1 Epiphany: Baptism of our Lord – January 10, 2021
Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11
I believe we are all disturbed, or should be disturbed, by the riots and siege of the US Capitol this past week. For me, at first, it felt like watching a movie or a tv show for entertainment value, knowing that something like that could never happen in real life. And then feeling sick, because it was really was happening. And I’m still trying to process how and where we go from here. I’m more than a little angry. But as is customary with the Holy Spirit, I think today’s lectionary readings are good for that processing. So I invite you to follow me into the water, the mysterious image of water, that is dominant in our scripture for today.
Actually both water and light, light being the theme of Epiphany, So, God’s own mysterious, creative elements, show us how we can live in community; how we can live in relationship with each other in a way that helps to usher in the kingdom of God, rather than usher in chaos and destruction. The question is how do we live out our lives of faith in today’s environment? What part do we play in helping to usher in the kingdom? What are you and I called to do and be? This week was clear evidence that we need to make some changes for the better. Wednesday was just wrong on so many levels.
This is a story not about creation-out-of-nothing but about creation out of a world that is wild and waste, formless and void (tohu va-vohu in Hebrew). In Genesis, the world as we know it is created out of formless matter and out of the watery abyss. In Genesis 1 “the deep” (tehom), the primordial ocean, was understood by the ancient Israelites to be the epitome of chaos.
And we can understand why. I am both fascinated and at the same time terrified by the ocean. Standing at the shore looking out over the vast, powerful, rolling sea, I can understand why the Israelites equated the ocean with chaos. It is far from safe.
But over these waters, says Genesis 1, broods the Spirit of God. Our translation reads, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” “Wind” and “spirit” are the same word in Hebrew (ruach). And the Spirit who broods over the primordial waters is the same Spirit who descends on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan and names him “Beloved.” And then the Holy Spirit drives him out into the wilderness, to begin his ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of God come near.
“Our lectionary this week juxtaposes the Creation story, a Psalm of God’s overwhelming power over nature, and a story of the early church, with Jesus’s baptism. When Jesus consents to the waters of the Jordan River, he consents to both the particular and the universal. He enters into a holy geography that includes the unformed waters of Creation; the storied landscapes of his poet-ancestor, David; and every font, pool, lake, river, and ocean his followers — from St. Paul onwards — immerse themselves in after Jesus’s time on earth is over. The Spirit who hovered over the unformed earth at the dawn of Creation is the same Spirit who hovers over us today. The Lord who thundered over the mighty waters during King David’s reign is the same God who “sits enthroned” now. The God who loosened the tongues of first-century believers to speak truth to power is the same God who raises up prophets today. In other words, the geography of baptism is vast. It spans all times and all worlds. It is far too large and wild a thing for us to tame or control”. (Debi Thomas from Journey with Jesus essay)
We are immersed in water at the beginning of this new year. Water and light are our themes today, but really, throughout our lives. And it starts in the waters of baptism. Water can be a dangerous thing. Water can drown and destroy and wash away all that we cling to for security. And yet, water is also necessary for life. It is foundational for our survival.
The God who calls forth life in all its many and varied forms from the primordial waters is the same God who calls us to new birth in the waters of baptism. Ephrem the Syrian, has said: “Here, then, the Holy Spirit foreshadows the sacrament of holy baptism, prefiguring its arrival, so that the waters made fertile by the hovering of that same divine Spirit might give birth to the children of God.”
Water, in it’s mysterious both/and capacity calls to us. God calls us to new adventures in the waters of baptism. And in those waters, for the sake of Christ, God names us “Beloved.”
Baptism is about several things, but today let’s remember that it’s also about relationship, about being named and claimed as children of God. At his Baptism, Jesus hears God say these unbelievably important words of love, affirmation and identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the incredible, shocking, unexpected, and even scandalous thing is that in our Baptism, we hear the same thing: “You are my child, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.”
It is these words that started Jesus’ ministry. These words that equip him to deal with temptation. These words that orient his mission and anchor his ministry. These words that give him an unassailable identity that makes everything else possible. And the same is true for us. Athanasius, a theologian of the early church, put it this way: Jesus became one of us – scandalous! – so that we might become like him – even more scandalous yet!
We are called to live a life of faith. Faith, in the words of Alexander Schmemann, is either a response to God’s call or “the very reality of that to which the call summons.” In other words, faith is what baptism imparts to us. Through the Holy Spirit, in baptism, we are given the faith of Jesus. Baptism opens our hearts and our minds to becoming instruments that bring unity and peace to our neighbors.
We are suffering an acute identity crisis. We’ve let regional or political or ideological commitments – which are important – define us to the point that it is so very easy to see someone who differs from us, along any of these lines, as threatening. We are at a cultural place and moment where the question for the citizens of this country is, “Can you differ with another person on important issues and still see this person as an American?” And for Christians the task and calling is even greater: “Can you see someone who differs from you on important issues as a fellow child of God?”
I share something about perspective, about how we see the world around us, from a physicist, Frank Wilczek (who is the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). This is an example about the colors of the rainbow. Years ago, Newton had described each spectral color as distinct. But in the next chapter of physics there was this discovery of, “a deep unity beneath and supporting the diversity of appearance.” “All colors are one thing.” He goes on to say: This is what we learned: “All colors are one thing, seen in different states of motion. And that is science’s brilliantly poetic answer to Keats’ complaint that science unweaves a rainbow.”
It comes back to the theory of relativity. So what you learn in the theory of relativity is that when you look at a light beam of a different color, and you’re moving towards it, it gets shifted towards the blue end of the rainbow. So if it was red, it might become yellow or green or blue — or ultraviolet, if you’re moving fast enough. And if you’re moving away, there’s what’s called the red shift. Things move towards the opposite end of the rainbow.
So a scientific explanation of how things are not always as they appear. There is a “a deep unity beneath and supporting the diversity of appearance.”
In his baptism, Jesus entered into the full, unwieldy messiness of the human family. In one watery act, he stepped into the whole Story of God’s work on earth, and allowed that story to resonate, deepen, and find completion. In our baptisms, we vow to do the same. In the wild waters of our immersion, we join our beings to all beings, and throw our lot in with theirs. Pay close attention. To embrace Christ’s baptism story is to embrace the wild truth that we are united, interdependent, connected, one. Whether we like it or not, the bond God seals by water and by the Spirit is truer and deeper than all others. It makes a stronger claim on our lives and loyalties than all prior claims of race, gender, tribe, nationality, politics, preference, or affinity. It asks that we bear all the risks of belonging. The risk that others might hurt us. The risk that others will change. The risk that they will change us.
God will part the curtain for brief, shimmering moments, allowing us to look beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces of our lives, and catch glimpses of the wild and the extraordinary. This is another way of describing the sacrament of baptism itself: it is a place and a moment where the “extraordinary” of God’s grace blesses the ordinary water we stand in.
May we, during this season and always, join Jesus as he stands in line at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame and scandal so that all the wonder of God might be ours to cherish. May we, also hear the delighted Voice that tells us who we are and whose we are. Even in the wild, untamable water we stand in, may we know ourselves as God’s Beloved and live, as Jesus did, ushering in the Kingdom of God.
Dr. Martin Luther King, in his work for justice and equality, striving to usher in the Kingdom of God, spoke of the Beloved community – God’s beloved community. Dr. King realized that in moments of danger, a decision must be made; and he titled his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community. Chaos is not an option. What happened on Wednesday is not an option. Community is our hope.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Hear God’s voice saying to you – you are my beloved. Now, go, shine your light in this messy world, create community out of chaos. The world needs your light, the light of Christ. Amen.