Sunday, January 13, 2013

Homily for Epiphany I: Baptism of Christ


Church of the Holy Communion, Charleston, SC--Luke 3:15-16,22-22; Isaiah 42:1-9

As you might imagine, the work I did for 22 years in parish ministry, and now nearly two years in the episcopate, put me regularly in touch with the entire array of human need, from the trivial to the profound. You may not believe this, but, when clergy get together informally, we sometimes try to outdo one another in sharing our favorite Discretionary Fund request stories—those that are true, those that are obvious fabrications, and especially those that are clever fabrications. And as if the human need I and other clergy actually have to face personally weren’t enough, all we have to do is turn on a news station on the radio, and the scale of human need seems incalculable. I sometimes have the sense of the whole world being one big need, one big problem, one big bottomless-pit demand. 

The world is indeed a needy place; human need abounds.  There is hunger, there is pain, there is poverty, there is grief, there is captivity and tyranny, there is addiction, there is loneliness, there is guilt, and as if all this weren't enough, there is death.  So most of us will look for hope, for the plausible possibility of meeting these abundant needs, wherever, and in whomever, we think we might find it. If we're hungry, we hope for the one who will feed us. If we're in pain, we hope for the one who will bring relief. If we're held captive, we hope for the one who will set us free.  If we're poor, we hope for plenty. If we're lonely, we hope for companionship. If we're guilty, we hope for forgiveness, and if we're surrounded by or facing death, we hope for life. 

But very often, we're disappointed in our search for hope. We find someone or something that might meet one of the items on our list of needs, but instead of being grateful, we become angry and resentful that this person or thing can't meet all of our needs. Who and what are these "stopgap saviors" that disappoint us? The list is a long one, and includes spouses, children, this parish—or any parish, a twelve-step program, a therapist—or therapy in general, a form of prayer, a priest, or even a bishop (!), an author, a politician, a career, or a beautiful body. It's kind of silly to be angry with one or more of these for not being able to meet all our needs—it's like being angry with a cat for not being able to bark!—but we do it anyway. 

The people of the Old Covenant, the nation of Israel, were a people of hope. They shared each and every one of these human needs that we've just catalogued, and they hoped for one who would meet those needs. Over the centuries, over times of hunger and captivity and guilt, they were promised, through the words of the prophets, just such a deliverer, just such a hope bringer.  At times, this savior, this object of hope, was characterized as a servant of God who would suffer on behalf of God's people.  Isaiah writes:
            Behold, my servant, in whom my soul delights ... He will
            not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the
            street; a bruised reed he will not break, a dimly-burning
            wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth
            justice.

At other times, the hope-bringer is characterized as a king, as an anointed one, or, in Hebrew, a messiah.  Isaiah also writes:
            The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has
            anointed me to bring good tidings to the poor; he has
            sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty
            to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those
            who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

This suffering servant, this messiah-king, became the figure in whom all the hopes and aspirations of Israel were focused.  The Greek word for messiah is christ, and as Christians, followers of the Christ, we have a conviction about who the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed-one of God, is, namely, Jesus. 

The feast which we keep today, the feast of the Baptism of the Christ, the baptism of Jesus, reveals Jesus as the one promised by Isaiah and the other prophets, the one who embodies and shows forth the hope, not only of the people of Israel, but of "the nations", the goyim, us!, all people, in every place and in every time. In each of the four gospels, the account of this incident marks the beginning of Jesus's public ministry. Before this moment, he was, if you will, a "private citizen", Jesus the carpenter's son.  After this moment, he is very much a public figure: teaching, healing, and planting the seeds of the community that would spring to life following his death, resurrection, and ascension. 

In the eastern church, it is the baptism of Christ, not the coming of the Wise Men, that is the primary symbol of his epiphany, his showing forth, his manifestation, his revelation. More accurately, it's not the actual baptism that is the epiphany, but what immediately followed: the heavens were parted, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the voice of God the Father gave his seal of approval on the whole occasion: "You are my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased." 

In this wonderful moment, all signs point to Jesus. Earlier, John the Baptist had been asked if he were the Messiah, and he quickly set the record straight:  "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."  John points to Jesus and says, "He's the one, the anointed-one of God who will establish justice and righteousness and forgive the sins of those who are penitent."  The voice of God the Father points to Jesus and says, "He's the one, the one in whom I show you myself, the one through whom you can share my very life."  The Holy Spirit not only points to Jesus but almost lands on him and says, "He's the one, the one who will proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to those who are held captive." Jesus is in the center of the picture, pointed out, recognized, designated, revealed ... as the one in whom all the deepest hopes of human beings are gathered, or, in the words of the Bach chorale, "Jesu, joy of man's desiring". 

I hesitate to try and illustrate by contemporary example what was going on at this moment, because anything I can think of seems utterly pale by comparison, but this is such a substantial landmark, such an important element in the pictorial vocabulary of our faith, that I want you to really grasp it.  On a much less cosmic scale, it's like a university athletic director calling a press conference to introduce a new head football or basketball coach, and saying, “This is the one on whom our hopes for a winning season are fastened." 

If we can open our eyes to see this picture of time and space transcended, of heaven and earth momentarily joined, we can face the neediness of the world, the neediness of our own lives, not with panic, not with desperation, not with despair, but with authentic, deep, and abiding hope, because we see the one who alone is worthy of our hope. 

Several years ago—decades, actually—in the realm of pop psychology, there was a technique called the "relaxation response".  It was said that, by assuming the right physical position, and engaging in the right mental exercises, we could make relaxation a learned, conditioned response.  I tried it and it worked—for me, at least—and I still use it from time to time. I would like to think that, as the relaxation response provides a shot of stress relief, the picture of Jesus at his baptism, being pointed to and designated as the focus of our hope, can provide a shot of faith; that to conjure in our mind's eye the picture of Jesus standing waist-deep in the water, with an unkempt John the Baptist looking on, with heavenly light emanating from a hole in the sky, and a dove gently descending toward Jesus, can provide us with the moment-to-moment spiritual lift that we need to walk the road that God puts us on. 

The Lord has shown forth his glory, come let us adore him. 

Amen.

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