Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sermon for Epiphany I

Trinity, Jacksonville--Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9

Well . . . Christmas really is over, isn't it?  Some poinsettias linger here and there, just because they're still so pretty—the tradition is actually to leave some out until Candlemas on February 2—and a festival frontal still decorates the altar. But most of the Christmas decorations are put away, most significantly, perhaps, the crèche. Jesus is apparently no longer lying in an animal feeding trough set in a hillside cave outside a tiny village in an obscure province of the Roman Empire. Between Epiphany and the Sunday after—a mere 48 hours this year—we make a quantum leap in remembered time, a leap of about thirty years, from Jesus the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, to Jesus the grown-up, ready to embark on, as it were, his “career.”

The object of our attention in the liturgy for the First Sunday after the Epiphany is the Baptism of our Lord, in the Jordan River, by none other than John the Baptist. We celebrate this event because the Church has always seen in it an Epiphany, a manifestation, a showing-forth of Christ, that is more arresting, and more indicative of his humility, than even the circumstances surrounding his birth. After 30-odd years of obscurity in the Galilean village of Nazareth, Jesus goes public. He makes his way down to the Jordan River, where that crazy man named John has been attracting hordes of people by telling them to wade out into the water, take a plunge, and come up confessing their sins. None of the external circumstances of Jesus' life can explain why he did what he did.  It was something internal.  Something was drawing—or driving—Jesus to that river.  He was responding to a call. 

There are many reasons why it may have seemed inappropriate to Jesus for him to go and be baptized. And they all make a certain amount of sense, to me, at least. From the very first time I heard this story as a child, I scratched my head, and wondered why in the world Jesus, of all people, would need to be baptized.  It would not have bothered me for this passage of scripture to just disappear; I would not have missed it. 

First of all, Jesus is greater than John. John was the one whose sole purpose in life was to announce Jesus' coming —“prepare the way of the Lord”, and all that. If any baptizing was going to be done, it should have been Jesus baptizing John, not the other way around. Second, with Jesus on the scene, they should all have said goodbye to the Jordan, because baptism with river water is only a warm-up act for the kind of baptism Jesus came to bring—baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Third, even though Jesus truly did share our humanity, there is one aspect of that humanity that he did not participate in, and that is sin.  Jesus was sinless, which means that he was perfectly attuned to God's will at all times. Why should the sinless one undergo a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? 

These are some pretty strong reasons why Jesus might have thought twice about going ahead with his plan. Indeed, John himself was reluctant to perform the act: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” he said. Apparently, the early Christian community, including the author of this gospel, was also a bit perplexed, if not embarrassed, about the whole thing. Matthew's account makes a point of telling us that Jesus got right up out of the water after being baptized, rather than staying to confess his sins, as would normally have been the case. But Jesus insists. He's thought it through, and he knows his mind. He's going to be baptized. He tells John, in the words of the Revised English Bible translation“Let it be so for the present; it is right for us to do all that God requires.”

All that God requires. 

Well, sure, we knew that much. Who else would have been calling Jesus away from his carpenter shop in Nazareth to get baptized in the Jordan River? But we still want to know why! Why does God require it?  The selection from the prophet Isaiah that is appointed to be read along with Matthew's account of Jesus' baptism offers us a clue:

The Lord says, “Here is my servant...whom I strengthen, the one I have chosen, with whom I am pleased. I have filled him with my spirit, and he will bring justice to every nation. He will not shout or raise his voice or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed or put out a flickering lamp. He will bring lasting justice to all. He will not lose hope or courage; he will establish justice on the earth. Distant lands eagerly await his teaching.

Here is my servant. 

This passage is known among biblical scholars as one of the “servant songs” in the Book of Isaiah. Jesus, from the time of his youth, would have been well familiar with it. And in it lies the key to understanding the mysterious event that we remember today. In the act of accepting baptism from John, Jesus was accepting the role of a servant of the Lord.

The Prayer Book collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas, of which there isn’t one this year, asks that we may “share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” If we are going to share, to participate, in Jesus' life, part of the deal is that where he goes, we follow. 
So if Jesus accepted a servant vocation, a vocation of humility, when he was baptized by John, then the path that lies ahead of us is the same one, the path of being servants to our God and Father. We might be tempted, of course, to say, “That's beneath my dignity. Someone else should be serving me.” Jesus could have said the same thing, and insisted the he take the position of prominence and visibility as the baptizer.  But he didn't. 

We might be tempted to say, “Phooey on being a servant of God. I know a better way to improve the world.” Jesus, you know, could have said the same thing.  He, after all, came to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Nevertheless, into the water he went. 

And we might be tempted to say, “I would be wasted as a servant. I would be more valuable as one of God's executives.”  Jesus, of course, could easily have said the same thing. He, after all, was the sinless one, and not only that, but was himself God from God, light from light, true God from true God, of one being with the Father. But that isn't what he said. 

The purpose of Jesus' servanthood, understood in the light of Isaiah's prophecy, was to bring God's “justice” to the earth. The English word “justice” is really much too narrow in meaning for the Hebrew word that it translates. Mishpat implies much more than mere fairness, or equality, or the righting of wrongs. It implies God's universal and benevolent rule, the right ordering of all relationships. “Governance” might be a more accurate, though somewhat more obscure, translation. 

The role of Jesus the servant, the baptized humble servant of the Lord, was to bring the world under God's governance. Our servanthood, as participators in the divine life of Christ, is to be an extension into space and time of Jesus' servanthood. The servanthood of the church is to proclaim—in what we say, in what we do, and, most importantly, in who we are—to proclaim good news to those who desperately need good news; to turn on a light for those sitting in darkness; to open the doors that imprison people in sin, sickness, and addiction; to give hope to those who know nothing but despair. 

If the baptized Christ is a living reality for us, and if we're connected to his body, the Church, then we are indeed in possession of good news.  And if we are in possession of good news, then our servant vocation is to make it known to others by any means possible, to extend God's justice, God's governance, wherever we go, to be living epiphanies, living manifestations, of Jesus, the baptized Christ. Amen.

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