The Sunday Sermon: The Baptism of Our Lord
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The word “epiphany” is a Greek word which we’ve taken into the English language. So technically, we might call it a loan-word because the meaning in Greek and the meaning in English are pretty similar. It means manifestation or appearance. And during this season of Epiphany, we’ll be looking at the several ways which the arrival, identity, and mission of Jesus were manifested, or made known to us and to the world.
Just to play catch up for a minute, this past Friday we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. We all know that day as the day when the three wise men came from the East offering their gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Just four quick things to note here:
First was these three wise men (not to be confused with three wise guys) were astrologers. The song calls them Kings, sometimes were call them Magi, but they were astrologers and we think very likely practitioners of a religion called Zoroastrianism. They traveled from the East, likely from Persia, or modern day Iran. And they came, following the star, to worship the newborn King of the Jews. Perhaps we should remember as we think about that idea, that God reaches out to people, whoever they are, where ever they are, however he can, to lead them to the Truth. Sometimes even those whom God reaches out to don’t full grasp the fullness of what they have found, as I doubt the three wise men really fully grasped who this little child they paid homage to really was. Nevertheless, God reaches out. He does it to you and to me, he does it to our family and friends, to Christians and non-Christians alike, calling them to come and worship the King. God is always calling, sometimes people just don’t realize who it is that is calling. We need to be mindful of that, I think, and at the right times, help them understand in ways they will hear and accept, who really is doing the calling and to what they are being called to.
Secondly, thirdly, and fourthly, are the Gifts. Each of the magi brought a gift to offer the Christ Child. These three gifts, Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, represent three significant roles of the Christ in his mission to the world. They gave him myrrh, a fragrant ointment, as a sacrificial victim; frankincense, as priest who offers up the sacrifice; Kings as the ruler of the universe, the one worthy to be the sacrifice. Gold, from which a crown is fashioned; Incense, which a priest offers up, and which burns with a sweet smelling fragrance, whose smoke rises up to heaven, symbolizing our prayers; myrrh, the ointment used to anoint the body in preparation for burial after death. Christ our Lord is all of these things, and because of that he is able to firmly establish the reign of God, the Kingdom of God in this world.
Today, we come to the baptism of our Lord. An event central to the establishment of that reign. We should first note, of course, that Jesus had no need to be baptized. Though he was fully human, sharing in all of our woes, all our sufferings, he had never sinned, nor was he born with original sin, which we might describe as the proclivity to sin.
Yet, for our sake he submitted himself to the outward act of John’s baptism in the Jordan river. One which John proclaimed to the people for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. In doing so, in submitting himself to this outward act, Jesus did two things for us:
First, he gave us, who are indeed sinful, who do screw things up all the time, an example which we can follow. Yes, he says, John has it right. The kingdom of heaven has come near, turn from your sins, repent and return to the Lord. In submitting to the baptism, Jesus is telling us that John had it right, and we need to listen to what he’s saying.
Secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, by submitting to the outward act of Baptism, Jesus firmly confirmed the nearness of the Kingdom of God. And in doing so, in submitting to the baptism of John, Jesus firmly plants a flag and declares that the Kingdom of God is now being established here on earth. And with the establishment of that Kingdom, Jesus leads the charge out of our captivity to Sin and out of the kingdom of death. He leads establishes the Kingdom, and leads the charge out of the Kingdom of this world, the flesh, and the devil, and into the kingdom of God’s new life for his chosen people.
That life that we have received in our baptism is a life which is no longer enslaved to sin. We are no longer hopelessly and helplessly caught up in the failures of our lives, our sins, our transgressions, our mistakes. But we are now established in the new life in Christ, eternal life with him.
This last week, I reflected on a statement that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Blessed Michael Ramsey once said to a woman who was a little tenuous about the idea of eternal and everlasting life. She thought, which in our worldly way of thinking makes a lot of sense, that idea of Forever seemed like a long time and she wondered if she had to go on forever. Bishop Ramsey’s reply to her was that the idea of eternal life was not so much about time, or foreverness, as it was about the kind and quality of life which God gives to us. I presume the woman was content with the answer as I can’t remember if the dialogue continued.
But getting back to that wonderful image – Jesus leading the charge out of death into eternal life – that quality of life which far surpasses our understanding. I think I like this image, because it is one full of energy and in a wonderful way it captures the struggle we all face as we make this journey to eternal life, this pilgrimage to God, if you will.
You see, Baptism, our baptism, which we undertook or our parents undertook for us, so many years ago, transferred us from the kingdom of death into the kingdom of life. But I’m reminded, by the events of my own life, by my own sin, my own struggles, that even now, having been baptized, and being a firm believer, one who has been given the grace of God to believe the Gospel, I struggle with sin. Indeed, it seems that I’m haunted by the ways of that old life, that I’m haunted by sin, temptation, indeed, the devil.
Although we are baptized, although we are regenerated into a new life by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, marked as Christ’s own forever, we still need to grow in our faith and love. We need to grow into the new life that we have been given through baptism. We need to become mature Christians.
But doing that is a struggle, and that’s why I really like the image that Jesus submitting to baptism in the Jordan river is him leading that charge out of death into life. We face and will face for the whole length of our lives on earth the need to struggle against temptation and sin. That fight, is a real one which we are called to. Sometimes that fight hurts terribly.
Why does it hurt so much? Because as much as we may not like the things we do wrong; as much as we may be uneasy about some of our habitual sins, we’ve learned to live with the life we had. We’ve learned to compensate. Like learning to compensate for that old football injury by putting more weight on the other foot when we walk, we learn to compensate for our sins. We learn to live with and around them. The problem of course is that as we do that we continue to live in them. And Jesus calls us out of them, into his new eternal, everlasting life. A life we couldn’t begin to image the glory and wonderfulness of.
Transistioning from this old world to the new life in Christ is a tough out. But in his baptism, by submitting to baptism, Jesus tells us that he is right there with us. He doesn’t need to be for his own sake, but he’s there for ours, so that we might, by his grace, by his strength, by his love, and his help, attain to the fullness of life which has been promised by our heavenly father.
Today, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. He identified with us in our baptism, he led the way, and leads the way still; he is there for us, in the trenches, fighting the Good fight of faith right along with us as we seek to enter the Kingdom of his Father and our Father, his God and our God, who is, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.