The Rev'd Matthew Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sunday after the Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord
January 7, 2018
So I am afraid I’m going to preach two sermons. And I know that sounds bad, but I actually wrote three, so consider yourself lucky. Two sermons kind of works, given precisely where we are in the church calendar. Yesterday was Epiphany. In Epiphany we commemorate the moment when the Three Wise Men brought to baby Jesus the three worst baby shower gifts in all of human history. I mean, I have been to baby showers and I have seen some do-sies, but these really take the cake.
“Oh, thank you, Gaspar, our little baby Yeshua is gonna love this … frankincense! What a thoughtful gift. Look, honey, did you see what Gaspar brought? Frankincense. Yeah, I know. Well, you are just so thoughtful—infants love incense! It should really freshen up the barn we are currently living in. Although Joseph and I had made the decision already not to let babies play with fire.”
“Wow, Melchior, what a clever idea—to give an infant myrrh! That’s perfect: just born and already ready for his funeral. Just put it right over there, yeah, next to the gold and frankincense.”
Of course, this was not really a baby shower. And the gifts don’t point us to Christ’s birth but to his life and death. That’s why the called the Epiphany, because it points to Christ’s glory bursting forth. They point to his status as king, as priest, and as sacrifice. They point to God’s gift in Christ being given freely to the entire world, without distinction or preference. A child born to save, born to rule, born to die.
Now for sermon number two. And really it builds off the first sermon. Today is the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, the first Sunday after Epiphany. And the time God makes his glory known at Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan. Gospel tradition points to this as the critical moment in which Jesus’s ministry really gets going. He seems to realize something that awakes him to a new view of himself and his calling.
Nowadays baptisms usually happen either on the Easter Vigil, Pentecost, All Saints, or—today—the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. There are different and good reasons for a baptism on all of those days, but doing a baptism on this Feast is especially helpful for us to think about.
When we are baptized into the body of Christ, several life changing things happen. We make a covenant. We promise to serve and worship God, to resist evil, to proclaim the good news, to seek Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice. We receive the Holy Spirit, which empowers us to keep our promises.
We also get to claim as our own the very same words that Jesus hears from God in heaven. “You are my beloved son, in you am I well pleased.” Incorporated into Christ’s body, we hear for ourselves God say to us, “You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son, and in you am I well pleased.” In a way that we would never be able otherwise, those words become true for us and in us.
Martin Luther used to say (and I realize I have shared this before, but just think of me as a grandparent saying the same favorite stories over and over again), “Remember your baptism!” Now he was not speaking as a visiting preacher at a Baptist church or Church of Christ congregation, where everyone was baptized as an adult and actually had any cognitive memory of their baptism whatsoever. They had NO memory of their baptism.
So how do you remember your baptism? What does that mean? It doesn’t mean remember the physical, embodied moment in which you were baptized in water. It means remember who your baptism says you are.
I want you to imagine God, who made all things, who holds all things together by his mighty power, sits with you, looks directly into your eyes, and says, “I am proud of you. I see you for all that you are, for all that you have, for all that you’ve done, and for all that you ever will do. I’m so glad you’re my child. And I am proud of you.”
You know, as far as I can tell, I don’t know that you can ever get much past that. No matter what happens with you relationships, your work; no matter how many mistakes you’ve made, how much you done that you aren’t proud of, how much you wish you could change.
No matter how many books you write, how many deals you close, how many things you have, how much influence you exert, I don’t know that you can improve too much, when it is all said and done, on the very idea that there is a God and in baptism you get to know that God is proud of you.
God says in baptism. God repeats it every time we come to the altar. God never changes God’s mind. “You—you!—are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son, and in you am I well pleased!”
In some ways, we are all looking for the blessing. As a parent, I want to give my kids the blessing. And the way I do that is, every night as I tuck them into bed, I look them in the eyes, and with all the earnestness and sincerity I can muster, I say their full name and I remind them, “You are my beloved daughter, beloved son, and in you I am well-pleased.” It is the blessing God the Father gave to Jesus Christ, and it is the blessing that God gives to each baptized Christian.
Jesus’s baptism also marked the beginning of his ministry. And our baptism is also an ordination of sorts. We make vows to serve God and God’s world with love and justice. Do you know what happens after Jesus’s baptism? It’s the verses immediately after our gospel reading. The Holy Spirit chunked (it’s the same word used elsewhere to describe casting out a demon) Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Our vocation as baptized Christians won’t be easy either. As we seek to establish God’s justice and peace on earth, we will battle the demons of hatred, racism, sexism, ignorance, oppression, all of which seem to gathering more steam every time we open our newspapers. But Jesus has been out there before, with the wild beasts. The angels were there, too, ministering to him. And we won’t be alone either, as we go to the wilderness to fight for God’s righteousness.
So I wonder what would happen if we all started remembering our baptism. Maybe if the words, “You are my beloved child, and in you am I well pleased,” took hold, we would find the self-love to love God for God’s sake and love our neighbor as ourselves. Maybe then the glory of the Lord would shine forth. Maybe God’s justice would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Maybe then we would see Epiphany.