Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany January 9, 2005 (The Baptism of Our Lord) Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Ma.

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 89:20-29
Acts 10:34-38
Matthew 3:13-17

The Baptism of Our Lord

As the cycle of the church year turns, we’ve now entered Epiphany, the season when we consider the ways that God reveals God’s self to the world through Jesus’ life and ministry. You can think of Epiphany as the season of full disclosure – divine disclosure. Epiphany begins on January 6 with the three magi following the star to the stable and recognizing the Holy Child, and today, as we do every year on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s one of the few incidents in Jesus’ life that is recorded in all four Gospels, and though each Gospel writer tells the story a little differently, depending on which aspect of its meaning he wants to emphasize, the stories have the same basic shape: Jesus is plunged by John the Baptist into the waters of the Jordan River, and when he emerges from its depths, the heavens are opened, the Spirit of God descends on him as gently as a dove, and a voice says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We come back to this story year after year because the baptism of our Lord is one of the most important of God’s epiphanies. Jesus’ baptism is a decisive moment in his life, a moment from which there is no turning back, a moment that marks the beginning of everything that will follow. In his baptism, Jesus takes up the identity that was given to him since before the beginning of time: he is the child of God, the beloved of God, and nothing and no one can take that love away.

That is what happens in our own baptism, too: we, too, like Jesus, are changed forever: we are claimed as God’s children. We become members of God’s family. From that moment on, for the rest of our lives we are drawn into the life of God, caught up in an unbreakable relationship of love. In baptism we receive our true identity: we are the son, the daughter, the beloved of God with whom God is well pleased. We are joined to Christ forever. The priest places a hand on our head and traces on our forehead the sign of the cross, saying over us those simple but momentous words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” This means that wherever we go, whatever we do, wherever the Spirit sends us, we belong to Christ. We are loved to the core. We have been called deep into the heart of God, where we discover that we have been loved and blessed since the beginning of time.

I think it’s good to begin the New Year with our foundational story, the story that marks where this community, and every Christian community, begins. It’s good to steep ourselves again in our belovedness in Christ, because Heaven knows how often we forget it. It can take a lifetime, and maybe more than a lifetime, to learn how fully we are loved by God. I know that in my mind, as perhaps in yours, too, the voices of guilt and self-doubt, self-rejection and self-criticism, can sometimes loom very large. I remember reading about a psychologist who said that we all walk around listening to two clusters of voices in our heads, the Loud Family and the Wise Family. The Loud Family is – well – loud. It spews out words of judgment and contempt. “You’re no good!” it tells us. “You’ll never be able to do it! You’re lazy! You’re stupid! You’re pathetic!” – that kind of thing, that kind of biting remark. If you start paying attention to what goes through your mind in the course of a day, chances are pretty good that before long you’ll likely become aware of this kind of inner commentary. In my ministry over the years, I’ve come to learn how many people go through the day listening only to shaming inner voices like these.

But thanks be to God, we also carry within us the Wise Family, that cluster of voices that may be speaking much more softly but that always mediates the love of God. These are the voices that speak gently, saying things like, “I’m glad you’re here. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to have needs. It’s OK to have feelings, and it’s OK not to be overwhelmed by your feelings. You don’t have to hurry. You don’t have to do this alone. I love you just the way you are.”

One of the best ways to take hold of our baptism and to experience our belovedness in God is to listen every day to the inner voice of love. This is a Christian practice, both a moment-to-moment discipline and a practice to which we can give our full attention for ten or fifteen minutes every day. Sometimes it’s helpful to choose a word or phrase that conveys God’s love and to repeat it slowly over and over, letting it carve out a space in us so that we are open to receiving God’s love. I can’t think of a better phrase to choose than the opening lines from today’s reading from Isaiah. What would it be like to imagine God saying to you, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights”? Or try out the line from today’s Gospel, “This is my Son – my Daughter – the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” These words are not for Jesus alone; they are for everyone who has been baptized in his name.

Sometimes we may need instead to sit in silence and simply to breathe in the love of God, to imagine it filling us breath by breath, so that pore by pore, cell by cell, we are slowly filled by the love that will never let us go. And if verbal or silent prayer is not enough to restore us to the knowledge of our identity in Christ, we can always turn to bodily prayer. We can take our thumb and trace on our forehead the indelible sign of the cross with which we were sealed in baptism. Baptism is a sign of God’s continuous, unbroken and unbreakable relationship with us, and God’s love for us, God’s covenant with us (“covenant” being a word that shows up three times in our readings this morning, in the Collect, in the psalm [Ps 89:20-29], and in the reading from Isaiah [Is 42:1-9] – that covenant will never be destroyed.

Just as we can never plumb the depths of God’s love, so too there is always more to learn about the power and mystery of our baptism. The unfolding events in Southeast Asia – the tsunami and its aftermath – have made me think again about baptism. When the newspaper printed a picture of the seashore of Banda Aceh strewn with a litter of planks, branches, rubble, and human bodies, I reached out my finger to touch the page. “You are the beloved,” I whispered to each body, touching each one in turn. “You are the beloved. You are the one on whom God’s favor rests.”

Commentators have had a lot to say in recent days about the impassivity and indifference of the natural world, its readiness to sweep us willy-nilly away. Natural disasters like the tsunami certainly purge from us any temptation to romanticize or sentimentalize nature. In the course of its relatively brief existence, our planet has suffered all kinds of disasters – not only earthquakes and tsunamis, but volcanoes, pestilence, ice ages, asteroids, and five mass extinctions. Planets come and go – even galaxies do. We are a fragile species in a fragile world. As Job, for one, discovered in his dialogue with God, human beings are profoundly little in relation to the vast powers that create and destroy. This is all true.

And yet – I can’t explain it – there is a love that lies just under the surface of things, a love that we perceive vividly when it’s released in moments of crisis. It’s as if sometimes the hard stony ground of our hearts breaks open and we suddenly understand that the suffering on the other side of the world is our own suffering, too. This man cradling his dead son is me. This family whose members are being torn from each other in the surging waves is mine. We are interconnected, after all – we are part of one web. It’s a kind of spiritual earthquake, I guess, that breaking open of the rigid conviction that what happens to you has no bearing on me. And what is released in us is not a tsunami of death but a great wave of love. What an extraordinary, even unprecedented outpouring of love is going on right now around the world as human beings reach out to each other to help. At the depth of every major religious tradition – be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or anything else – is an experience of compassion that flows out to everyone, whoever they are.

So that’s one aspect of Jesus’ baptism that I want to lift up this morning: its power to remind us that in Christ, you and I and each singular, marvelous, unrepeatable human being is beloved by God. And let me add something else: baptism puts our death behind us. In baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We have died in Christ; we have died with Christ. Our death has taken place. It’s done. It’s over with. In baptism, we’ve died and been buried with Christ, and through the power of his resurrection, we are raised here and now to live with him. What this means is that that the fear of death that so often overshadows and undergirds our lives can now slip away. The water that we splash on a child at the baptismal font may seem trivial protection from the force of a tsunami’s waves, but it’s a sign to us that we have nothing to fear from the death of the body. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were actually called “those who have no fear of death” [Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 107].

To whatever extent we can take this in and understand that through baptism, our death is behind us, we are set free from anguish and anxiety. We are set free to love without grasping or possessiveness, without anxiety and without holding back. Like Jesus, we are anointed by the Spirit in baptism and empowered by the Spirit to take up God’s reconciling, healing, and liberating mission in the world.

Listen. In a few moments we will have a chance to stand up and renew our baptismal vows. Are you ready to claim your baptism? Are you ready to claim for yourself – and to live out as fully as you can – the fact that, like Jesus, you are the beloved of God? Are you ready to claim the discipline that is necessary to live this out? It’s a new year, and a new life opens ahead of us. As Isaiah puts it, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.” Through baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, you and I can become part of God’s epiphany. We can dare to hope, as Isaiah put it, that, in some small way, as individuals and as a community of faith, the love that moves through us will make us “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison of those who sit in darkness.”

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