Sermon for Epiphany I

 Emmanuel, Champaign--Mark 1:7-11, Isaiah 42:1-9                                                                                             

Today we keep the feast of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus comes down to the Judean desert, along with hundreds of others, to hear an eccentric preacher named John, and to step into the muddy waters of the Jordan River and be baptized. He wouldn’t have stood out from the crowd. Jesus wasn’t famous yet. He was just an unknown carpenter from an obscure Galilean village. Yet, as we know, by virtue of his identity and by virtue of his destiny, Jesus was not just like all the others who came for baptism. He should have stood out from the crowd.

Even the most skeptical of biblical scholars, even those of no personal faith, whose interest in the New Testament is purely academic, those for whom the crucifixion has no meaning, and the resurrection has no reality—even these skeptics do not doubt the historicity of today’s gospel account. Whoever Jesus was, he did get baptized. The early church was embarrassed by this event because it implied that Jesus was subservient to John, that he had a need to repent of his sins, which is what everybody else who got baptized was doing.

What was embarrassing to the early church is more likely to make us just say, “So what?”  But this is something worth taking a closer look at. There is a larger context into which we must put our understanding of the baptism of Christ. Jesus’ baptism was a critical turning point. Before he went into the Jordan, Jesus was a private citizen who minded his own business. After the event, he was a charismatic public figure whose fame spread rapidly and who eventually became so popular that the civil and religious establishment considered him a dire threat and had him killed. Before the baptism—no preaching or teaching, no disciples, no healing, no miracles. After the baptism—he wears himself out talking to crowds, he attracts a loyal band of followers, and he is constantly healing and casting out demons. From a purely biographical perspective, the baptism of Jesus looms pretty large.

There’s also the larger context of our prayer and worship as his latter-day disciples. We are about to bring down the curtain on that part of our annual cycle in which we anticipate and celebrate the coming of the Messiah, the incarnation of the eternal Word of God. The feast of our Lord’s baptism brings Advent and Christmas to a head, and reveals, as it were, a “mature” savior—one who can actually do something for us, one who can actually be effective on our behalf. It’s nice to sing carols about our “newborn King” and our “infant redeemer,” but before he could become really either a redeemer or a king, Jesus had to grow up. In the Eastern Church, a wet Jesus standing in the Jordan River is the primary image of Epiphany, and rightly so.

A few weeks from now, we will begin that part of our yearly cycle in which we anticipate and celebrate the Paschal Mystery—Christ our Paschal Lamb, the one who is both priest and victim on Calvary, in whose death and resurrection we participate as we renew our baptismal vows and celebrate this very Mass. Our celebration of the Lord’s baptism today helps prepare us for that very important work. We see that the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in his baptism is a model for the inauguration of our ministry in our baptism. When we are baptized, we are baptized into nothing less than the life, death, resurrection, and ministry of Jesus. In the incarnation, God shares our human life. In baptism, we share God’s divine life.

This is a simple declaration, but it has profound and far-reaching consequences. It affects our basic understanding of what the Church is, and what our place in the Church is. Jesus’ experience becomes a model for ours. At his baptism, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry. He’s now a man with a mission. In effect, Jesus takes his “mission statement” from the prophet Isaiah:

I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. …he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth… I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

And our mission, the mission each of us received on the day of our baptism, is not really anything less. If we need to flesh out the details, we need look no further than our Baptismal Covenant, which we are about to renew together. In it, we promise to remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles, the community of the Church, the Holy Eucharist, and to a life of prayer. We also promise to work for justice, freedom, and peace; to seek and serve Christ in every person; and to respect the dignity of every human being. That’s our mission; that’s our shared ministry. It takes place in hundreds of thousands of different ways, but that’s the core.

After his baptism, Jesus discovered that his Father had blessed him abundantly, through the Holy Spirit, for the work he had taken on. He discovered his gifts, and he began to exercise his gifts for ministry. And since his baptism and ministry make up the model for our baptism and ministry, that’s what we need to be about as well. For us, the discovery of our ministerial gifts, and the exercise of those gifts, is critical. It is well past time for a flourishing church culture that is grounded in the notion that “all members are ministers.” Yes, I’m a minister, Mother Beth is a minister, but not any more than you are. Our ministry may be more visible, but yours is probably more important. All baptized persons are ministers; all have a ministry. Relatively few have discovered that ministry and begun to exercise it, and to the extent that the church has “problems,” that fact is where most of the problems originate. 

Yet, it need not be so. We need not operate in fear, fear of taking the plunge into ministry. The Spirit rested on Jesus at his baptism, taking the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father approved him: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” And if Jesus’ baptism is the model for ours, how can we go without those same blessings? The Spirit also rests on us, my sisters and brothers, and the voice of the Father gives His approval of our ministry. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.


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