A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts,
on 12 January 2020 [The Baptism of Jesus]:
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Christmas In Action
Twice in the past week I have mentioned to you how fast the gospel narrative moves, when it comes to that period of history between Jesus’ birth (Christmas) and his emergence into recorded public history. With the exception of the story of twelve year old Jesus giving his parents the slip in Jerusalem (which only Luke mentions), the record of history as it applies to Jesus actually only begins with what we have heard in today’s gospel. Up until this point in time, Jesus is an anonymous entity. Historically, we don’t know anything about him, until he comes to John the Baptist for baptism.
What was Jesus doing in the first three decades of his life? Enquiring minds want to know. What was his home life like? What about his brothers and sisters? (He had siblings!) What happened to Joseph, the man who faithfully and humbly adopted this first-born? How did Mary get on as a widow, for during this uncharted period of time, clearly Joseph has died. Was Jesus a good carpenter? What kind of date did he have for the prom?
The point is that when Jesus comes to John for the baptism that the baptizer was offering, all kinds of questions erupted: Everything from what would be a growing curiosity over “Who is this guy?” to John’s more penetrating question: “Why are you doing this? We should reverse roles.”
What was going on in John the Baptist’s mind, as he saw Jesus wade into the murky waters of the Jordan River? Moreover, why did he hesitate to baptize Jesus? What was underneath his heartfelt confession and piercing question: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
With just a bit of detective work, it is not hard to gain a sense of what John the Baptist was saying to Jesus, as both men were hip-deep in the waters, facing one another. And it all hinges on the fact that John was offering a baptism of repentance. His singular drawing card came under the proclamation: “Repent! for the kingdom of God is at hand.” And now, can you imagine what was on John’s mind and how deeply perplexed he was?
What did Jesus need to “repent”? Why was our Lord entering the waters of cleansing, forgiveness, and renewal, if he as Messiah and God’s Son, would rather die than break relationship with the Father? If, as the Christian faith holds (and using St. Paul’s words): “For our sake [the Father] made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God.” — why did Jesus engage in this baptism of repentance? What’s this about? If he had nothing to repent (that is, if Jesus’s thinking and orientation were already fully God-centered), then what are we to make of his baptism? The answer I want to convey is this: The baptism of Jesus is Christmas in action. And having said this, I know I have some explaining to do.
One way of beginning to unpack this baptism as “Christmas in action” is to refer (once again) to what our baptisms are about; and to do this I want you to do something daring: I want you to open the Prayer Book! (Be careful now! There’s a whole new world in there!) Nonetheless, if you dare, please turn to page 312, a place of great mystery and wonder, a fact that is conveyed by the small, italicized print that even clergy fear to view and most people choose to ignore!
The page’s heading reveals where we are: “Additional Directions”; and it is the first paragraph of these “rubrics” ( a fancy word for “stage directions”) that informs us that Baptism is most appropriately held at four liturgical times each year. (Oh, really now?) Those times are at the Easter Vigil, Pentecost, All Saints, and at the Baptism of our Lord. You will also note that there is a constant theme in this offered cycle for baptism, and that is all these threshold events: Easter; Pentecost; All Saints; The Baptism of our Lord are anchored in Jesus and what he manifests: namely, Resurrection: Life beyond fear and death; the gift of the Holy Spirit: That we are given the love the Father shares with the Son and the Son with the Father – true Communion; the legacy and growing purpose of being God’s saints, reflections of the God-life; and then today.
In a nutshell, Holy Baptism is about being grafted into the life of Jesus Christ, who is the Epiphany, the manifestation of what the God-life is all about, and as such he is our model in receiving this life. So, given all this, why did Jesus submit to John’s baptism of repentance? Why did the Sinless One do this? Answer: Christmas.
Yes, I am not yet done with Christmas; nor should any of us be done yet with Christmas because God’s own life, God’s own self, in history, in fully human form is given to reveal and share what life is like when God is at the center. Which is to say that Jesus’ baptism is “Christmas in action”. Jesus’ baptism by John demonstrates – may I use the term once more? – it is an Epiphany, a manifestation of the reality of Incarnation, which is what Christmas is all about.
“The Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among, full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his face …”
Today, in the waters of the River Jordan, we once again encounter Jesus, anchored fully in God’s life, submitting himself totally to living our lives. Jesus, the Incarnate One, gets wet with the same water that you and I must swim in and live in.
Side bar: Don’t romanticize the waters of the Jordan River. They are not mountain streams of crystalline liquid. They are fetid waters that have gone through real life, to the extent that they are dirty, replete with all life’s detritus. These are the waters that the “Sinless One” plunges into. Jesus gets thoroughly wet in the stuff of human life, our life. Incarnation demands this and nothing less. The Incarnation speaks of Jesus as fully God and fully human. Therefore, the waters of Jesus’ baptism mean that he is in this life just as you and I are; and following him leads us to life as God intends it to be. God-in-Christ has chosen this deep dive into human history; and this expression of what is really real will only become apparent at the cross and in the resurrection, where fear and death are overcome.
“Love came down at Christmas” are the lyrics to the Christmas hymn; and in this baptism of repentance, Jesus is all in with us. That’s what Incarnation is all about. God is all in with us so that we might be all in with God.
In Christ, God has given us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves. In our baptisms we are grafted into the life of Christ, which is the reason we are driven to follow him: To discover the liberating truth of who we are and Whose we are.
I will conclude as I began with a question. Is it worth it to you to follow Jesus, if the result is to hear the Father’s voice say to us:
“You are my son; you are my daughter, my beloved, chosen and marked by my love, the delight of my life”? That is what discipleship, following Jesus, and growing into him leads to. Epiphany! Amen.