The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord
January 10, 2021
Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan didst proclaim him thy beloved Son and anoint him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Saviour; who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
When I wrote to you on Wednesday evening as events at the Capitol were unfolding, and again on Thursday morning, I sent you words of love that I hope were reassuring. In times of crisis it is essential to remind us all how much God loves and cares for each and every one of us, that we are members of something larger than our selves and are bound inextricably to one another in and through God in Christ.
At the heart of that message is our confidence in God’s power, moreover in God’s authority over the powers of the world and of the Cosmos, and in what that promises for us. Nowhere is this more clearly revealed to us than in Jesus’ own baptism in the River Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist, which we celebrate today. This year, we hear Mark’s version of the story, and on the face of it, there isn’t much to it. Typically for Mark, he moves us along at a snappy pace and we have the sense that if we blinked we might have missed it. Nevertheless, Mark’s account tells us all we need to know.
Mark began his Gospel a few lines before today’s passage, quoting “Isaiah the prophet: ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare the way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Without fanfare he introduces this “messenger,” the forerunner, saying “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He need not have explained the notion of a baptizer, as religious water rituals were common in first century Judaism. What was remarkable was the purpose of this rite, that it signified the washing away of sins for those who seek forgiveness. What was also remarkable was this man’s popularity, that “there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptised by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.” Also of special note was the man’s appearance. He looked more like a tramp than a respectable religious leader, “clothed,” as he was “with camel’s hair,” eating “locusts and wild honey.” Yet this wild vagabond, this charismatic preacher, was the one whom Isaiah foretold—the messenger.
And John himself makes this clear when he announces his mission: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John’s water baptism for the repentance of sins is meaningful and important. It is a sign of the work that is to come. It is the first rumblings of a tectonic shift that will turn the world on its head. The one who comes next, however, will bring true transformation. He will literally breathe new life into us with power of the Holy Spirit and inaugurate the Kingdom of God.
John’s message spread far and wide, and in his words and deeds people recognised his authority, saw that he was not acting on his own, exercising mere human power to sway the crowds with his talk, but that in him, the works of God were showing forth. And so the one of whom John spoke came to him, from the other side of the country, all the way from “Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Jesus accepted the Baptism of John, sought it out. It was a sign of his own humility and an acknowledgement of John’s authority and position as the messenger whom Isaiah foretold.
Yet when Jesus was baptised, something extraordinary happened, something that had not happened to any of John’s many followers, for “when [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’” Jesus’ baptism was with water, yes, but also of the Holy Spirit. He received a sign, a sign of his own identity, a title of recognition from God: “my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” Jesus was marked, set apart, and those who were there to witness this baptism, and especially all who would hear (or later read) its telling by Mark, would immediately recall other words by Isaiah about one in whom God delights and upon whom God’s spirit has descended:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.
Jesus was recognised as the one for whom John was preparing the way, this servant that God would send to change the world and to bring justice. Receiving the title of God “beloved” was a sure sign that for Jesus the road ahead would be hard and that suffering would encompass his work. He would face opposition from the world, and yet it would neither hinder nor defeat him. He will “not cry or lift up his voice,” nor will he “fail or be discouraged.” Nothing will stop him for, indeed, the powers of creation recognise him and expect his inevitable victory.
With Isaiah’s words in mind, Jesus’ mission becomes clear for all to see: God has sent him “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is even reported to have quoted this passage, but there is no doubt that Mark’s hearers would have recognised in God’s proclamation of Jesus as his beloved, this reference to Isaiah and the mission of the servant. Jesus has come to us; he has been sent full of power—not power taken for its own sake, but power bestowed upon him, which we call “authority”—power to transform a corrupt and fallen world, to bring healing and freedom from oppression, to bring justice, all in the name of the one who’s very being and purpose is to unite all creation and envelop it in Love.
Jesus’ baptism is a sign to us in times of crisis and anxiety, when we are unsure that good will triumph over evil, when the forces who stand opposed to justice and love seem to have the upper hand. It is a sign to us, from heaven itself, that God has already acted; that God sent first the Messenger and then the Servant, God’s beloved Son, who in his earthly ministry stopped at nothing to reveal to us that Love is more powerful than death. Jesus shows us that those who assume power unto themselves, who act without true authority, God’s authority, are subject to defeat, for Our Lord “will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.”
Today we focus on the mystery of Jesus’ baptism rather than our own. Yet, I can not end today without reminding us that in our own baptism we share in his. It is by and through our baptism that we are authorised as ministers of that same programme of justice and love brought by that beloved servant. Jesus is never far from us because we, the Body of Christ abroad upon the earth, are filled with the same Spirit, expressing the works of the Kingdom of God, of the Love of God, into time and space through our actions, through our love, through our works of justice. Jesus’ baptism unites him with us and each other and fills us with hope, fills us with the knowledge that God is at hand, and that we are loved, always and for ever.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Julia Chester Emery, 9 January 2021
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume