Last week, January 3rd was the first Sunday in 2021 and it was Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany is when Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. There are three examples of the revelation of Jesus – the coming of the Maji, the changing of water into wine at the wedding of Canna and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The Church has celebrated these three Gospel stories as the world began to be aware of the coming of the Light of the world. Since the days of the ancient church, January 6th has always been the celebration of the Aha moment that we recognize who Jesus is – the revealed Son of God. Jesus is the light and truth that penetrates the darkness of evil. Light can overcome the darkness.
January 6, 2021 is now a very dark time in the history of the United States. All of us have seen the pictures and videos of the storming of the Capital building and the ransacking of the many legislative offices. We have heard voices of celebrations and voices of disgust. Five people died during the rampage. Our nation is split into several factions – all of which tend to demonize the other. Until we can have civil dialogue with each other and listen to and have respect for each other in the process, the divide will continue. Jesus’ message to all of us is to love the Lord God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Neighbor is the person who voted for Trump and neighbor is the person who voted for Biden. Neighbor is the person who did not vote. We have all heard Gandhi’s quote: I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians who are so unlike your Christ. Ponder where you are in all of this! And, quite frankly, it truly does begin with each of us.
As your pastor for over a decade, we have read and talked about much of the Bible. We especially remember the repeated stories of Israel relationship with God. During the good times, Israel began to rely less upon God’s Word and more on their own thoughts and directions. Gradually Israel declined in obedience to God and the kingdoms were overrun by the adversaries. Then the Jews anguished at what they had lost (read Lamentations) as their country diminished. After a dark time of decades to centuries, the Jews began to repent, and trust God and the country grew out of the dark time. Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it. Keep praying that our country will regain its moral compass and focus on God’s spoken Word to us.
From the waters of Creation, the earth sprang forth. From the waters of a womb, God’s blessed Son was given to us. From the waters of a river, people were baptized and marked as God’s Children. Praise be to God, whose loving gifts and presence have called us together. Let us shout our love to God for God’s abundant love.
A Reading from Scripture Mark 1:4-11 NIV
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Today is 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. Jesus seems to realize something that awakes him to a new view of himself and his calling. It’s a new beginning!
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. This so important NOW as we struggle with what is going on in our society and what role we have. Can we keep our promises made by our parents or ourselves at our baptism?
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 to, those words become true for us and in us.
Shortly (during the in-person worship) I will ask you to remember your baptism and be thankful. Then I will sprinkle some water over you as a sign of your baptism. So, how do you remember your baptism? Most of us were baptized as an infant and have no memory of it. We must ask what does that mean? It does not mean to remember the physical, embodied moment in which you were baptized in water. It means remember who your baptism says you are. Almost all of us were baptized as an infant.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, reminds the church that we baptize infants as a reminder to all of us about God’s unconditional love for us – which is called grace. God’s prevenient grace – that is – the grace that goes before us – before we come to acceptance of Jesus as Savior and Lord —- God loved us even before we were conceived in the womb. So, we baptize infants — we remind ourselves and the parents as we touch water to the vulnerable head of the infant about the unconditional divine love that God has for the child. We also remind the parents and the congregation that it is through the “Body of Christ”, that is the church, that protection and help in rearing the child – is available. Even if the child is screaming or sleeping during baptism — we are saying publicly —- “welcome to the world little one. You are here as part of our family — you are not alone. Then the parents, sponsors and pastors lay hands on the child (or the person being baptized) with the words: “May the Holy Spirit work within you, that by being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.”
I would like 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 have done, and for all that you ever will do. I am so glad you are my child. And I am proud of you.”
I do not think that you can ever get much past that. No matter what happens with your relationships with others, your work; no matter how many mistakes you have made, or how much you done that you are not proud of, or how much you wish you could change. No matter how many things you have or how much influence you exert, I do not know that you can improve too much. When it is all said and done, 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 and take the Eucharist. God never changes God’s mind. “You—you! —are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son, and in you am I well pleased!”
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 is the verses in Mark immediately after our Gospel reading. The Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. For forty days he was being 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 be gathering more steam every time we open our newspapers or open social media apps. But Jesus has been out there before, with the wild beasts. The angels were there, too, ministering to him. And we will not 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.