Epiphany is the time of revelation of the incarnation of Christ. It was inaugurated by the presence and gifts of the magi, and, now, decades later, it is manifested by Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan. It was preceded by the announcement of the coming of the Holy One of God through Mary, in the birth of Jesus in the manger. That night, under that one startling and super bright star and the caress of the starry night, the Son of God arrived among us in the quiet of a stable. Surrounding all of it was the deep quiet of cosmic and earthly beauty accompanied by the heraldry and the orchestras of heaven. That night, so blissful that we hear no talk of cold or the smells of the odors of animal
dung or feel the terrors of the murderous Herod. We see only the glory of that sweet fortifying and sanctifying night.
A lot of time has passed from Jesus’ birth to his baptism and whatever that interval may have included, there must have been ordinary family meals, playing with friends, working very hard all punctuating the routines of the mundane life of Jesus’ family in the Palestinian village. At the baptism by John, all Jesus’ life has come to a vortex on that special day in his 30th year while standing in line with many who were waiting for John’s baptizing and preaching on the banks of the thin stream of the Jordan River framed by the flaming, Jericho desert.
John and Jesus’ destined prophetic roles have been transforming them and those around them from the moment of their mother’s meeting in celebration to this day. How John and Jesus’ decided to be in this particular place at this particular time is not known to us, but we can assume a few things…it was close to Jerusalem; it was at the sacred river; it was where religious sects retreated; it was somewhat away from watchful eyes. A few have surmised that Jesus and John may have been associated with the hermetic society of the Essenes embracing self-abnegation and preparing for the risks of being prophetic preachers for the coming Kingdom of God. These harsh disciplines were a means to concentrate energy for their vocations to save God’s people.
On this particular day, Luke tells us that John had already been arrested and on his release was back at the baptizing vocation. Clearly, this not for the fun of self-sacrifice or risk, it was all for God. He wanted to save them all, even Herod and Herodias, even if it meant arrest and beheading, which it eventually did. His call to repentance and baptism had the people all stirred up, had the people wondering if he was the Messiah, and had the royals wondering if he was a threat to their luxuries and power.
The people gathering at the Jordan to hear John’s preaching and to be baptized in repentance wanted to know if John was the Messiah. However, John steadfastly insisted that he came baptizing with water, but the One who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The One sent to bring in the Kingdom of God will have his winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. With more passionate words, he exhorted the people to prepare for the One to come. We call it the Good News, but I have always thought everyone was being honest that the good news would evoke a lot of fear in a lot of people. His fire and zeal for righteousness led him to criticize Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. It even frightened Herod and certainly threatened Herodias, who rewarded him with imprisonment, and late, with beheading. There was no lack of courage from John, and, his fearlessness along with his preaching must have inspired more than a few. His fearlessness and his certainty about another one to come who was the charism of God had to have really set the people’s hearts beating when John preached about the One to come baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire.
There were, however, many expectations and many different views on the change that John said was coming. To some, it was the best of times, and to most, it was the worst of times. For the likes of Herod, his court and the apparatchaks of the religious establishment who curried favor with Herod, it was the most fearful of times. They had a lot to lose if they embraced righteousness. John said they had more to lose if they did not choose righteousness. Being of limited imagination, they could not imagine anything worse than not having what they had.
There were many Hebrews who expected that the One to come would be a military hero in the mold of King David who would rout out the Romans the puppets of Herod’s royal establishment. There were others who saw God coming and bringing in the Kingdom of God in a larger cosmic tumult resulting in a judgment that would rid the world of sin. Hence, many saw the messenger as necessarily the One. Very few, would have guessed that the “One” would come among them for baptism and be the carpenter, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth. In Jesus, they saw no winnowing hook; they saw no holy water or fire, they just saw this man, this quiet man who waited last in line. They saw him kneeling in prayer. They might have seen the heavens open, but does not happen all the time? They might have seen “something like a dove”, but aren’t they everywhere, even in the desert? The deserts around Jericho are, after-all, major avian migration routes from Africa to the north.
That fateful day of baptisms at the Jordan when Jesus came with the others to be baptized was not unusual in any way but the usual highly unusual presence of John. Luke does not directly speak to anyone actually witnessing hearing God’s blessing of approval and love upon Jesus as other evangelists do. So, we have to assume that John and the crowds did not here God’s approving blessing on Jesus. What we do know is that Jesus heard and received confirmation that he was God’s Son, and was the Servant of the Lord, and the Messiah prophesied in Isaiah 42. There, that day, at thirty years old, in prayer, Jesus began his ministry. Until the cross, every important event of his ministry was covered in the quiet of prayer. What was going to matter from now one, was not what everyone else thought about whom the Messiah was, it was whom Jesus knew he was and how he a man in divine light walked quietly and powerfully and completely tuned into the Spirit of God and into the spirit of the humans he came to save. What was going to happen, would surprise everyone, but the One who was baptized by John and the One who prayed at the river.
Every Gospel account introduces Jesus’ need for retreat, quiet and prayer, but Luke is particularly focused on Jesus and prayer. From his baptism, to his selection of his disciples, to his healings, to the prayer of revelation on the Mt. of Transfiguration, to his prayers for Simon, for his crucifiers, Jesus was in prayer. In prayer, God’s voice was heard on the mountain by Peter, James and John. Love ruled the day, splashing like everlasting water all over that hot desert and would henceforth everywhere Jesus was present in bodily form or in the spirit of prayer.
The One who came this day with Spirit and with Fire was the One who came for us to make us new; not only to console us but to strengthen us for the journey, to redeem us for Heavenly life and to prepare us for the Holy One to call us by name. In every baptism since Christ’s, we are named and marked as Christ’s own forever.
We baptize new members of the church because John and Jesus baptized. Every baptism we celebrate in our church is an occasion for an epiphany, a revelation of our union with the Trinitarian God. We pray and we make promises to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The sponsors and infants, the children and the adults come into our midst to receive our prayers, promises and to receive the holy water of baptism administered by the Holy Spirit. Through the laying on of hands, the sprinkling of water, through promises, we are buried with Christ in his death and rise to new life by the Holy Spirit. We share in Christ’s resurrection and are reborn by the Holy Spirit and a new instrument of God’s peace comes into our community and into the world to answer and fulfill God’s call to the favor of God.
Every time we baptize a baby, a child, a middle schooler or an adult, let us align ourselves with the candidate when we renew our vows to relinquish our attachments to that which is not God. Let us renew ourselves in prayer and in the reminders of our baptisms in the sharing of the Holy waters of baptism. Let us bless and approve of the baptismal candidate as God did for his Son, so that, we too, can anoint the candidate with our love and approval, so that they will know that not only is God pleased with them, but that we are also well pleased with them. Let us take our baptismal candidates under our wings so that they may know the love among us in the covenant community that assures us of God’s eternal grace. Through the witnessing of baptism and through the prayerful renewal of our vows, let us pray for the implantation of the spirit within us and among us to renounce private and system sin as we announce the power of love of Christ in the world. Amen.