Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
Baptism of the Lord 01/08/2017
On Friday night we celebrated the Epiphany of our Lord which, in our tradition marks the arrival of the Wise Men, the Magi bearing gifts for Jesus, the new born king to whom the star had guided them. In many churches the Wise Men get wrapped into the celebration of Christmas on December 25th which is OK, but we give them some space, in part to better observe the full twelve days of Christmas. Whether the arrival of the Wise Men winds up as part of Christmas or if it is observed as a separate celebration, what is most important is to note the significance that Matthew places on these exotic strangers called kings who bring gifts to this new born king.
In Luke it is shepherds, people of little status or respect, who are the first to worship the Christ child thus illustrating Luke’s emphasis on the kind of reversals that Jesus will proclaim. The shepherds represent the lifting up of the lowly, the way that Jesus will challenge the expected order of things, order that many people didn’t want challenged. It’s a theme that continues throughout Luke’s gospel.
Matthew picks up on this theme too, but his agenda has other items on it as well. In Matthew it is the Wise Men, these foreigners who are the first to worship Jesus. Matthew, like Luke, emphasizes the point that who Jesus is goes beyond the expected economic and social boundaries, boundaries personified by the shepherds, but Matthew also takes Jesus beyond the ethnic boundary of the people of Israel with these Wise Men from the East, yet another reversal. In different ways then, Matthew and Luke both announce at the beginning of their gospels that Jesus does represent “Good news of great joy” not just for some people, but for all people.
Liturgically, this story of the arrival of the Wise Men signifies the end of the Christmas season and moves us into the season of Epiphany, Epiphany like Christmas being not just a day but a season. In some ways Epiphany is the third stanza in the Christmas cycle of seasons that started with Advent. The word epiphany means “manifestation,” to make known and now we have several weeks to consider the “making known” of Jesus. We begin the process of unpacking the meaning of the incarnation, a process that really continues throughout the year. As the beginning of the process though, the season of Epiphany is an important part of the church year.
Still, after the busy “holiday” season, Epiphany, with all the decorations gone, can sometimes feel like a post-Christmas lull before the next big thing, the Easter cycle that begins with Lent, this year at the beginning of March. That however doesn’t do justice to this season that makes known aspects of Jesus’ identity. In the lessons during these weeks, Jesus will be identified as the servant, the lamb, the light, the foundation and perhaps most importantly, as the beloved son. The season of Epiphany is always bookended first by the Baptism of Jesus that we celebrate today with the voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus to be “My son the beloved,” and then at the end of the season with the Transfiguration of Jesus and the echoing of those same words: “This is my Son;” they are important words. During Epiphany there will also be four weeks that include portions of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a central part of his ethical teaching.
Today though, the focus is on Jesus’ baptism and the question that always comes up is “Why did Jesus have to be baptized?” The reason for the question is that we understand baptism to be about forgiveness of sins. Our understanding of Jesus though, is that he was without sin so, why is he baptized? Even John the Baptist raised the question saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Orthodox theology has what I think is an interesting interpretation on this. Their understanding of Jesus’ baptism is that in a sense it is the reverse of ours. When we are baptized, being sinful we are made clean, we are made holy by the water. Jesus however is already clean, without sin, so rather than the water making him clean and holy, he makes the water clean and holy. Their liturgy for this day includes the words, “Today the Master has come to sanctify the nature of the waters.” You could say then that Jesus does not need to be baptized for his sake, but he does need to be baptized for our sake, so that for us the water with which we are baptized is holy, cleansing water.
Staying with this for a moment, by extension Orthodox theology sees Christ’s cleansing of the water affecting all of creation. In the incarnation God himself becomes part of this world not only for the purpose of healing humanity, but for the purpose of healing all of creation. Creation itself is made holy in the water of Jesus’ baptism, further emphasizing God’s love for the world. The healing process has begun. This in turn has implications for our baptism and how our baptism is to be lived out, called as we are to care for the created order that God has called good and which has been made holy in the water of Jesus’ baptism.
Another take on Jesus’ baptism is that it is a re-enactment of the story of the people of Israel as they ended their wilderness wandering and crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. For them this crossing of the water was entering into a whole new life, a new beginning full of new possibilities. In his baptism, Jesus, similar to the people of Israel, emerges from the water and with that his ministry begins. It’s a new life for him and it marks another new beginning for the people of God. Jesus begins the final chapter in salvation history, the story of God’s faithfulness to the world. This too has implications for how we understand our baptism.
John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. For us, that is still part of the dynamic of baptism. Forgiveness not earned but based only on God’s grace is the promise of baptism, a promise that we receive in faith, water being the sign of the promise, the water made holy by God’s word.
For us, forgiveness of sins is part of baptism. It’s forgiveness that has meaning in and of itself as baptism is the work of the Holy Spirit and you can’t undo the work of the Holy Spirit. For each of us though, baptism becomes truly meaningful as we live it out, as we take on the identity it gives us, identity as children of God. Not everyone does that; not everyone takes on that identity. It doesn’t nullify their baptism; the work of the Holy Spirit has still been done, but something is missing.
Our baptism becomes meaningful as we understand it through the lens of Jesus’ baptism that was about a new beginning empowered by God’s Spirit. Jesus’ baptism was different than ours, but understanding it as a new beginning helps to add another dimension to our baptism. It moves it beyond forgiveness of sins and makes it about a new way of life. Forgiveness is obviously important but so is what we do after we are forgiven.
Pulling together some of the thinking from various traditions concerning Jesus’ baptism and how it relates to ours, we begin to get an idea of what it means to live out our baptism. It does involve being faithful stewards of the created world that God has called good and which has been made holy in the waters of Jesus’ baptism. It also involves seeing our own lives as part of Jesus’ new beginning as he emerges from the water. It means seeing new beginnings for ourselves, new possibilities and opportunities in the social and economic and ethnic reversals that are part of the kingdom Jesus makes known. It means always hanging on to hope that in Christ, new life and new beginnings are always possible. There isn’t exactly a how to manual concerning how to live out one’s baptism because for each of us our circumstances are different, but these are the kinds of things we take into account as we consider our life lived in relationship with God and with each other.
We do so with that voice from heaven echoing in our ears, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with who I am well pleased.” As I said, these are the words that bookend the season of Epiphany as they identify our object of faith, Jesus, the beloved Son of God. We trust in these words as we follow Jesus. In him God has been revealed and in him we find our baptismal identity as children of God, each of us called by name.
As God’s spirit was at work at the time of Jesus’ baptism it is still at work in the church calling and gathering us into baptismal communities as people ready to join in Jesus’ ministry. We too emerge from the water, transformed by the power of the Spirit, open to the possibilities and about the work of new life and hope.
Rev. Warren Geier