The Baptism of Our Lord

by Fr. Blake

The following sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on Sunday January 11, 2015, at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence RI.  This was the first Sunday after the Epiphany, and the propers were for the Baptism of Our Lord.  Music for the Ordinary was the Communion Service in G minor by Searle Wright, and the offertory anthem was Lauridsen’s setting of O nata lux.

Collect: Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan didst proclaim him thy beloved Son and anoint him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Many of you may know an old story people sometimes tell about religion.  It goes something like this:

Four blind men are in a room with an elephant, but they don’t know it’s an elephant.  Their task is to figure out what it is.  One catches hold of the trunk, and tells the others it must be a snake.  Another one has the leg, and says no it can’t be a snake, it’s a tree.  The third has the ear, and declares it must be some kind of great winged bird.  The fourth has the tail, and says the others are all wrong because clearly it’s just a bit of string.

The point of the story is usually to say that this is what the world’s various religions are about: that God is the elephant, and that each religion, like each blind man, has just a piece of the truth, and together they’ll come up with something like the whole picture.  It’s a useful story as far as it goes, and helps us to see that even radically different interpretations of the same thing have some value.  It also warns us against thinking we can figure out the whole story on our own.

But the trouble is, the way this story is usually told conveniently forgets that elephants can speak for themselves.  The moment it blows its trumpet, the game is up: the joke is on the blind men, and they know the elephant for what it is.

In the same way, our religion is a revealed religion.  We believe that God can speak for himself, and has told us who he is.  There are several ways God does this, and our Eucharistic Prayer B makes a convenient list.  First God speaks in creation, communicating a desire that there should be something rather than nothing, and that the something should be full of light and growth and order and fruitfulness.  Second, God speaks in human persons, in calling a people to be his own.  He speaks in the prophets, whom he calls to bring his people close to himself, in an ever-closer bond of intimacy and love.  Finally, though, God speaks chiefly of all by his Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, his Incarnate Son, dwelling among us to reveal his glory.  Today we celebrate his baptism at the Jordan by John the Baptist.

Through the centuries, Christians have found a number of meaningful ways to reflect on this event.  It is in marks the beginning of Our Lord’s earthly ministry, the beginning of three years of teaching and healing which will culminate in his crucifixion and resurrection.  It is also the moment when God himself enters the waters, just as Noah had ridden out the flood, and as Moses had led the people of Israel across the Red Sea on dry ground.  By this sign, Jesus recalls the old covenants and looks forward to their fulfillment.  Third, in this event  Jesus is commissioned for his work by the voice of God, and anointed by the Holy Spirit to be the prophet promised of old.  Finally Jesus’ baptism is viewed by the Church as one of only a very few moments in all of Scripture when the whole Trinity is revealed: Jesus the Incarnate Son, named by the voice of the Father in heaven, while the Spirit as a dove descends to rest upon him.

All of these images and avenues are compounded together in the Church’s prayer, and our experience of this feast is always one in which we are caught up afresh in all its interweaving patterns of grace.  Because to be honest, there is really a lot going on here, a lot being spoken; and as we all know, for better or for worse, language shapes us very deeply.

This summer, a five-year old boy was quoted in an English book review saying, “Words are food we eat with our eyes.”  It’s a brilliant insight, and may as well be extended to include eating with our ears too, and feeding one another with our pens and our mouths, and with our actions too, which we say speak louder than words, and they do.

The world is not a silent room with a mystery object in the center inviting our inquiry.  It is full of speech, full of ongoing dialogue which feeds, nourishes, and in a very real sense creates us.  What kinds of words do we consume? What kinds of words do we speak?  Internet, music, billboards, films, novels, television, radios, magazines; flyers, newspapers, videos, campaigns, education, commercials; every kind of media imaginable is constantly feeding us words, sounds, images.  Every one of them, with every action we undertake, every relationship we cultivate; all of it is some kind of language which we speak, hear, learn, and inwardly digest.

What kind of people do we become, nourished by the language we consume?  It depends on what we eat.  But somehow, all together and inexorably, all these many and various languages articulate who we are in relation to everyone and everything else: in our cities, our vocations, our families, even within our selves.

We are surrounded by language which builds up, tears down, distracts, enriches, beautifies, or terrifies.  And in every case, whether good or bad, the language we hear and the language we speak makes some kind of claim about the nature of the world and our place in it.

In the middle of this maelstrom of language and meaning, the baptism of our Lord takes on added significance.  Here is a new kind of speech (actually an old kind of speech, the oldest there is, and yet always the freshest): the speech of God, within the Trinity, pouring out into the world.  Today the Son stands in the water of creation; He is given for the world by the Father, as the Spirit descends upon him.  Everything falls silent before the Christ as he comes up out of the water.  The voice from heaven speaks, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

As we ourselves are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his own relationship with the Father and the Spirit.  In Christ, we too become the people God speaks into the world, along with the prophets, the people of Israel, the whole Church around the world and across the ages, and all creation.

At the baptism of Christ, God himself speaks.  Our ears are opened, and we are blind no longer.  We are not in a silent room, grasping into the dark.  We see that the question is not figuring out what it is that’s out there, but rather how to join that ongoing, eternal dialogue of love from which springs the world, ourselves, and all that is.

In the baptism of Christ, we see the answer: being baptized ourselves, we become Our Lord’s brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God.  As such, our life consists at its deepest level in continuing the speech of God: receiving its nourishment, communicating its strength and vitality, dwelling ever more richly in the eternal eternal dialogue of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If this seems a hard task, it’s no wonder: it is difficult to learn a new vocabulary, difficult to learn eloquence in a new language.  It requires courage to speak where we may not be understood.  And yet this is both our task and our eternal life.  Thanks be to God he continues to feed us with the riches of his Word, with the vitality of his own Body and Blood.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.