January 10, 2021, The Baptism of Our Lord

The First Sunday after the Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord
January 10, 2021
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

From the Gospel according to Mark, “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     I find it fascinating that last Sunday, having challenged us to ensure that our New Year’s Resolutions include searching diligently for the Christ this year, today’s lessons challenge us even that much more deeply. Our texts this morning turn our attention to God’s voice and how, just like at Jesus’ own baptism, that voice calls to, and empowers, each of us for ministry and service.  

     Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany which celebrates the arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem and the revelation that Jesus Christ is not only the promised Messiah for the covenant people of Israel, but the Messiah and Light of the entire world: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female – everyone. Our readings remind us that God has spoken in times past to any all who will listen, and still speaks today. The challenge for us is to not only recognize God’s voice above the din of everyday noise, but discern why God is speaking to us and for what purpose.     

     The Psalmist describes God’s voice thundering as it splits flames of fire, shakes the land and causes trees to quake. In Genesis, it is God’s voice that brings about the creation of the world. And at Christ’s baptism, a voice comes forth as the heavens are ripped open. Those are pretty incredible images and certainly, if any of us experienced things like that, then we could easily recognize the voice of God. But, from my experience, God’s voice is quieter: it nudges and gnaws at our hearts and minds slowly urging us to listen and discern how best to live. So again, in the context of New Year’s resolutions, what is it that God is saying to us right now, and why?

     In describing the creation of the world, the writer of Genesis says that in the beginning … God’s spirit swept over the face of the waters like a wind. In the original Hebrew, this wind or the breath and spirit of God is described as more than a sweeping action. God’s voice is described as moving, hovering, and brooding over the waters. Clearly,  something is incubating here. Something incredible is about to happen. And then: God speaks, “Let-there-be-light” and suddenly there is light: light that splits the darkness; the universe is torn open. God speaks and it happens: the world is forever changed. Yet, there’s even more happening here: Yes, God speaks and it happens; but then God pronounces it good; separates it; and puts it into place. Our reading from Genesis reveals that everything God creates has a purpose and a specific role to undertake. But that is only the beginning of God’s creative power. As Genesis says, It’s only the beginning. When God speaks things change from what they were; something new begins.

     In today’s gospel reading, Mark describes this same brooding, hovering, incubating spirit of God descending like a dove upon Jesus as he emerges from the waters of baptism. Once again, something is about to happen: God’s creative power is being let loose in a new way. Mark describes this scene with a violent image: as Jesus emerges from the waters, the heavens don’t simply part, they are torn open. What Mark describes here is a sudden change in the appearance of the heavens as God’s creating, hovering and brooding spirit descends upon our Lord. When God speaks, something happens. Just like in Genesis when physical darkness was suddenly split apart by God’s light, now God speaks again and this time, in the person of Jesus Christ, spiritual darkness is suddenly put to flight: humankind’s re-creation and redemption is here as God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” And it is important to recognize that all of this takes place in the context of Jesus’ baptism.

     Now, much has been said and written over the years about that baptism. Many have wondered if Jesus was truly without sin, why he needed to be baptized at all. And that would be a good question if the baptism offered by John was about forgiveness. But, Mark is very clear about the purpose of John’s baptism: a purpose affirmed in today’s reading from Acts. John offered a baptism of repentance, an act that prepared the people for the coming forgiveness and redemption offered through Christ, the Light of the World. (Remember, John said, “I come to prepare the way of the Lord.”) We need to understand that in order to receive forgiveness and redemption, we have to understand what repentance means. Repentance is more than feeling badly about something or feeling remorse for being caught. It is a conscious decision to reassess what we value and prioritize, and then choose to embrace God’s values and priorities and, thereby, turn around, change our course, change how we live. Having made such a choice, we are now ready to receive forgiveness. Our Lord, in choosing to be baptized, is not confessing sin or seeking redemption, but rather, he is identifying himself with the faithful people of Israel whom he has come to redeem. In baptism, Jesus has become one with them just as he is one with God. In Jesus’ baptism, the way is opened for repentance to become a real and true remission of sin. And God responds to this act in a most unique way. God speaks saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”  

    And that is the voice, the words, we must never forget! Because it is into this same Jesus Christ that we have been baptized. In baptism we were marked as Christ’s own forever. John said, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”. As affirmed in our reading from Acts, baptism in Jesus yields a different result in the life of the believer: not just repentance, but forgiveness and redemption, and with that forgiveness and redemption we have new life, new relationships, new birth as God speaks to each of us saying, “You are my daughter, my son; the beloved”. And then, just like at the creation of the world, God sets us apart for a purpose - a specific role - in our communities, our nation, and the world.

It is in baptism that God’s brooding, creating and regenerating power takes hold in us. That’s why we call it a sacrament. In the ritual of washing, we have an outward and visible sign of a spiritual grace within. And yet, while we do become a new creation and are born again in baptism, how God’s grace continues to grow and flourish within us and through us is tied to our willingness to listen for, and then act upon God’s voice; to grasp that just like in Genesis and in the gospel according to Mark, we, too, have been set apart with a role and purpose in society and our communities. A role and purpose clearly articulated in our Baptismal Covenant promises through which we commit to be Christ’s light in this world; to act like beloved sons and daughters of God at all times and, thereby, allow God’s creative power to continue to change our world through our witness and action as people of God.

    Now, this is all rather wonderful, but, you know, none of it is possible unless we can recognize God’s voice and then discern why that voice is speaking to us right now. Personally, I hear the voice of God in you, just as I pray you hear it in me. I also hear God’s voice in words of encouragement spoken by another or through stern words spoken in love so that I change my path. I hear God’s voice in a handwritten note. I hear God’s voice as my conscience urges me to live more fully into my baptismal covenant promises, urges me to speak up for justice and fairness, - not in ways that threaten violence or instill fear like we saw unfold in Washington, DC this week – but rather, speak up so that the needs of others are met and met fully, to speak up so that darkness is banished, speak up in ways that affirm our Lord’s words, “As you have done to the least of these, so you have done to me”. And I would add even to those with whom we disagree.

   Our lessons this morning affirm that when God speaks, life as we know it changes. It changed in ages past and can still change today.

   As we continue to search diligently for Christ, I invite you to join with me in asking God to open the ears of our hearts and minds so that we might hear more clearly God’s voice and then embrace whatever role and purpose God is calling us to fulfill in this community, in our nation and world this year: a role and purpose that can make a difference wherever we go – a difference made possible in Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, through whom in Baptism God has said to each of us, “You are my daughter, you are my son, My beloved.” Thanks be to God! Amen.