A sermon preached at St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY March 2, 2014
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
The season after Epiphany has been very long this year. Because Easter falls almost as late as it possibly can, Lent begins later, so we have eight Sundays this year that follow the ministry and teaching of Jesus, before we get to Lent, and today is the last of them. Lent comes from the time in the early church when the catechumens, that is, the people who were preparing to be baptized, had their final instruction and preparation. If you read the writings of Christians from the second and third centuries, baptism was the most precious and important thing—the joy of baptism overcomes all else, because in baptism we are joined with Christ in the resurrection. That’s why baptism primarily takes place at Easter. So Lent is above all about baptism. Today is the pivot point when we move from this season of becoming immersed in the teaching and ministry of Jesus, the radical blessings and challenges of the Sermon on the Mount: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you;” “beware of practicing your piety before others;” to the season of our Lenten preparation for baptism and Easter.
The Gospel lesson today is no accident. Like Moses, Jesus goes up to the mountain, and after 6 days, he is in the presence of God in a cloud. He is transfigured; he shines with the presence of God. It’s the same Jesus, but different, more…like in the Resurrection! And that Voice, it says something, “This is my son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”
Where have we heard that before? In this same Gospel, Matthew seems to be repeating himself. The same words came from the cloud when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. At this point, in the presence of Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah the prophet and the Apostles Peter, James and John, Jesus baptism and resurrection are joined. And from that point forward in the Gospel Jesus is moving inexorably to Jerusalem, as we move through Lent toward the same thing—the Holy Week of the triumphal entrance to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the institution of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday, Jesus’ death on the cross on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Most of us were baptized a long time ago, but that does not make our baptism a thing of the past. In baptism we are joined with Christ in his life, his death and his resurrection. And being baptized does not mean that we won’t profit from preparing ourselves for baptism—not again, for we are baptized once and are joined in Christ’s body—but to understand and accept the joy of baptism, in which death is defeated and we are set on the way of life.
On the mountain, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here…” “Let me put up tents here for you and Moses and Elijah.” It was good. Peter wanted to just dwell there, in the joy of the resurrection. But the voice came out of the cloud: “… with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” In the immediate previous story in the Gospel, Peter argued with Jesus, saying NO when Jesus said that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the religious authorities. So listen, Peter—this is not just about tents and renaissance fairs—you and Jesus are going to Jerusalem. The road to baptism and resurrection is the road of real life with all the difficulty and uncertainty that real life brings.
When we talk about the joy of baptism, we are not talking about something superficial or pretend; not good feelings for the sake of feeling good. We are talking about the defeat of death through living life. We learn from the life of Jesus: hopeful, courageous, comforting, healing. In him we see that hope is not wishful thinking, but engagement with life’s difficulties with the knowledge that, in the end, God’s love triumphs. As we look forward to the way of Lent, look forward to your own baptism, which we re-affirm every Easter. Learn to live in that hope, which we learn walking with Jesus.