baptism isn’t the water, or the celebration, or the sweet babies - it’s about everything that follows. It’s about being God’s people.
For Jesus, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and a voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
For us, we hear the words of Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you… When you walk through fire you will not be burned… Because you are precious in my sight… And I love you.”
That’s what it means to be God’s people. It’s not about the moment, no matter how powerful the moment may be. It’s about the sustenance.
God promises to sustain us. When we feel vulnerable, we will never be alone. When we feel in danger, we are protected; because we are precious in the sight of God, and we are loved.
There are certainly times in all of our lives when we feel a little removed from that promise of sustenance. There are times when God’s love and protection feels out of reach. Those are the times when we most need to return to the fruits of our baptism - to this community and to nurturing our relationships with God through prayer.
When Jesus opened himself through prayer, God’s presence was made known. And when we open ourselves with prayer, God’s presence is made known again. God is always there beside us, and always giving us that sustenance, but we have to listen.
In the season of epiphanies, take some time to listen. Listen for those epiphanies of Christ. Listen for God’s ongoing sustenance. Listen for the fruits of baptism.
We can do anything with God’s help. And that help is as close as your next breath. Amen.