Sermon delivered on Epiphany 1A, the Baptism of Christ, Sunday, January 12, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 29.1-10; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning we celebrate the baptism of Christ as well as our own and that is what I want us to look at briefly. What can we learn from them both? If we do not read (or listen to) Matthew’s text carefully, we are liable to miss the interesting and tense interchange between John and Jesus that he reports. John has been preaching a baptism for the repentance of sins along with the terrible and just judgment of the Lord in fulfillment of OT prophecies like the one we read from Isaiah this morning, a judgment that will establish God’s righteousness on earth through God’s Messiah. And while Isaiah focuses primarily on the positive aspects of God’s judgment—e.g., justice will be established, prisoners of all sorts will be freed, sight will be given to the blind—the baptist has focused primarily on the negative aspects of justice—God’s wrath and punishment poured out on evil and those who commit it.
Now as Jesus comes to him to be baptized, this raises a troubling question for John, who clearly thought Jesus to be the Messiah. If Jesus is the Messiah, God’s appointed agent to bring God’s righteousness and justice to Israel’s enemies (i.e., to punish them), why would Jesus come to receive John’s baptism of repentance? It should be the other way around; Jesus ought to be baptizing John! But Jesus would have none of it, telling John that Jesus’ baptism was the proper way to fulfill all God’s righteousness, i.e., God’s plan to put the world to rights by healing all who would accept God’s rescue plan through his Messiah and judging all those who would not. In saying this, Jesus is identifying himself not so much with God the judge but with those of us who face God’s judgment and need to repent.
John, of course, was shocked by this understanding of God’s plan of salvation as evidenced by his interchange with Jesus. Jesus would indeed bring about God’s judgment on all evil and evildoers, but not in the way John or most of Israel expected. Jesus would bear God’s just judgment on our sins himself, sparing us from that terrible fate. But as we saw during Advent, this did not sit well with John and most of his contemporaries because Israel’s enemies were not being punished in the manner they hoped for or wanted. The bad guys were still ruling over Israel. The nations had not been vanquished. And now here Jesus was redefining how God’s justice would ultimately come about, a scandalous prospect to most Jews of Jesus’ day. This raises the question for each of us. Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear the truth about God’s love and grace as embodied in Jesus or are we still trying to make him into our own image? How we answer that has profound implications for our discipleship as we shall see.
And of course there is Good News for us in how Jesus viewed his own baptism. When Jesus redefined for John how God’s justice would be implemented, Matthew is helping us see the value of our own baptism because when we are baptized we are brought into the newly reconstituted family of God under our Lord Jesus. Paul is even more explicit about the value of our baptism. In his letter to the Romans he tells us that our baptism is an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible reality that we are buried with Christ in a death like his so that we may also be raised with him to share in a resurrection like his (Romans 6.3-5). In other words, because Jesus would bear for us God’s just judgment on our sins and invites us into his family of healed and redeemed people through baptism, we have the real hope of eternal life. We do not have to wait until we die to claim this hope because God’s forgiveness through Jesus is available to us immediately. As God rescued his people Israel from their slavery in Egypt by bringing them through the waters of the Red Sea, even more so does God rescue us from our slavery to sin and death through the waters of baptism that signify the grace of our Lord Jesus who promises to gather, heal, and transform into his likeness those whose lives are open to him through repentance. This is the only real medicine to heal our anxious, lonely, and alienated hearts because it is only God who can give life to the dead and call into existence things that are not (Romans 4.17). And we are only reconciled with this God in and through the cross of Jesus Christ. This, of course, was exactly the message Peter preached to Cornelius and his household. Simply put, our baptism is a sign that the Christian faith is not another futile self-help program but about the generous and healing love of God made known to us in and through Jesus. If there is someone here today who is struggling with sin and God’s forgiveness of it, take the lessons of Jesus’ baptism and your own to heart and be strengthened.
So how are we to live out our baptism? For starters, Jesus’ baptism challenges us to accept Jesus on his terms, not ours. At his baptism, Jesus received his commission to carry out God’s mysterious and costly rescue plan by ultimately going to the cross for our sake. We notice that when Jesus came up out of the waters, the dove descended on our Lord and the voice from heaven proclaimed him to be God’s son with whom God is well pleased, not the sovereign we humans might want or expect. There is great humility to be learned from reflecting on this. And the fact that the gospels constantly challenge our expectations about who Jesus is like Matthew does in today’s lesson also means that we need to be reading those texts (and others) on an ongoing basis to prevent us from making Jesus and his mission into our own image.
And just as Jesus’ baptism was a commission for his own saving work as God’s Messiah, so our baptism is our commission to pattern our lives after Jesus. As we have seen, our baptism is a visible sign that we have been included in the household of God’s forgiven people. But we should never get careless about our membership because we all know people who have been baptized but who act like they’ve never even heard of Jesus. No, taking our cue from Paul’s teaching about baptism, that in our baptism we die and rise with Christ, we are reminded that our baptism is a call to repentance and humility so that we are open to God’s healing love that is available to us in the power of the Spirit. Our baptism reminds us that we are healed only by the grace of God, not our own efforts. Yes, we have to put to death our sinful nature and that is hard work, even with the Spirit’s help. But we do that not to get our ticket punched but rather in response to God’s gracious call to us to have life in our Lord Jesus.
But if we look at our baptism and make it only about ourselves we have already strayed from the light of God’s love in Jesus back into our own darkness because we are healed and saved so that God can use us to proclaim God’s love in Jesus to the nations, and there are two primary lessons our readings teach us about how to do this. First, as Matthew clearly implies, when the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove and God affirmed Jesus to be his beloved Son with whom he is well pleased, this fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s Messiah would do his saving work gently so that bruised reeds are not broken and dimly burning wicks are not extinguished. In other words, the Lord will not beat us over the head and force us into a relationship with him because to do so means that God does not respect our human dignity, fallen and distorted as it is, nor would that allow us to have a real relationship with God. True love always respects the beloved and honors decisions of the beloved, even when those decisions lead to destruction. We are to do likewise, proclaiming the gospel to others gently and humbly. Doing business this way, of course, is not the way of the world. We are all about power and control in our relationships so that we often try to force our agendas onto others, but this is not how we are called to be followers of Jesus. Are we listening and obeying, St. Augustine’s?
This, in turn, reminds us secondly that if we are to fulfill our baptismal call to proclaim the Good News of God’s rescue plan in and through Jesus, we must also be willing to speak the truth about him honestly, and here we can take a lesson from our NT reading. Notice that Peter did not change his story about Jesus out of fear that he might offend his Roman audience. He still told them essentially that salvation comes from the Jews, but that he now understood God’s salvation in Jesus was offered to one and all, not just to Jews alone. This is important for us to understand because we live in a culture that increasingly believes there is no transcendent truth, that truth is in the eye of the beholder. But this is not the message of our baptism. Neither is it the message of the whole of Scripture and we dare not fail to proclaim it in word and deed. We need to keep this in mind especially when we are tempted to modify God’s truth in an effort to reach out to folks with their misguided notions of what constitutes truth and real love. Yes, there will be those who mock us when tell them about God’s rescue plan in Jesus with its central proclamation of our Lord’s death and resurrection and its call to repentance. But the story of Cornelius reminds us that there is also power in proclaiming the gospel and that there will always be those who respond to it. This is echoed in texts like Isaiah’s when he proclaims that God’s purposes will be accomplished according to his word because God is the God who created all things and gives life and spirit to all people. If we really believe this, and if we are really being transformed into the image of Jesus in the power of the Spirit, we will not hesitate or be embarrassed to proclaim the gospel to a hostile world. It is the only loving thing to do. Are you ready for this challenge? Your answer will tell you a lot about your relationship with Jesus.
In a few moments we will invite you to come and renew your baptismal vows. As you do so, reflect on these things, on God’s great love for you in Jesus and how his baptism signaled the beginning of that work. Remember that you have been rescued from evil, sin, and death and how your baptism signifies that you have died and risen with Christ so that you can become like him in the power of his Spirit. As you think on these things, rejoice and give thanks, and then splash enthusiastically in the baptismal waters as a manifestation of that thanks. You can do so, of course, because we know that in our Lord’s baptism and ours, we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be praise, honor, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.