The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts on next Sunday’s sermon,
The Baptism of the Lord (1st Sunday after Epiphany)
John W. B. Hill
The Baptism of the Lord was, until the 20th century, the forgotten treasure — dropped from the western church’s calendar and lost from our consciousness. Epiphany originally celebrated both Jesus’ nativity and his baptism; it is the most ancient festival of the Messiah’s coming into the world. When December 25 took over the celebration of the nativity, the focus of Epiphany became his baptism alone — until sentimentality trumped theology, and the Jordan River was replaced by astrologers! The baptism of Jesus disappeared from our liturgical tradition, notwithstanding the importance it has in all four versions of the Gospel: the manifestation of God’s redemptive presence in our flesh. Now we must work to restore the consciousness we lost.
If the voice from heaven echoes both Psalm 2 (“You are my son...”) and Isaiah 42 (“...my chosen, in whom my soul delights”), then the baptism of Jesus was a sign of glorious promise for the entire world. Here, standing in the water of the Jordan River, is Israel’s ‘anointed one’ upon whom God has “put his spirit,” who “will not grow faint...until he has established justice in the earth.” He is “given...as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.”(Isaiah 42: 1, 4, 6)
What was the secret of Jesus’ astonishing freedom from the allurements of power, from the self-serving expectations of his friends? This story merely hints at something which becomes a central theme in the fourth Gospel: Jesus seeks to do only the will of the One who sent him, knowing that “the Father has given all judgment to the Son.”(John 5: 22) His supreme concern is to know the Father’s will; his supreme delight is knowing the Father is pleased with him. This is the sure compass of his life; because he covets no other approval, he knows the perfect freedom of serving God alone. Our world has never had a more incorruptible model or a more brilliant moment of opportunity.
Yet, here at the Jordan, what we hear about is not just the dawning hope of God’s reign of justice, peace and reconciliation, but the mounting peril of human catastrophe. The forerunner summons people to repentance, to escape “the wrath that is coming!” (Matthew 3:7) Jesus not only agrees with John; he joins the crowds and descends into the waters of judgment. Others may have entered those waters in fear, repenting of their sins; Jesus enters the water in compassion for a world in crisis, repenting for the sins of us all.
But in the end, we balked at the prospect of this ‘kingdom’ he was launching, and unleashed the crisis upon Jesus himself. Gordon Lathrop, writing about Jesus’ baptism, says, “God’s Son stands with a needy world, longing for God and God’s reign to replace horror, oppression, and death. Then it is no wonder that the death of Jesus is also called his ‘baptism,’ where the same identification with need occurs, but where that reign paradoxically begins to arrive.”[i]
For centuries, we have practiced baptism as a rite of social conformity. This Sunday’s celebration invites us to rethink the meaning of our baptism in the light of Jesus’ baptism. Not only have we have been baptized into his mission, to proclaim the hope of God’s reign of justice, peace and reconciliation; we have been baptized into his death to become, as his risen body, the living sign of that justice, peace and reconciliation for the world.
John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, council member of APLM, and chair of Liturgy Canada.
“Baptism of the Christ” by Daniel Bonnell (St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem)
[i] Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday: the New Testament and the reform of Christian worship (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012) 171.