A sermon, based on Matthew 3.13-17, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, January 12, 2020.
We have this biblical record from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, which, this day, on the wings of imagination, via poetic license, I dare embellish…
For a moment, then, a moment more,
He stood on the shore, watching,
from the sun’s glare, His eyes shading,
gazing, with affection,
on the gaunt figure, His cousin,
waist-deep in the waters of the River Jordan.
John, to all, beckoning,
his voice, bellowing:
“I was sent that thou wouldst repent,
for the kingdom of heaven hath come near, aye, is here.
I baptize you with water for repentance,
but One more powerful than I cometh near;
whose shoes to carry I am not worthy.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”(1)
In an instant, wading out into the water –
those standing, waiting, at His coming, parting, for Him, making occasion –
and John, sensing His presence, turning, beholding, knowing that this,
that He was the One for whom his proclamation was preparation,
uttered this protestation:
“Nay, as Thou art the One to come, I need be baptized by Thee.”
“Ah,” smiled Jesus, “nay, my dear John,
as thou art the baptizer, so, too, I need thy ministrations,
for, thus, it is fitting to fulfill God’s will.”
John, hearing, receiving God’s Word spoken
from the lips of God’s Word, consenting,
performing that token for which he hath been sent,
immersed Jesus in the water;
Who then arising,
the heavens opening,
the Spirit of God descending and upon him alighting,
the Vox Dei speaking to all:
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I delight.”
John performed a baptism of repentance; the washing in the waters of the River Jordan, symbolic of one’s desire to be cleansed of sin in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Thus, John could not see why Jesus, God’s anointed one, would submit to a rite of purification that he did not need. Yet Jesus chose to be baptized as a sign that he acknowledged, yea, more, accepted unto himself the whole of the human condition. Joy and sorrow. Glory and suffering. Goodness, as God so made it, and, yes, even the sin for which he, in not so distant a day, would die.
For those, then and now, searching for a Messiah untouched, unstained by the world and its troubles, Jesus is not that one. He is not distant and undisturbed, thundering moral instructions from heaven’s rooftops to the benighted masses below or uttering smug commentaries on the sorry state of the human condition. No, Jesus joined us down here on the ground. Taking active part in the drama of life. Doing, being love and justice for all people, always and in all ways, even unto death on the cross.
On Sunday, October 26, 1952, on a chilly St. Louis morning at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, I, at the age of four months, was baptized.
I remember nothing of that day. However, notes, written in my mother’s hand, tell me all that I need to know. For on that day, I was presented for baptism by my parents and the church community. They had the hope that the heavens would open, the Spirit descend, and the voice of God would declare me “beloved.” They also had the faith that in giving me my name, Paul, after the Apostle, that I would join all those with the baptismal surname, “Christian,” in following Jesus to be and do as he is and does in this world.
And so, I dare say, that is what baptism is for you, too.
(1) Matthew 3.2, 11; my paraphrase
St. John the Baptist baptizes the people, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Baptism of Jesus, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). Note: Jesus is depicted in the wholly receptive posture of kneeling at John’s feet. Above, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends. Angels prepare to bestow upon Jesus a robe, which, as John’s garment, is the color red for the blood of martyrdom.