SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
‘And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’
This past December we were so very blessed to hold our first baptism here at St. Benedict’s. A very special and happy day for me personally, my family, and I hope, for all who were there. On that special Sunday evening, we were given the privilege of welcoming a beautiful child into God’s covenant family through the sacred rite of Holy Baptism, when we gathered around the baptismal font just back there, where it stands as a reminder of both the dignity of Christian baptism as a Gospel Sacrament, and the means of our own entry into the Church, when we were first received into the church, the family of God.
This evening, Mark’s Gospel calls us to consider the baptism of Jesus, baptized as he was by his cousin John in the River Jordan. Now John's baptism itself is a bit of a puzzle. While there were a number of differing purification rites and ceremonies in Judaism and within the sects springing from it, like the Essenes, it is hard to find a direct precedent. What we do know is that, as the Jews looked forward to the coming of Messiah, there was a sense that the messianic age would come with God's purifying judgment; when promises such as the one in Ezekiel, I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness would be fulfilled.
And certainly John the Baptist stands in the line of the prophets. He is the one Crying in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord for the messianic age is about to dawn. Come and be washed, come and repent, come and be forgiven. Prepare your hearts and amend your lives for the Day of God's visitation is at hand. John, the prophet in the wilderness, administers a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins and so drives a sledge-hammer through the Jerusalem cult, for it was only in the Temple, through priesthood and sacrifice, that atonement could be made.
Moreover, to tell those within the covenant that they were dirty and needed washing struck at the root of all that the cult stood for. It was the Gentiles who were dirty; tax collectors and sinners were dirty; but not the people of the Temple and the Law, no, they were clean! But not so, says John, as if he knew that a New Temple was about to appear, a temple of flesh and blood, where the divine Presence would be seen and where forgiveness would be mediated: Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. This is strong stuff indeed.
But we have to be clear, John's baptism was limited: It was preparatory. It was concerned solely with cleansing and forgiveness. It was pointing forward. It was as if John with Moses had climbed the mountain and had seen the Promised Land from afar- but a fulfillment was still to come. That is why John's baptism is not Christian baptism. Why in the Acts of the Apostles, we read that John's disciples had also to be baptized into the name of Jesus. For even if Jesus' own baptism by John was seen to be a prototype of Christian baptism, note how in the accounts of Jesus' baptism, the concept is broadened. For Jesus submits to this baptism of repentance as a sign of his Messianic vocation to bring reconciliation between God and humanity, the whole reason of Epiphany (the salvation of the world manifested incarnationally). In His baptism, Jesus identifies himself with us in our sinfulness, in our need, though he himself was without sin. But, in addition, we read in Mark’s Gospel of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice proclaiming divine Sonship: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
The forgiveness of sins; the gift of the Spirit, the bestowing of a dignity as a beloved Son of God… all of these come to us through Christian baptism. At the font we are washed, filled with the Spirit, and God says to each of us “because of my One and only Son… therefore you are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter.” And this is the most wonderful and beautiful thing in the whole world is it not? This is the good news: the glory of the Gospel made present tonight right here in our midst.
But reflection on Christian baptism in the New Testament should not end there, for mage upon image is associated with it. For example; being born again; the new spiritual birth from above; being brought from darkness into light as the illumination of soul and mind. The image of our being clothed with Christ and even more radically in the writings of St. Paul, our being united with Christ: united in such a mystical way that his death becomes our death; his burial our burial; his rising again our rising again. In other words, Christ's story becomes our story, so much so, that in Him we are re-created and joined to him (both our bodies and our souls) by faith in baptism, betrothed and wedded to Christ, the font of eternal salvation.
Now this is strong imagery indeed. Forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, a magnificent dignity as sons and daughters of God, new birth, our transference from darkness to light, and finally, union with Christ in His death and resurrection. You see, if John's baptism pointed forward to the in-breaking of the kingdom- the messianic age- then Christian baptism celebrates our incorporation into that new age, into the new world being reformed and re-fashioned back to its original state of beauty and tranquility.
The old age is passing away an age characterized by death and corruption; an age that points to all that must die if the Kingdom is to come in righteousness and joy. The new age is about what happens when the Lord is King, when Christ reigns, when all the ugly stuff gets sorted out. In Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of heaven is manifested on earth, the beauty of heaven comes and the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the good news of the Gospel resound in the ears of the poor.
The problem is, we live in a time when the old age which is passing away and the new age which is being brought to birth run in parallel. So baptism for Paul, and the consciousness of being baptized, means that we are provoked - daily - to live as those who belong to the new age - Shall we continue in sin? God forbid! In baptism you died to sin - so that as Christ was raised from the dead, so you too should walk in newness of life. Using another Pauline metaphor: the old age is as the night - a night which is far spent - but nevertheless is still night, still dark; whereas we are called to live as children of the day, as children of light confounding the darkness.
The bustle and distraction of this modern world is all too often detrimental to the soul. In the demands and day-to-day barrage of life we lose sight of the faith we professed at our baptism, the duties we vowed to uphold, our promise to denounce and reject all that is wicked and evil. Which is why the Gospel of our Lord’s baptism serves as a much needed occasion to return to our own.. To the font of eternal life where our life as children of God began. There we were crucified with Christ, putting to death and sin and uncleanness were put to death, and from there, we rose in the newness of life, we ‘put on Christ’ dressed in a heavenly garment.
So on Sundays, when you come into the Lord’s house make a deliberate act of walking past or around the font a part of your regular spirituality. Let it, in all its imagery and emotion, provoke you to walk in newness of life, remembering that in the water you received the Spirit of holiness. Let it assure you that those true words spoken to Jesus himself at the River Jordan are also true for you: You are my beloved son.. You are my beloved daughter. In contemplating your great Baptismal Exodus from death to life, be inspired, ‘press on’ to work and pray for the Kingdom of God. And my the font be a sign of joy, a reminder of hope, a celebration of life that in Christ the old age is passing away, the new age, the new world is here and we have been enlisted and commissioned in our baptism to be Ambassadors of Christ in it until the Kingdom of God comes in the fullness of its glory and Christ is all and in all, world without end. Amen.