A Homily for Epiphany 1
The Baptism of Jesus
January 12, 2014
From the words of the Gospel:
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by John.
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God, what can we do as a society to make the world a better place? A world of peace, and not worship materialistic things?
Keep this question in mind as we dip into the Gospel Reading today. It is one of our “One-Question-I-Want-To-Ask-God” questions from last spring, and it might surprise you how it fits the Reading.
Let’s start by remembering or by learning the context for Baptism of Jesus. What, first of all, is the context for John the Baptist?
In our Bible, John plays such a subservient and brief role, that most of us know embarrassing little about John, or about the baptism that he practiced. There are followers of John the Baptist, however, to this day. Their sect has continued to survive in the middle east, in particular in Iraq and Khuzistan, and they refer to themselves at the Mandaeans, which comes from an Aramaic word, and it means “to have knowledge.”
They believe that Jesus was a false messiah, they generally reject messianism altogether, and they revere John as a Divine Teacher who baptized, taught, and worked miracles, leading his disciples into the spiritual knowledge of healing the world.
John’s baptism had its own history and context. Long before the time of John the Baptist, which means, John the Baptizer, or John the Immerser, there were water and washing rituals. From the time of Moses, there were ceremonial washings of anyone or anything who was unclean, there was the immersion of the priests at their consecrations, there was the washing of sacrifices, the washing of the priests hands before offering a sacrifice, the baptizing (immersion) of Gentile proselytes, the washing of one’s body after it was defiled by touching anything unclean, the healing of lepers or the official pronouncement of their healing by immersion, and even the metaphorical washing of the heart from wickedness.
The meanings of these washings ranged from the making people or things spiritually clean, to the symbolic participation of converts in the Mosaic salvation through the Red Sea. What began as a Temple ritual of purity became a more general ritual, not just for cleansing, but for preparing, or initiating, or presenting. That’s the long history and context of baptizing.
And John the Baptist apparently belonged to a community, the Essenes, who practiced a daily baptizing. It was John who gave his once-for-all baptizing a sense of urgency. For John, the Old Age was coming to a close, and a New Age was coming.
His baptism was a preparation for this immanent coming of the New Age. And in keeping with the general context of baptism, no one was allowed to participate unless they were willing to admit their guilt in not keeping the Jewish laws and expectations, and were willing to recommit themselves to a holy and faithful life.
The ultimate standard to which he believed the Jews were held, was to be a light to the nations, or as it later came to be known, Tikkun olam, which means “the repair or healing of the world.”
So even though John baptized individuals, each person was understood in the context of the larger community. Each individual was professing his or her solidarity in the Jewish community, and his or her solidarity in the great work of being a light to the nations, of healing the whole world.
So there you have it. The larger context of baptism and of John the Baptist, whose followers have survived to this day.
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The Christian scriptures, of course, have a different spin on John the Baptist relative to Jesus, who Christians know as the Messiah, or the Christ, not the political, military Messiah or Christ that some people in the time of Jesus expected, but a spiritual Christ who introduced a spiritual Kingdom.
To overcome some of the difficulties of Jesus the Christ being baptized by John the Baptist, Matthew, who started out with Mark’s version of the baptism, added this conversation between John and Jesus that sort of explains why Jesus needed to be baptized - “to fulfill all righteousness,” he says, which for the very Jewish Matthew, means something like, “to fulfill the Jewish Scriptures.”
For the early church, the baptism of Jesus and the symbolism of the heavens being opened, and the dove, and the voice, and the proclamation that Jesus is “my beloved” are all ways of communicating that the Jesus is the true light that has been born into the world.
Jesus himself apparently didn’t practice baptism, but obviously, at some point, his followers did. Not as a repeatable sacrament like other sects, but as a one-time, sacramental event, which meant what? What would you think that the sacrament of baptism meant to the early Christian community?
What meanings could the early church have adopted from the Jewish washing rituals? What meanings would they have added?
Some of the Jewish meanings that apparently carried over included: purification or cleansing initiation of converts solidarity with a community saved by passing through water preparation for a New Age.
A new layer of meanings apparently included dying and rising with Christ - dying to an old life or an old identity, and rising to a New Life or a New Identity, in solidarity with all the Baptized, dying to mortality and rising to immortality with all the saints.
Eventually, even deeper levels of the sacrament of Baptism became clear. We are not just the passive recipients of grace - we are baptized to do something. We are empowered in Baptism to do the great work, as the Jews put it, of Tikkun Olam, of healing the world, or, as Jesus put it, of bringing in the Kingdom of God.
And we are not just declared through baptism to be God’s beloved, we are given the powers to do our job - together. We are given all the wisdom, all the strength, all the courage, all the compassion, all the kindness, all the vision we need to partner with God in doing the job God has given us to do.
Even if they lie dormant and hidden within us, life, grace, and effort draw our powers out of us. In our Baptisms we are, as Gregory of Nazianzus put it, Christened (Christ-ened). We are fully vested with our true Christ Selves. And we spend the rest of our lives, perhaps the rest of eternity, living into our Baptisms, living into our true Christ selves, living into our mission in the world,
So there it is. The development of a Sacrament whose history and context span the centuries and connects us with John and Jesus and with all the Baptized in this world and in the world to come. It’s an incredible and huge vision of what it means to be Christian, of what it means to be human.
So where does this touch you? What does it speak to you? Where does it grab you mentally or emotionally or spiritually? Or how does it respond to the question: God, what can we do as a society to make the world a better place? A world of peace, and not worship materialistic things?
Let’s take a few minutes to share.
Where it touches me.... I have a daughter who has to learn everything through personal experience. She can’t learn through vicarious wisdom. During her teenage years, she had to try some things and learn some things the hard way. Several years later, it’s still easy for her to see herself as an ADHD kid who messed up.
As a dad, my job is to see in her the potential to answer some of the world’s great problems. With the training she is getting in social work, she will at least make the world a better place one family at a time. Sometimes our job is just to see in others what they can’t see in themselves.
As the Baptized, we all have it is us, working together, to make this world a better place, to transform the world into the Kingdom of God. We seldom see that in ourselves, and, if the truth be told, we seldom see it in each other. God sees in us what we can’t see in ourselves. God help us to see Christ in, be Christ to, receive Christ from, everyone we meet.
Unto Him be worship and power, dominion and splendor, for ever and ever. Amen.