The First Sunday after The Epiphany
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Mark 1:4-11

 


This is an odd church year we’re in. Advent 4 and Christmas Eve were on the same day. Ash Wednesday is on Valentine’s Day, Easter Sunday and April Fools’ Day are the same. Yesterday was the Epiphany (when the Christ child was visited by the Magi) and today (the very next day) is the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, when that child Jesus is suddenly a 30-year old man, and at the beginning of his ministry.

We have just traveled through the season of Christmas and Epiphany using Luke and Matthew as our guides. But in Mark’s gospel, the gospel we use today, we only meet Jesus for the first time on the occasion of his baptism. Mark didn’t have time to waste on the nativity scene or on Jesus as a boy in the temple. Instead, Mark introduces us to Jesus at the critical moment when he comes up out of the waters of the Jordan River anointed with the Holy Spirit and in preparation for his ministry.

Ahead of him is still the time of temptation in the wilderness, but in the instant in which he parts the waters with his own body, he becomes focused, equipped and ready to set about the mission that God has chosen for him. The story tells us that the first thing he hears on the other side of this act of commitment is a voice from heaven, speaking the pleasure of the Holy One.

Water is a powerful and multifaceted image for the Christian. Our baptismal liturgy recalls many waters: the waters of chaos over which the Spirit moved in the beginning; the waters of the flood; the waters of the Red Sea that parted for the people of the Exodus; the waters of the Jordan over which they crossed into the promised land. We recall the waters of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan. Water is a central theme in our sacred story.

And there are two qualities of water that are worth considering on this day when we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, and witness the baptism of three of our children, and renew our own baptismal vows.

The first quality of water is that it is cleansing. The second quality is that it is dangerous. Both qualities are part of our history as a people. & As we hear the words of that voice speaking from heaven, we are invited to confront the paradox of water which both kills and gives birth.

First, the water of baptism cleanses us as the water of the flood cleansed the earth. The universe was created in goodness and, in our sacred story, we name that perfection “The Garden.” Gradually, God’s creatures (especially the human creatures) began to destroy that grace-filled perfection, to bury it in pollution: the pollution of violence, of greed, of pride. The great mythical history of our life as religious people includes the story of the flood which washed away the accumulated sin of humanity—that brokenness, that dirt, that obscured the glory of God’s image in creation. In the same way, the waters of baptism symbolically wash away that sin and brokenness that obscures the glory of God’s image in us. And not just in those being baptized but in all of us each time we witness a baptism, and each time we renew our baptismal covenant, we all are cleansed and renewed for ministry, and we please God by doing that.

When we submit to our own baptism, and I would suggest that this is not a once-and-for-all act but an ongoing commitment to live in such a way that we are always entering into and rising up from those cleansing and refreshing waters. And every time we emerge, cleansed, focused, equipped, we are ready to step into action as God’s commissioned servants, and every time, if we’re listening, we will hear a familiar voice speaking to us, affirming us, each of us: “This is my child, my beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”

God continually takes pleasure in new birth, in the abundant promise that the baptismal waters, the living water, gives us. Just as the waters of chaos were filled with abundant potential and brought forth life, we are continually invited to become new, to be born over and over into the abundant promise.

However, the waters are not only waters of birth, for the water of baptism kills us too. Water is dangerous (especially Holy Water.) Remember that the same water that parted for the people of the Exodus came crashing back to destroy Pharaoh’s army. Jesus reminded James and John that the way of baptism is the way of the cross.

The temporal self enters the water of baptism and is “crossed out,” swept away; it dies, drowned in the waters of baptism so that the eternal self can be born anew, rising up from death, anointed for its eternally commissioned vocation. The old is taken down into the water and dies, is buried, so that the new can be born and rise up to new life in Christ.

We are called, in baptism, to die to our personal, selfish agenda and to be born to God’s eternal agenda for the commonwealth, the community of faith, the kingdom of God.

It’s a bit frightening when you think about it, isn’t it? It is to me: this life/death proposition. And yet, we continue to bring ourselves and our children to the font. Because, as scary as it might be, it is a hope-filled promise for every Christian disciple.

By beginning his story with the baptism rather than the birth of Jesus, Mark is pointing out, and allowing us to rest in the confidence, that it isn’t the environment or the genetics of our first birth that determines our ability to be faithful people of God. And a good thing that is, for we have no control over our first birth—over the waters of our temporal birth. It’s not those waters that determine our spiritual path.

It is, rather, our self-chosen commitment to dying into and rising up from the waters of our second birth, the waters of our baptism, that prepares us to follow in the steps of Jesus.

Ahead of us always is the time of testing, the time of trial. All of life is a testing. But when we enter the waters faithfully, submitting to the death of our old self and welcoming the birth of our new self, we will always emerge empowered and encouraged by the words from heaven: “This is my child, my Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”

God’s pleasure in and love for Jesus was the power that enabled Jesus to stand firm against temptation in his ministry. God’s pleasure in and love for us will enable and empower us toward that same goal, that same end. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.