by Sharon Marr
(Based on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)
After being daunted seeing there were over a million sermons and commentaries on the wonderful www to peruse this story of John’s baptism, I reached gratefully to the Journey with Jesus website and brother Chris Ison’s writings for encouragement, and Sister Joan who says simply, “It’s all about love”.
On this first Sunday after the Epiphany (the revelation of the Christ child to the ‘wise men from the east’), we find ourselves at the edge of the River Jordan with Jesus and his cousin, John. It wasn’t that long ago we as a church family gathered at the edge of our river for the baptism of Archer, Lincoln and Kiki, just “the other day” for many of us. It is a day we will remember, misty rain, dripping umbrellas, when Sister Joan reminded the three, their baptism joined them to Christ and to his whole Church, in every part of the world, in the past and in the future, on earth and in heaven. She continued saying, “Even before today, God began his work in you, but it will take the whole of your life to complete that work, with God’s help. There will be moments when the journey ahead is a delight and there will be times when it is hard, but you will never be alone.”
Can you too remember the joy, tinged with excitement, as they joined into the family of Christ?
Today we hear of Jesus being baptized by a reluctant John. [“I am not worthy to untie your sandals.”] But Jesus insists, receives John’s baptism of repentance, and experiences a moment of divine revelation as he comes up out of the water and “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ ”
The word “epiphany” comes from Greek, meaning “appearing” or “revealing”. However, not all baptism immersions bring about such divine revelations. At a wedding, a couple of years ago now, our then four year old granddaughter accidentally ended up in the frog pond in her new frock and shoes, but rather than becoming a revealing moment, it became a story which she firmly said, “we had no need to discuss any further”. So we won’t. At least, not with her present.
But discuss the baptism of Jesus, the early church certainly did; in fact, the story is found in all four Gospels. And the church, we see, continued discussing and exploring this extraordinary event throughout the New Testament. And we still do today.
During this brief liturgical season between Christmas and Lent, we’re invited to leave miraculous births and angel choirs behind, and seek the love, majesty, and power of God in seemingly mundane things. Rivers. Voices. Doves. Clouds. Holy hands covering ours, lowering us into the water of repentance and new life.
In the Gospel stories we read during this season, God parts the curtain for brief, shimmering moments, allowing us to look beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces of our lives, and catch glimpses of the extraordinary. Which is perhaps another way of describing the sacrament of baptism – one of the thin places where the ‘extraordinary’ of God’s grace blesses the ‘ordinary’ water we are baptized with.
In receiving baptism, Jesus doesn’t set himself apart from us; he aligns himself with us. Now that is a truly breathtaking statement. Jesus identifies himself with all of humanity. Baptism in Luke’s Gospel story is about solidarity. About joining.
According to Christian historian John Dominic Crossan, Jesus’s baptism story was an “acute embarrassment” for the early Church, precisely because of this joining in. Why would God’s Messiah place himself under the tutelage of a rabble-rouser like John the Baptist? Why would God’s incarnate Son receive a baptism of repentance? Repentance for what? Wasn’t he perfect? Why on earth would he wade into the murky waters of the Jordan, aligning himself with the great unwashed who teemed into the wilderness, reeking of sin? Worse, why did God the Father choose that sordid moment to part the clouds and call his Son beloved? A moment well before all the miracles, the healings, the exorcisms, the resurrections? A moment long before Jesus accomplished a thing worth praising?
Why, indeed? And yet this is the baffling, humbling, awe-inspiring story we’ve inherited as Christ’s followers. Unbelievable though it may seem, Jesus’s first public act was an act of joining into his humanity in the fullest, most embodied way. “Let it be so,” he told John, echoing the radical consent of his mother, Mary, who raised him in the faith. Let it be so at the hands of another, he decided, as he submitted to John the Baptiser, because what Jesus did and still does with power is freely surrender it, share it, give it away. Let it be so here, he said, in the Jordan River, rich with sacred history. In other words, in this one moment, in this one act, Jesus joined into the whole story of God’s work on earth, and allowed that story to resonate, deepen, and find completion.
So. What part of this story is hardest for you to take in? That God appears by means so unimpressive, so familiar, we often miss him? That Jesus enters joyfully into the full messiness of the human family? That our baptisms bind us to all of humanity — not in theory, but in the flesh — such that you and I are kin, responsible for each other in ways we fail too often to honour? That as Christians we are called into radical solidarity, not radical separateness? That we are always and already God’s Beloved — not because we’ve done anything to earn it, but because God’s very nature, inclination and desire is to love?
To embrace Christ’s baptism story is to embrace the core truth that we are united, interdependent, connected, one. It is to sit with the staggering reality that we are deeply, deeply loved. Can we bear to embrace these mind-bending truths without flinching away in self-consciousness, cynicism, suspicion or shame?
Baptism is all about joining in, all about surrender, all about finding the holy in the course of our ordinary, mundane lives within the family of God. Which means we must choose Epiphany. Choose it, and then practise it. The challenge is always before all of us to look again. Look harder. See freshly. Stand in the place that looks utterly ordinary, and regardless of how afraid or jaded you feel, to cling to the possibility of a surprise that is God. Listen to the ordinary, and know that it is infused with divine mystery. Epiphany is deep water — you can’t dip your toes in. You must take a deep breath and plunge, so hold onto Jesus. He’s the one who opens the barrier, and shows us the God we long for. He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that will tell us who we are and whose we are in this sacred season. There will be moments when the journey ahead is a delight and there will be times when it is hard, but we will never be alone.
Listen. We are God’s chosen. God’s children. God’s own.
In these very uncertain times we are in, even in the deepest, darkest water, perhaps even a frog pond, let us remember we are the Beloved.