Todays readings for: The Baptism of Our Lord and 1st Sunday After Epiphany - Year A 2017 Isaiah 42:1-9 Psalm 29 Acts 10:34-43 Matthew 3:13-17
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton
Today we are celebrating the first Sunday after the Epiphany, ‘The Baptism of our Lord’. We are more familiar perhaps with the idea of baptism than we are with the idea of Epiphany. We get the word epiphany from the Greek and it means the manifestation or revelation of God to man- that is why we have the festival of the Epiphany when the wise men come to find the baby because it is a revealing- God is shown to the gentile wise men and hence to the nations, a term so often used in Isaiah for the rest of the world, other than the Jews. We have then expanded the meaning of the word epiphany to include any moment of understanding or revelation so that people speak often of having an epiphany, but it no longer implies the revelation of God in particular. Though, perhaps the fact that God is the light that reveals all makes every epiphany part of God’s sphere. My question is, in what sense is the Baptism of Jesus an Epiphany? And indeed, why should Jesus have been baptized?
Baptism was not a traditional Jewish rite of passage the way it is for us as Christians. Washing in the Jewish code was important- it was both symbolic and practical and that idea is incorporated into the whole larger symbol of baptism. There was a baptism of proselytes –people who wanted to become Jews. And there were other cults and religions that required a symbolic bath but John’s “Baptism of Repentance” is different to anything else, so this is a new practice that Jesus is affirming in his request for John’s baptism. Jesus doesn’t need to repent, we believe that he was sinless, at least according to St Paul, but perhaps for Jesus is was symbolic of a beginning, a fresh start to his ministry. John seems to have taken his ideas from the OT prophets, and Jesus says he is greater than all of them, but still that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And it is through this initiatory rite of baptism that people come into the kingdom of heaven. But why should Jesus have participated in it? John himself seems to be rather doubtful of its propriety or necessity and yet Jesus seems to think that in this new rite he will fulfill all righteousness, whatever that means. Matthew is very concerned with righteousness in his Gospel, which seems to be about acting with justice, doing the right thing. So Jesus chooses to be baptized, and two things happen as a result.
The first is the epiphany- God reveals God’s self. Just as Jesus, who has not yet commenced his ministry of teaching and healing, comes up from the water, the heavens are opened and the Spirit of God comes like a dove and alights on him and a voice speaks from heaven to make a public proclamation, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased”. So God, is revealed, and not only is God revealed, simultaneously is revealed the Trinitarian nature of God. God is the creator or Father, God is the redeemer or Son and God is the comforter or Holy Spirit, all there together. This is the institution of the practice of baptizing in the name of the Trinity for a new kind of agreement or covenant.
Through baptism we are drawn into a new kind of relationship with God- we belong to God. I believe that the symbol of baptism replaces the symbol of circumcision as the marker for God’s people. And already we have a more inclusive rite, don’t we? In the old rite of circumcision women had no part and were considered to be part of the covenant because of their function of bringing males to birth, who would then be circumcised, which is one of the reasons why it was so terrible to be a barren woman. But that’s not all- we are not just included in this business of baptism, we are beloved, as well. It is a rite of the promise of love. “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” is a quotation from Isaiah 42, which we read this morning combined with a passage from Ps 2. In the servant song of Isaiah 42 it is referring primarily to the servant, but then it expands the picture to all of us. This covenant of baptism is a general one, so the “belovedness” is both quite specific to the one being baptized, at this moment Jesus in particular, and then to each of us in a general sense- we are adopted into God’s family and each one of us becomes the beloved child.
And because we are God’s children we are included in this new covenant God is making. Vs 6, “I am The Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness”. So we ARE the covenant, the agreement with others, with everyone from everywhere. We are the promise that God is giving to the world. Isn’t that a sobering thought? Me, imperfect as I am even after the rite of baptism, am being given by God to everyone to open their blind eyes and bring them out of darkness. God’s great gift to us is that we become his children, but it brings with it the responsibility of acting for and like our Heavenly Father. Do you notice that this again is inclusive not exclusive- no longer is this promise just for Israel (in fact it never was, but that’s how they chose to interpret it), no longer does their circumcision separate them from others- no, this new covenant is for everybody, and we are to be the instruments of bringing light to those in darkness, of bringing the captives out of prison. God’s people become the light that enables people to see God’s kingdom, which is a kingdom characterised by love. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone knew, not only that they personally were loved by God but that their enemies, too, were loved by God. Our greatest problem, in world terms is that we think God hates our enemies as much as we do.
This all sounds a bit overwhelming when you look at the big picture, but when you take it one encounter at a time, one life at a time, it becomes easier to see how we might fulfil the promise of God’s covenant in the lives of others. As an example let us see how it is being worked out in Acts. In Acts, chapter 9, we have the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. He encountered the living Christ, that he had been persecuting through the persecution of Christians all around the place. Paul, as he becomes, is blinded in the experience and then through the auspices of Ananias regains his sight. Paul, is going to become the great apostle, or sent one, to the Gentile world, but in order to do this great work he needs the support of the leaders in Jerusalem. Meantime Peter is in Joppa, working miraculous healings and preaching, while in Caesarea a Roman centurion named Cornelius, a gentile of course, is praying to God. God tells him to send for Peter. Peter is at his midday prayers. He is hungry and God sends him a vision, in which he sees all kinds of food that the Jews were forbidden to eat and God tells him to kill and eat. Peter protests that he is a good Jew and cannot break his exclusive laws, but God tells him, “(w)hat God has made clean you must not call profane”. Peter is puzzled and while he is struggling with it he is called to come to the men that are searching for him, on behalf of Cornelius. Peter, when confronted by the gentile Cornelius, suddenly realises the meaning of his vision. He sees that instead of excluding Cornelius from God’s message he is to be the instrument of including him. So he tells them the story of Jesus, just as we read it today. Peter has been an obedient part of that new covenant relationship, he is the covenant for Cornelius and his household. And that is what we are called to do, put aside our prejudices, our fears, and what we believe to be “right”- like the fact that Peter would never eat anything unclean, and become the light that reveals God to others. We are called to be epiphanies for other people. And what was the result? Well, we didn’t finish the story in the reading so let me read it to you.
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.”
So God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, cemented the covenant with these Gentile people, all of them together. Peter was God’s covenant for them, Peter shone the light that revealed God, and they were brought into the light, the light of the Kingdom. Peter chose to act in love, in obedience to God’s asking, and stepped out in faith to do something he wasn’t very comfortable with. Peter tells the story of Jesus and because he stepped out in faith the Holy Spirit can be received by these people and they are able to become the beloved children of God.
The end of the story was that when Paul appealed to Peter for his support, in his mission to the Gentiles, Peter had to give it and that led to the conversion of the known world, and ultimately, of course to us in the antipodes.
So let me ask all of us the question- are we doing our part in the covenant that was made in our baptism? Are we being a light for those who are currently in the dark? Are we, beloved children of God, conscious of what that means, both for ourselves and for others? Our Lord says to you, “I am The Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness”.