Sermon delivered on the feast of Christ’s baptism, Epiphany 1B, Sunday, January 7, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. It’s the perfect time to jump into the waters of baptism to reflect on God’s power.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11(12-13).
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Happy new year, St. Augustine’s! Today we celebrate our Lord’s baptism and our own. But what’s it all about? Why care about either? This is what I want us to look at this morning. To understand the significance of our Lord’s baptism, we must place it within the proper context of the history of God’s salvation as contained in Scripture. Otherwise making sense of his baptism and our own will be impossible. First and foremost we must look at Christ’s baptism as the NT’s answer to the longing for God’s return to God’s people contained in so much of the OT.
Appropriately, our assigned OT reading is from Genesis 1. The writer declares that in the beginning God created the heavens and earth out of nothing, or as the text puts it, the Spirit (or wind) of God hovered over the chaos of the waters. Over against the darkness, chaos, void, and nothingness that is like the nothingness of death, God’s creative word issued forth God’s life-giving light that signals the goodness and orderliness of God’s creative power. We note that this light is not the light produced by the sun or the moon. Those two heavenly bodies were not created until later. No, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is present from the beginning and is instrumental in bringing about life from nothingness and order from chaos. More about that in a moment. This life-giving light, unlike the light of the sun and moon, is available only to those who are the people of God, born of the Spirit, the water, and the blood (1 John 5.8). The point of the creation story is that God created his creation to be good and God created humans in God’s image to run God’s good world on God’s behalf. As the psalmist writes, this world and all that is in it pulses with God’s ongoing goodness and creative power. Without the life-giving power and presence of the Spirit, there is no life or order or peace. There is only chaos and death. As we ponder and reflect on this aspect of God’s life-giving and creative activity, we are reminded that God’s Spirit and presence can bring light and peace out of the darkness and chaos in our own lives if we only will let him. Do you believe this about God’s Spirit?
As we have just seen, the original goodness of God’s creation was despoiled by human sin and rebellion that brought about God’s curse on us and all creation and opened the door for the forces of darkness, evil, and chaos to get a foothold within God’s good world to further despoil and corrupt it and us. We don’t have to look around us very far to understand that within the beauty and goodness of God’s world, human sin and the dark powers behind it constantly unleash new chaos in God’s world and our lives. That’s what all sin and rebellion against God is at its core: chaos. Whether it’s the chaos of disease or dysfunction or infirmity or madness or poverty or war or alienation or strife, our rebellion against God produces the darkness of chaos that is directly opposed to God’s original creative purposes and the life-giving light of God’s love and grace for us and God’s world.
This corruption and perversion of God’s good created order is why God called his people Israel into existence. As God promised Abraham, God would bring God’s blessing and healing love to the world through Abraham and his descendants. But sadly God’s people Israel were every bit as susceptible to the darkness as the world to which they were to bring God’s healing love. As St. John tells us in his gospel, the people, God’s people Israel included, loved the darkness better than the light of God’s life-giving love because our deeds are evil (John 3.19). That’s why folks reject Jesus. Of course God knew this before he ever formed Abraham in the womb. But as Scripture repeatedly insists throughout its narrative, God is faithful to God’s promises and God’s promises and purposes can never be defeated. And so God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to be the one true Israelite through whom the world and its people would be redeemed.
This brings us to our gospel lesson with its narrative of Jesus’ baptism, and with it we begin to appreciate St. Mark’s ability as a skillful storyteller. In his narrative, St. Mark invites us to see the spectacle of God operating in the confines and constraints of human history to bring about our salvation. As the Son rises from the waters, he sees the heavens torn apart and the God’s life-giving Spirit—the same Spirit who brooded over the waters of chaos in the beginning to bring light out of darkness—descending on him to commission and empower him to embark on his life-saving work as God’s Messiah. The verb St. Mark uses to tell us that the heavens were torn open is used in only one other place in Scripture, in Isaiah 64.1. There the prophet’s anguished plea on behalf of his sin-sick and beleaguered people who walk in the darkness of their evil deeds is for God to tear apart the heavens to rescue his people by forgiving them their sins and establishing God’s good and healing justice on earth as in heaven. In using the same verb for tearing apart the heavens in relation to the Holy Spirit’s descent on Jesus, St. Mark is inviting us to see that in Jesus’ forthcoming ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, the anguished cry of God’s people everywhere is finally being answered, and here we see the breathtaking power and initiative of God at work, but not in the way we expected or anticipated.
Instead of destroying the enemies of God’s people in a mighty act of power as God had done to the Egyptians at the Red Sea, instead of giving God’s people a mighty warrior Messiah to liberate them from the grip of Rome as many Israelites expected, God himself came as promised, but in weakness and great humility, to break the power of Sin and Evil over God’s people and free us to be the human beings God created us to be. In other words, God sent his Son to suffer and die a humiliating and shameful death on our behalf. Listen to St. Paul’s take on it:
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation (Rom 5.6-9, NLT).
Elsewhere in Romans Paul affirms that we are indeed no longer under God’s just condemnation for our sins because of the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross that enabled God to condemn our sins in the flesh without having to condemn us along with it (Romans 8.1-4).
This is the power and initiative of God we are witnessing in Jesus’ baptism, my beloved. We see the power of the Father descending on the Son through the Spirit and affirming that Jesus is indeed God’s beloved Son, commissioning our Lord to embark on his surprising and life-giving ministry that would lead to Calvary and an empty tomb. In God telling Jesus he is God’s beloved Son, St. Mark takes us back to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 42.1, who will bring God’s justice to the nations. As we’ve just seen, the Servant would not do this in the way the world expected God to act. The Servant would embody God’s great love and perfect justice through his own suffering and death, and in the process we would find God’s light, life, and rescue from our slavery to the darkness, thanks be to God! Amen?
Curiously, the lectionary omits the next two verses in Mark but I want to read them to you because they are important in helping us see the critical importance for us as God’s people to have God’s Spirit dwell in us. Hear St. Mark now. [At once] “[t]he Spirit compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him.” (Mark 1.12-13). Do you see what’s going on here? The dark powers know that something radically different is happening, and they don’t like it one bit. The result? The prince of darkness, Satan himself, immediately confronts Jesus to derail his life-giving mission as the Son of God. But Jesus has the power of the Spirit, and only the Spirit, to strengthen him and enable him to overcome Satan’s temptations, unlike our first human ancestors. And here is a key to help us look at God’s power available to us in our own baptism.
Have you ever looked at your faith, at your claim to love God, and been tempted to fall into despair over your folly and faithlessness? You profess love for God but as you examine your life, you see yourself committing the same sins over and over, no matter how hard you try to do otherwise. I suspect many of us are in this boat and if you are one of these folks, then remembering your baptism is the perfect antidote. Why? For two reasons. First, remembering our baptism testifies to us in a powerful way that in this sacrament—the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality—we are not responsible for our salvation. God is. Let me repeat that to you. We are not responsible for our salvation. God is. God is responsible for our salvation because only God has the power to break the power of Evil and Sin that has enslaved us. Only God’s light has the power to overcome our darkness. Only God has the power to give life and conquer death, and baptism is God’s ordained way of uniting us with our Lord Jesus, God’s only Son and Messiah, who broke the power of Evil and Sin over us and freed us from God’s just condemnation by bearing our punishment in his own body. St. Paul puts it this way:
[H]ave you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6.3-6, NLT).
Let the Good News that St. Paul proclaims here, the only Good News that has the power to heal your despair, sink in. He is telling us that we are joined to Christ who bore our punishment in his body so that one day we can anticipate sharing a new bodily existence like Jesus enjoys. We no longer need to fear God’s condemnation nor death because God the Father has taken care of it through God the Son. When we read about God telling Jesus he is God’s beloved, our baptism reminds us that God is speaking those same words to us as well. We too are God’s beloved sons and daughters. Not because of who we are or what we’ve done or not done, but because of who Christ is. And in and through the mystery of our baptism, we are united to our Lord Jesus Christ so that we are assured we will share in every good thing that Christ enjoys. No wonder Martin Luther, who was prone to fits of depression and despondency, would cry out in the midst of his darkness, I am baptized! I am baptized! The next time you are feeling hopeless about your relationship with God, perhaps you should do likewise until your darkness subsides. It’s likely you too are under demonic attack. And if you really do not believe the words God directed to Jesus at his baptism, then you frankly do not know the love and heart of God the Father made known supremely through the cross of God the Son and made available to you in the power and person of God the Holy Spirit. Don’t ignore that last bit about the Spirit. It’s critical to your daily living.
Why? In addition to having our baptism remind us that our future is secure in Christ, our Lord’s baptism also reminds us we have real power to live our mortal life in ways that are pleasing to God. And this is critically important because the Christian faith demands that we live in faithful obedience to our Lord Jesus. We have the power to do so as St. Paul just told us, despite being thoroughly broken people. We no longer have to live in slavery to Sin because like Jesus, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to help us put to death our sinful nature. This doesn’t mean we will live sinless lives. Hardly. As St. Paul reminds us, no one is finished with sin until we die (Romans 6.7). But here again, we see God’s power at work in our lives to help us overcome our slavery to Sin. So even though we are thoroughly infected by Sin, it does not have to conquer us. This is where many of us get tripped up because we fail to believe in the promise of God to give us his Holy Spirit to help us be real human beings who live in peace and God’s light. Our future is secure because we belong to Jesus and we have the power to overcome our darkness by the light of God’s Spirit. As the NT makes clear, everyone who belongs to Christ has the Spirit and the Spirit equips each of us with gifts. That’s one of the points Luke wants us to see in our strange little NT lesson from Acts. We are given power to live and gifts that God will use to bring his light to bear here on earth. Are we up for the task? Of course not! We are all losers and ragamuffins! But again, it’s not about us. It is about the power of God working in and through us to accomplish what God wills, despite our warts and flaws.
So what do Spirit-filled people look like? As St. Paul tells the Colossians, you will see Spirit-filled people loving each other, forgiving each other, putting up with our mutual shortcomings and not thinking too highly of ourselves. We will see folks serving each other, praying for each other, and supporting each other. We will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22). Spirit-filled folks avoid being involved in sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, and envy, mainly because by the Spirit’s help and power we are putting to death the pride and other darkness in us, however slowly and imperfectly. We won’t be successful all the time, of course. But we will be more often than not. And when we fail, we confess our sins to Almighty God knowing that God forgives us, which makes us quick to be merciful to others when they offend or hurt us. This knowledge of God’s love for us made known supremely in Jesus Christ, along with our faith in God’s power to help us live in his light and not the darkness, is enough to not only sustain us through the living of our days, but also to produce in us joy, even when we walk through life’s darkest valleys. I believe this is true even for those poor souls who have been robbed of their minds and/or the ability to make willful, conscious decisions. I believe this is true because I know the love of God made known to us in and through his Son. This is why remembering our baptism is important, my beloved. It is an outward and tangible sign that we are God’s by virtue of our union with God’s Son, imperfect as our lives are. It is the basis for us to live together as members of Christ’s body, the Church. It is the Good News that brings us hope and joy, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever!
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.