The Baptism of the Lord

by Fr. Blake

This was my last sermon at St. Michael & St. George in St. Louis, before moving to Berkeley, California, to take up the post of Priest-in-Charge at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was the first Sunday after the Epiphany, always the Baptism of the Lord, and despite my best intentions I couldn’t help trying to collect a large number of themes into one sermon. Whether or not it was successful the congregation is better equipped than I to say, but here it is regardless.

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 Holy 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:

Well here we are, it’s January 7. The drummers drumming have packed up their kit. The lords a leaping, ladies dancing, and maids a milking have all had their fun; and the Three Wise Men have come and gone. Christmastide is over, and we begin this new season of the Church’s year with the same sudden shift as we begin it every year: Jesus no longer a baby but suddenly thirty years old, presenting himself to John the Baptist to be baptized and begin his ministry. Why is this the way it begins? Why does Jesus, without sin, get baptized?

It’s the question I find myself asking, though I think it reveals a weakness in me, and probably in western Christianity — “If he’s without sin, why does Jesus need to get baptized? Jesus is without sin; no, he doesn’t need to get baptized. Why do we place the burden of proof on God? Better to ask ourselves, “Why do we assume things happen only because they need to?” Why do we assume religion is about meeting needs in the first place — or for that matter that God is in the business of creating needs, only for him miraculously to fulfill?

No, need has nothing to do with it for Jesus, and it has nothing to do with it for us either. Religion is not about fixing our problems, spiritual or otherwise. Jesus goes to John to get baptized in order to begin his ministry on earth; and by stepping into the water, he is saying something very important about what his ministry is going to be, and what it will entail. It’s not about getting “the sin problem” fixed, it is about making a statement: why God created life in the first place, and what it is intended to be.

Jesus enters the water, and when he comes up the heavens break open, but first he enters the water. When God shows up in our lives, it’s usually when we’re in over our heads and we don’t quite know it. When I was a grad student living in London many years ago, that winter was bleak and dark, and I was feeling the weather in more ways than one. That Easter, unlooked for and inexplicably, somehow Jesus’ resurrection felt like it was mine too, and not just his; I had come out of the tomb and the world was fresh.

Water means a lot in the Bible and in the ancient world, it’s never just background information. Remember Genesis 1, which we just heard read: “In the beginning the earth was formless and void, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep.” Water, the primeval element of chaos and disorder, over which the Voice first speaks, the first light of creation shines; water the source of Noah’s flood; the Red Sea through which Israel escapes Pharaoh; the Jordan which they cross to enter the promised land; water the moment of trial and the occasion of faith.

Jesus enters the water for his baptism, and enters all these moments simultaneously. Jesus enters the water for his baptism, and makes the domain of chaos and disorder the dwelling place of God. Jesus enters the water for his baptism, and defeats all the old powers, overthrows all the old fears, binds up all the old demons, sheds light on all the old darkness. And he does so as a human person like you and me. Wherever you and I find those darknesses in our hearts or our world, Jesus’ baptism puts him right there too, right there beside us.

This changes everything about the way we regard Jesus’ baptism, and our own, and for that matter the whole project of religion in our life and our world. It’s not about fixing anything, but about pointing to the single stupendous miracle that God is here with us making all things new: not in quiet and in peace, though they are his fruits; but in the work halls and the prisons and the sex trade, in depression and disability and disappointment; in disease and death, robbing them of their power and endowing their victims with his own eternal life and light.

I’m sure I’ve told you one of my favorite stories, about St. Seraphim of Sarov, a hermit who lived deep in the forest. One day a fierce bear set upon him, to eat him for lunch. But Seraphim spoke kindly to the bear, and invited him to his home instead. They became friends and were often seen walking and talking together in the woods. The story isn’t meant as a ridiculous break from reality, but as a lesson — that with God, dark and dangerous places are the first beachheads of grace, signposts of restored communion in the kingdom of God.

Yes, Jesus’ baptism offers a new vision for us and for the world. He comes up from the water and the heavens are opened. A voice proclaims, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” and a dove rests upon him. The vision is of a kind of world where this kind of thing happens, where our eyes are changed and we can see truly. Jesus will go to the cross to make the message complete, and rise from the grave to make the victory sure. Those who dare to follow, must dare to continue the work.

Because the work certainly goes on. Our part is to bear witness to the new life we have begun to see, to the possibility of new life in places we had thought dead or at least impossibly mundane. As Jesus entered the water, as he went to the cross and entered the tomb, so we go about our daily business: brushing teeth, driving cars, visiting mom, throwing a party, going to work — all the while aware that these are the moments God is breaking in creating new possibilities, new life beyond the immutable laws of Mondays, taxes, and parking tickets.

Why do you need any of this in your life? You don’t! It’s completely gratuitous. There is no reason that you or me or anyone needs this stuff in order to survive. But the vision Jesus offers is about so much more than what’s merely necessary. The vision is about putting us in touch with what’s truest and most lasting about the world and about God. The vision Jesus offers is of people healed by his touch, sins forgiven by his word, human life made holy just by his presence, and all creation brought to its completion by his sacrifice.

I remember a widow in Denver, whose husband of 70 years I buried. She didn’t come to church for a long time after the funeral, understandably so: it was something they’d done together for the better part of a century. Then, on Christmas Eve, I saw her at the rail and gave her communion for the first time in months. Afterwards she said to me, “You know, I didn’t come to church for so long because I thought I’d miss him here the most. But it’s strange, now I feel closer to him than I have in a long time.”

So what have I been driving at? At his baptism, Jesus enters the water of the Jordan, enters all the griefs and dark places of the world and of our hearts, and by his presence blesses it — water now the sign of forgiveness of sins and eternal life in him forever. By his presence Jesus turns the floods of death into the river of the heavenly city of God. You and I are charged to do likewise: wherever there is darkness to bless, not to curse, to enter and befriend it, because there we will find Jesus gone on ahead.

There’s a wonderful old story, maybe you’ve heard it: when Noah sends out the dove after the floods have destroyed the earth, it returns with an olive branch and then it doesn’t return at all. Where does it go, where is the solid perch it found to live? The story goes, it reappears today, here, at the Jordan River, making its home as it rests on Jesus. Whatever floods we’ve faced, whatever woes we may know, let you and I, with Noah’s dove, rest on Jesus in the midst of the water, and bear witness always to his eternal life.

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