The Baptism of our Lord was originally celebrated on the same day as the visit of the Magi and Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana. Gradually these three epiphanies were separated and given their own day. Now, we join our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran church in celebrating this festival on the first Sunday after the Epiphany.
I daresay we all know the story of what happened on this day — Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. It’s a good thing we do, because our gospel reading for today, from the Gospel of Luke, doesn’t tell us any of that. The versions of the story with which we are probably most familiar come from the gospels of Mark and Matthew, where we are told explicitly that John baptized Jesus.
The gospel we read this morning doesn’t actually describe Jesus’ baptism at all. Clearly, for the writer of Luke, the details of Jesus’ actual baptism are not important. What is important is what happened after Jesus was baptized.
“…when Jesus…had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
Four important things going on here. First, Jesus was praying. The first thing Jesus does after he is baptized is pray, and it is during that period of prayer that the Holy Spirit descended and the divine voice blessed Jesus. Prayer continued to be a critical part of Jesus’ life and ministry, which were centered and grounded in prayer.
The heavens open. This could actually have been a terrifying event, since the heavens – the sky – was considered the protective barrier installed during creation to separate the earth from the waters of chaos. The other time this happens is following the crucifixion, at the moment of Jesus’ death. But this time, the heavens open to reveal the Holy Spirit, descending on Jesus in the form of a dove.
The empowerment of the Holy Spirit is a central element in Luke’s story of the ministry of Jesus and of the early church, whose story Luke continues in the book of Acts. It is the Holy Spirit that motivates everything important in early Christianity. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will drive Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Anointed by the Holy Spirit, Jesus will preach good news to the poor and release to the captives, living out the prophecy of Isaiah. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend upon the first Christians as flames of fire. The Holy Spirit will continue to be active in the early church, directing the first disciples from one place to the next, spreading the good news of Christ.
Finally, in that time of prayer following his baptism, Jesus hears the words of his Father, God, proclaiming divine love and pleasure. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. Equipped now with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and the loving affirmation of his God and Father, Jesus is ready to assume his ministry.
This is what we gather here today to celebrate – empowerment and affirmation – that of Jesus, and of us. Marked as Christ’s own and anointed by the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to go out in the dark and broken world, carrying the light of Christ. In fact, we are not merely equipped and empowered, we are compelled to go out into the world, even if we might not want to.
These days, I have to admit, it is tempting to just find some nice warm place and retreat from what is becoming every day a more distressing world. Our environment is drastically changing in frightening ways, social norms seem to be evaporating allowing us to talk to each other in demeaning and insulting language, cultures based on mutual partnerships are falling apart, distrust between peoples is growing.
We may think our situation is uniquely challenging and frightening, but it isn’t. Our OT reading from Isaiah speaks into just such a climate. The people of Israel, God’s chosen people, had been exiled – taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Their social norms and cultural partnerships were destroyed and they found themselves removed from all they knew and considered important. And even worse, this has been interpreted as God’s punishment for the people’s sinfulness – their greed and lack of concern for others.
But all was not lost. In the passage we read this morning, God’s prophet, Isaiah, proclaims God’s new beginning for his people. “Do not fear”, God says, “for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.” I am not done with you, God says. Your punishment is over and you will be returned to your land, protected through whatever hardship you will face.
God is not done with us, either. This is the good news of this day – called by name, precious in God’s sight, beloved of God, we continue to be called to proclaim God’s loving purpose for creation and all its inhabitants. We continue to be God’s hands and feet and voice, speaking out against injustice toward the marginalized of our culture and working to create a more just and fair society. It will not be easy – there will be hardships – fires and floods, disagreements among friends, resistance from those in power. But no matter what happens, God will be with us. God promised the children of Israel that they would be accompanied by God through all their hardships – God promised Jesus in his baptism that divine love would surround him – and God has promised us that divine and eternal love and guidance, as well. In baptism – at the Table when we take into ourselves the Body and Blood of God’s son – we are promised the power of the Holy Spirit, a power that working in and through us can accomplish more than we could ever imagine.
We connect to that power through prayer, just as Jesus did. Gathering together here, we offer our prayers for ourselves and for all those in need. Opening our hearts and minds to hear God’s word in prayer, we find ourselves more open to each other and to the world around us. That openness is critical as we continue the work of calling a new rector for our parish. Today we have our chance to express what we believe to be important for St. George’s future as we gather to respond to the questions from the Office of Transition Ministry. Please do participate.
This is a challenging time for St. George’s – a lot is changing and the future isn’t as clear as we might like. But let us never forget that we are God’s beloved children, called and empowered to reflect the light of Christ into this community and world. God has chosen us, and will never let us go. God has blessed us in the past and continues to walk and work with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Trusting that presence and power, let us open our eyes and hearts to see with confidence and joy what God has in store for us now.