Baptism of Our Lord, Year C
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St Mark
Baptism of the Lord, Year C
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
When I was in seminary, I served for three years as sacristan for the chapel. Basically, we were church rats in charge getting everything ready for each of the three services held each day—morning prayer, noon eucharist, and evening prayer. We’d set out the vestments, arrange the vessels on the credence table, make sure the bible was marked, the wicks of the candles trimmed. One day, I was puttering about the sacristy getting things set up when I noticed that we were out of Holy Water. We had this enormous glass pickle jar that we used to fill the font and it had run dry. I filled it back up and placed it on the counter for the celebrant of the noon Eucharist to bless when they arrived.
Virginia Theological Seminary is an interesting place—you’ve got people who think that if you don’t sing the Eucharist it’s not a valid mass, and others who would object to even the use of the word “mass.” Folks who think incense is of the devil, and those for whom it is the means by which they worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Who should stride in to celebrate the noon eucharist, but the Reverend Robert Prichard—renowned historian of the Episcopal church and a low-churchman with a barely disguised antipathy for anything even vaguely Romish or Anglo-Catholic.
“Good morning, Dr. Prichard. I’ve got the altar book all set. I don’t suppose you’ll want to wear a chasuble, but I have one out just case.”
“Thank you, Tyler. I won’t be needing that bedsheet. You can put it away.”
“Oh, Dr. Prichard, before I forget, would you mind blessing the Holy Water so I can refill the font?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Why wouldn’t you do that?”
“When Our Lord was baptized in the River Jordan, he sanctified all the waters of the earth! Why should I bless something that Jesus has already made pure?”
“I see your point. Does this mean I should ask another priest to bless the Holy Water?”
My empty baptismal font aside, Dr. Prichard’s point is a good one. He highlights the human tendency to want to take credit for something that God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has already done. We like to think that priests bless water and make it holy, but who is the real actor behind the blessing? God, course. And when we lose sight of that fact, we fall into the gravest kind of idolatry—mistaking the creature for the creator (Romans 1:25). All manner of mischief ensues.
In Orthodox icons of the Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan known as the Theophany, you’ll often see little creatures fleeing from Jesus’ feet as he is standing in the water. The point is clear. It’s not that Jesus is cleansed by the water, but that he cleanses, sanctifies, and purifies the water—all water—through his baptism. Just as with Jesus’ descent into hell on Holy Saturday where furthest reaches of alienation from God are filled with God’s loving presence—there is nowhere that is not held, caressed in the loving palm of God. As Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 38-39).
What does this mean? It means for one thing that we don’t live in a hostile universe or even in a cold and indifferent one. We live in a universe that is infused with love and mercy, which flow at the heart of each moment. It means that we are never alone, but accompanied by the loving presence of Jesus wherever we happen to go and whatever we happen to experience. When we are at the end of our efforts, God is never at the end of His. God creates an indissoluble bond at baptism between us and God. Nothing can break that bond. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. God calls us by name. We are his… irrevocably. Nothing we can ever do will alter that fact. God is always with us, taking our suffering into himself and drawing forth new life from apparent dead ends, making a way out of no way, and surprising us just when we decided once and for all that there are no more surprises in life.
Our reading from Isaiah gets exactly to this same point. “When you pass through the waters,” says the Lord, “I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned and, and the flame shall not consume you.” It’s not that baptism insulates us against the ups and downs of our lives. We will suffer pain, loss, sorrow. That is our human lot east of Eden. But the Good News is that we don’t suffer alone. God, Emmanuel, is with us, and the torrent of his love, even if it’s dried up to an almost imperceptible trickle in our eyes, never fails. Sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever, we can have the courage to face what life throws at us in the assurance that we aren’t facing it alone and that, relying on a power greater than ourselves, possibilities that we cannot see are active and at work.
And that’s the life of the baptized Christian. To know, by faith, that we are called not to hang out as the “frozen chosen” but to go where Jesus goes in his mission to the margins. Jesus comes to erase any boundary between ourselves and others, between insiders and outsiders, and to declare God’s love for all of God’s children. It’s our job as followers of Jesus to walk where he walks and engage with those whom Jesus engages. That’s why baptism is not dainty affair. Forget lacey bonnets and fancy gowns, in baptism we are pledged in solidarity to all of creation and called to be an instance of God’s love working in and through our ordinary lives for the bringing about of the Kingdom. It’s messy business. And one that, followed to its logical conclusion, will bring us into direct confrontation with the powers and principalities of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, of this we can be certain.
Sometimes we think of the Kingdom of God in a rather nebulous way. But the Baptismal Covenant gives us a clear picture of what it means to baptized—the shape our life is to take. It’s a kingdom where the dignity of every human being and the created order is respected. It’s a Kingdom what works for justice, peace, and reconciliation. A Kingdom where we look past labels and caricatures to the storied person, the Christ, within each person and serve them. A Kingdom where we, both in word and actions, proclaim “You are beloved. In you I am well pleased.” A Kingdom that gathers together for prayer, fellowship, and worship—turning as a body to the source of all beauty, truth and goodness to be made beautiful by the Beautiful One.
If this sounds like hard, near impossible, work, that’s because it is—if we conceive of it as something we have to do alone. But every reply to the questions posed in the Baptismal Covenant is not simply, “I will,” but “I will, with God’s help.” Of course we can’t do this on our own. That’s the whole point of being baptized—to wake us up from the dream of separateness and self-sufficiency to the reality of God who is “able to do more than we can ask or imagine.” When we go under the waters, we die to that old, boundaried self, the self that sees itself as separate from others, the self that would rather remain in the nightmare of the world as it is than step into God’s dream for it as water to wash, oil to heal and bread to feed. Coming up out of the waters, we are a new person precisely because we have located our strength, not in ourselves and our own efforts, but in God. Life is not about you, you are about Life—God’s life being lived in and through each and every moment of your so-called ordinary life.
When Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, he changed the very nature of all the various waters through which we have to wade. Where before there was a wall of water, like the one confronting the Israelites, now there is a way through. The way through is in the company of Jesus. The one who leads us out of bondage into freedom, away from the prison of the fearful, isolated self to the abundance of life in Him. To be baptized, and to renew our baptismal covenant means simply to stay close to Jesus, to breath the air he breathes, to keep opening ourselves to him that his life might be ours and live itself through us. We start with the earth-shattering realization of our belovedness—the recognition that God calls us each by name and that we are precious in his sight. From that acceptance of our acceptance we leave this place as messengers, a sent people, with one phrase on our lips to all we encounter—“You are beloved. In you God is well-pleased.”