January 13, 2019 - Rev'd. Kevin Corbin Smith
SERMON – THE BAPTISM OF CHRIST 2019
THE 1ST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY
ST. CLEMENT’S CHURCH, SEATTLE KEVIN CORBIN SMITH
RECTOR AND PREACHER
The crowd is rather thick out to the Jordan. It’s been like this for weeks: people in droves confronting the midday sun and the dusty road in a long, disorganized procession out to the plush, cool trees surrounding the river.
They’ve heard that John has a message of repentance and hope culminating in a dip in the river –
a dip of refreshment from the hot, Middle Eastern sun.
Among this procession is the unknown Jesus of Nazareth,
prodded by something deep within his heart to go and see what his cousin is up to.
But it’s more than that. It’s more than John.
The journey from Nazareth to the River Jordan is about 30 miles – a day’s journey if one starts at dawn.
Along the way, Jesus stops to rest and eat from the rough linen sack his mother has prepared for him.
A skin of water helps wash it down.
Then again he is on the move with the rest of those on the journey.
Eventually, in the distance, as the crowd gets closer, singing can be heard. The ululation of women stands out distinctly as well as the beat of drum.
Soon, one can make out the words of a Psalm being sung.
And as they get closer, the breeze sends a cool air off the river.
They are almost there.
The words of the Baptist rise above the singing. He preaches repentance – a turning from the ways of the world – from greed and fear and competition – to obedience and peace and compassion.
And then the next line forms to go down into the shallow waters of the Jordan where John pours water on them, a symbol of letting go of the old and the taking on of the new.
The Baptist sees his cousin in the line leading down into the water. And then he is standing there in front of him.
“What are you doing here, Jesus? This is not for you. You are beyond all this.”
Jesus looks deeply into the eyes of John. “Just do what needs to be done.”
John asks no questions as his cousin kneels in the waters of the ancient river. He lifts the water in his hands and pours.
From seemingly nowhere,a dove flies over head and circles the Baptist and his cousin.
She flits here and there,
soaring over the people singing and the line down into the water.
Then she returns and hovers over the two men. And Jesus hears deep within himself, “You are my Son, my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” Then the dove soars into the sky and into the midday sun. And she disappears.
This is the beginning. This is the beginning of a life that will change the world forever. This is the beginning of a new movement firmly rooted in the Prophets who have come before him but profoundly new.
It’s the beginning of a message that denies a deity of retribution and proclaims a God of forgiveness, peace and compassion.
It is a message that calls the powerful to account and the powerless to their rightful places in God’s economy.
It is a witness to the heart of God that puts people before institutions; that puts compassion, forgiveness and mercy over greed and fear and vengeance.
And yet, as the waters that have given him the power to proclaim, live and embody this message it awakens within the powers that be such hysteria that the only response they can perceive is his annihilation.
And the power of the water allows him to let go – to be their willing victim. He releases all ego understanding that to respond otherwise is to take on their way of life that leads to a much darker and more profound loss than even death itself can bring.
And three days later he is raised, not resuscitated, but renewed as God proclaims through him
that neither greed nor fear nor vengeance nor retribution nor even death itself is the last word
and never has been.
The Early Christians understood this story at their core. They studied it, they lived it for the three years before they ever got near the waters. They understood that to be a disciple of the Nazarene, they too were being called to embody the same message and suffer the same consequences.
And in the moments before they descended into the waters of their baptism, they symbolically die with Jesus.
And in splashing up out of the water they are raised with him understanding that with him they could never be defeated.
These are the ones who continued to speak out against the cruelty and injustice of the Temple and the Roman occupiers; the ones who stood in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized and the loveless; the ones who sometimes suffered the same fate as their Lord knowing how the story ends –
that God cannot begin and has never even begun to be defeated; that the powers of love and mercy and forgiveness and compassion are not negotiable nor can they be overcome.
Through the centuries, this is why people have been baptized and made Christians. And while Holy Mother Church may have floated other meanings on sacred waters, the central core of this outward and visible sign still contained the power of its spiritual grace: the creation of a new being in the image of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God, the Incarnate One.
Entrance into the Christian Community is not about getting into heaven. Baptism is not fire insurance.
It is about being the heart and hands and feet of God because it’s the only way in which God can communicate to the world.
Baptism is about speaking truth to power, about shining light on darkness, about being hope in the midst of the storm understanding that such things come with great risk, even the loss of self and all we hold dear.
It is the price we are asked to pay to be a disciple of Jesus.
We have come to the point in our own history that we live on the cusp of insanity. Totalitarian authoritarianism again rears its ugly head as it did two thousand years ago,as it did seventy years ago in Europe, as it has throughout the centuries where tyrants and despots have used oppression and coercion for their own personal gain.
And Christians from every corner are coming out of the woodwork to be the mouthpieces and hearts and hands of God because we possess the power to do so because of a simple ritual that has given us life.
So, this morning, we re-up our discipleship to Jesus. We reaffirm the vows we made or were made in our name at the moment we splashed out of the waters.
We reaffirm the core of our being to being Christ for the world; for being light in the darkness and hope for those who live in fear and in the shadow of death.
Along with re-upping, we acknowledge the risk we are called to make and the consequences we may face.
We understand that being a Christian in any age isn’t just about beautiful music, pleasant and pious words and wafts of incense.
We come to recommit ourselves to the true meaning of our lives begun by the simple pouring of water.
St. Paul reminds us,
“If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” And who is this him?
He is the one who began all this before the beginning of time.
He is the one started it all in the waters of the Jordan. He is the one who gives meaning to our lives and hope to the world and light in the darkness. That him is Jesus Christ our Lord.