A sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, First Sunday after Epiphany
January 10, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
A month ago, I preached about John the Baptist, from a text just a few verses earlier in the Gospel of Luke. John preached that people should receive a baptism of repentance. The word that is translated repentance means “turning back.” Turning back to God, turning back to God’s righteousness, turning back to righteous behavior. People asked him questions and he gave simple, direct answers: “What should we do?”—“Share what you have with those who don’t have anything.” When the tax collectors asked that he said, “Just collect what you’re assigned, don’t line your pockets with whatever you can take.” To the occupying soldiers: “Don’t extort, bully, or blackmail people.” In other words, follow the law; do what decent people know they should do; don’t try to get out of your responsibilities or get the advantage of people who are weaker or more vulnerable than you.
Simple. Maybe too simple for some. The problem is—and we all know this—is that people do their best to dodge these simple responsibilities, by making them seem more complex, by creating distractions to get out of things that might be a bit uncomfortable, or a lot uncomfortable. We all do it, at least some of the time.
We have been talking for the last few weeks of Jesus, the Son of God, coming into the world. He was there, with all the other people listening to John the Baptist. And he too came to be baptized. Why? Wasn’t he perfect? Wasn’t he God’s Son? Yes. He was God’s Son come among us, as one of us. A human being from God’s perspective, living as we might, living as we can. As one of us he was baptized to turn us around to God’s righteousness. Turn all of us back, not just those who are courageous enough, or honest enough to follow John the Baptist’s challenge. And this call isn’t only for those who are somehow purer than the rest of us, or have nothing left to lose, so what’s the difference—might as well follow. The Son of God has come to turn us all to God’s righteousness.
But how does he do that? What does that mean?
The voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus is not John the Baptist, he embodies God’s love and mercy. When John talked about the one who was to come, that is, Jesus, he spoke about God’s judgment: “His winnowing fork is in his hand… the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Yet the Spirit descends on Jesus who represents God’s mercy. God’s judgment and God’s mercy might be the same thing. If you look into the eyes of Jesus, who knows you like a wise mother or grandmother would know you, can you really say, “Oh, really it’s someone else’s fault. I’ll use that money that’s reserved for the poor in a much better way than they would. The world will be a better place if I’m a lot more comfortable?” Perhaps you can. But Jesus brings God’s mercy, even to those who have a worm gnawing at their insides because they have lied to the one who loves them most. Jesus, the Son of God, lives among us, as we should live with one another. Willing to turn, and return again to the love of God. He receives the baptism of John in the Jordan River, so that if we turn away from God, and use games or violence or falsehood so that we climb over others or put them down, Jesus is still there with God’s mercy, saying: Turn to God’s righteousness, to God’s love and be saved. God’s mercy is demanding, but not defeating. Jesus came down to the water of that desert river to bring hope for the whole world.
The lectionary leaves out a few verses of this passage of Luke’s gospel. They inform us that Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee had John imprisoned for his preaching. Jesus didn’t come down into that water to make things easy for himself, or for any of us. Jesus went down in the water to bring God’s love to us—particularly in difficult times.
We join Jesus in his baptism, in our baptism we join the Kingdom of God. It’s not a contest, or an achievement. It’s an invitation home. That dove descended from heaven, and landed on Jesus—this is my beloved… the spirit descends on us as well. It is not a matter of signs or display, it is God’s healing love that we are talking about, not some instrument of our own. We—each one of you here—are God’s beloved. He brings forth the fruit, the ripe and nourishing grain, of lives simply lived with him, along the path with Jesus.
From today’s lesson from Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”