Year A, Matthew 3: 13-17
First Sunday after Epiphany, the Feast of the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles—the Nineteenth Day of Christmas, and my true love gave to me . . . . Any trees and greens still up beginning to show their age now . . . the kids finally all back in school, working-around the ongoing winter cold weather and snow days . . . Wise Men long-ago home again after their pilgrimage . . . the Holy Family now returned from their time in the refugee camps in Egypt. Joseph of course goes back to work in his career as a tekton, variously translated as construction worker, builder, carpenter. The boy Jesus grows up with the other boys in the village, has his lessons with the village rabbi, travels with his extended family and many others of the village and region up to Jerusalem for the great festivals. Then the scene fast-forwards. “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.” A new chapter.
From Christmas to Epiphany. So to begin by saying: in these days of rapid innovations of technology and consumer goods it inevitably happens once or twice on Christmas morning that the festive holiday wrap comes off the package and the box is opened: “wow, this is great! Thanks very much! But, um: what is it? How does it work? What does it do?”
Songs of the Angels still echoing in the far distance. And questions for us. What child is this? Who is he? Why does he matter? How is this "Christmas" thing supposed to work? This is the project of this season after the Feast of the Epiphany, the next weeks in the cycle of the Christian year. Exploring those questions from a number of different angles and perspectives.
And we begin this first Epiphany Sunday by noting that all four gospels tell us in one way or another that an important part of the way to begin to understand who Jesus is and what he is about and what he means for us is to see him in the context of John the Baptist. Echoing the song John’s father sang at the time of his birth, “thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord, to prepare his way.” In Matthew 3 verse 2 we are given this synopsis of John’s preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And in Matthew 4, verse 17, we are told that after John had been arrested by the authorities Jesus also began to preach, and the content of his sermon—and it sounds pretty familiar: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
In any event this scene at the Jordan, the first meeting of these two cousins since the time when their two pregnant mothers were together as we read in Luke, when the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, and as Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, repeats to Mary the words of greeting spoken first by the Angel, “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
John’s message about repentance, and then of course the message that Jesus would later preach, was very much in synch with what we remember of the message of so many of the prophets of Israel. The Baptist out there in Judea, in the desert beyond the walls of Jerusalem, dressed in homespun camel’s hair, eating the food of the desert, as the wandering Hebrews of old would have done, not manna from heaven exactly, but a wilderness diet nonetheless: locusts and wild honey-- calling the leaders and the people to turn away from the worship of false gods. As Carlos Santana and his band sang many years ago, “you’ve got to change your evil ways, baby.” Turn away--from the false gods of political power and ambition, prestige, collaboration, from the powers and principalities of a social and economic system built on pervasive injustice and oppression, from the false gods of materialism, greed, corruption, gluttony and lust, the whole roster, outward and visible signs of our inward corruption, and to return again to the worship of the one true God who had spoken to them at the mountaintop of Sinai and who had led them 40 years through the wilderness. And to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, to seek themselves--to seek ourselves--to live lives of holiness, righteousness, justice, purity of heart, body, and mind. To allow our lives to be formed by his word.
And John’s signature prophetic gesture and symbol was baptism in the Jordan. The river that was the mother of life for the people of this Promised Land. The River through which n ancient days Joshua led the people on dry ground when they came to the end of their exodus journey. The river in which the Prophet Elisha told the Syrian General Na’aman to bathe for the healing of his disease.
Early Judaism had the practice of many times of ritual washing, sometimes simply, sometimes in elaborate ceremonies, before the Sabbath, before the Holy Days, after coming into contact with something that made you ritually unclean. John the Baptist announces that the whole people have become unclean, body, mind, and spirit, individually and corporately, offensive to God in their sinfulness--and that the time is now to repent and return to the Lord. And as a living sign and symbol of that intention, he called all the people to come out again with a new heart and a new spirit, to let a ceremonial washing in the waters of the Holy River be a sign of deep cleansing and purification, a sign of new birth. Personal commitment and re-commitment. The movement led by John the Baptist a sweeping revolutionary movement with impact in personal lives and in the social and political and economic spheres. “You’ve got to change your evil ways, baby.”
Here in Matthew 3, when John sees Jesus here he knows exactly who Jesus is. “Why do you come to me? I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you!” We know who he is too. Yet we are transfixed by this moment even so. Jesus of course doesn’t have need of repentance or purification, but there is something more that he sees, as he says, “let it be so now, for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Reflecting St. Paul. Philippians 2: Though he was in the form of God he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient. And First Corinthians 13. Love is patient and kind. Love does not insist on its own way. We remember that saying attributed to St. Francis, “preach always, when necessary use words.”
Jesus doing this thing, stepping into the water with John, not for himself, but for those who are watching, the crowds, for us. Preaching. John has prepared the scene, and now Jesus is going to show us the way, by himself being the way. And in this moment inviting us all to follow him out into the Jordan. Giving way in obedient love to the will of the Father. Wading out there with him, head down, total immersion-- the whole Body of Christ. The one who says just a little later in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, that he has come not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill and complete it. His prayer at the end, “not my will, but thine.”
In this act of generous obedience, then, not because he has to, but because he seeks only to please the Father in an offering of praise, there comes the eternal blessing. The heavens are opened, the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It is this deep, abundant, reciprocal, mutually self-denying love that is the energy that flows in and among the Persons of the Trinity. Baptism not simply about what happens in the water, but about a life to be shaped in relationship to the Father; not just about following Jesus into the river, but about following him out again. Not simply following rules, but about giving up ourselves in his service and love.
What in our 1979 Prayer Book is called the “Baptismal Covenant,” prefaced by these solemn commitments by those who are to be baptized, or on their behalf by parents and godparents, setting the framework for Christian life: six questions, and when I hear them every time, it just about takes my breath away. “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” Following Jesus into the water.
An amazing sixteen baptisms recorded in the parish register of St. Andrew’s Church in 2013, and I met with a family this week to begin preparation for what I expect will be the first of 2014. Following Jesus into the water, and then following him out again into the wide world of our lives, our homes, our families, as we work, as we live in our neighborhoods and communities, to be refreshed and renewed. In a world centered in identity and self-fulfillment, where the greatest triumph of all is to find oneself, where the bumper sticker announces, “the one who dies with the most toys wins,” we would be invited here to lose ourselves in him, with Jesus to pass through the waters of the Jordan, with Jesus to open our hearts and our minds to receive the blessing of the Father. This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.