a Sermon for Epiphany 1A
Text: Matthew 3:13-17
This morning’s gospel story begins with the most unlikely of conversations. It is a titanic theological battle of
No, you go.
No, I insist.
John the Baptizer and Jesus dance over who baptizes who like two men arguing over which one gets to hold the door.
No, you go.
The wording, the situation, so absurd, so forced. So written to make us feel better about this shocking arrangement: John baptizing Jesus like the unwashed masses behind him—and the sinful people washed before Him.
Jesus tells John that this is the proper way. Jesus must submit and be baptized. He must walk into this mud-filled river with everyone else and be washed by someone else. He must receive baptism. It is John’s place as a human to clean the Godman.
So different from the Roman tradition of celebrating the Wise Men bowing to a toddler king as the real vision for The Epiphany. The Eastern Church celebrates The Baptism. We receive this compromise: a king worthy of wealthy gifts (earlier) sheds his clothes as an outcast, baptized as common (the following Sunday).
Submission to GOD
So many of us, but not all of us, received our baptism before we could accept it: a gift given to us without our consent or choosing. And it is probably safe to say that none of us waded into the water with a prophet, cleaned by the river, washed of the dirt, sand, and dust of labor and travels.
Most of us received a dainty sprinkle, symbolically; too young to know that symbols aren’t empty gestures, but bear the featherweight of grace. Oblivious to the Spirit descending upon us in that gathering so many years ago, and upon the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on, vowing to GOD that they would be responsible for us: that we would grow up to be this: who we are.
Our ritual is so full of the Spirit, so full of this moment of sacrifice and submission. That we admit to GOD, to the community, and to ourselves that we cannot live alone—we cannot be in GOD, full of the Holy Spirit if we refuse to do as Jesus did and submit: receive this grace.
And yet still we are so proud.
The challenge of the Baptism of Jesus remains these two thousand years. The challenge of our king swimming in the dirty water. Of our ruler submitting to the power of a commoner, even one given GOD’s prophetic work as John was. We receive this challenge in a life of submission to GOD, in eschewing desire and seeking repentance for a life we claim in our liturgy was sinless.
This is our struggle: that Jesus received redemption that we, like John, want to refuse Him. We grant Him power He refuses to receive. We raise Him to a seat at the table He did not take. Perhaps because we don’t want our pretty white gowns ruined by the redeeming waters. We want to be accepted as we are, as we always have been. And GOD says I love you, yes, just as you are. Come and see how beautiful I know you to be.
This is why Baptism is new life, because it contains death to the old. Jesus is baptized in the River and on the Cross. And with it Jesus ushers into the world a new path of love and grace.
This world that Jesus ushers in is not about supremacy, domination, or death. It is about compassion, generosity, and love.
We don’t receive these gifts because of baptism, with the water magically changing our brains to conform to GOD’s will. Nor do we use the water to confirm our beliefs and practices as good. Those waters don’t make us members of an elite club or excuse our club’s behavior.
We are baptized into life and death; a life of service and of hope. A life of recovery and transformation. A life that is so full that we give thanks for it.
A life we strive for every day. A life we make every day.
These waters are ours: in them, we are connected with GOD. Through the Spirit, we are always connected.
Let us receive them again. Let us receive them with the grace through which they are offered. Let us receive them so that we may be the very signs of GOD’s work in the world.