The Baptism of Jesus – January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Today’s lectionary lens is the Baptism of Jesus. An adult baptism in which Jesus’ unique relationship with God is revealed. Jesus is God’s beloved child, uniquely called to be God’s messenger to the world.
As Cape Cod pastor, I affirm that it’s all about water: flowing Jordan waters, waves on Cape Cod shores, the water of the womb, the waters that nourish our crops and our bodies, the cleansing of a shower or bath, and the spiritually refreshing waters of baptism. The Baptism of Jesus is a time to celebrate water in its many forms. Without water, our lives are in danger. We can do without food for a few days, but water is a necessity, even in the comfort care of persons at the descending edges of life.
In celebrating the baptism of Jesus, we remember our own baptisms and give thanks for the water that gives us life. As a progressive Christian, I see baptism as a sign of God’s grace, but not a necessity for salvation or sharing in God’s love. Many Christian groups do not practice baptism, nor do non-Christians treasure this ritual of grace and inclusion. Baptism must be a sacrament, a sacred that includes, or it is not a vehicle of grace.
As we remember our baptisms, we need to affirm God’s presence in the lives of those who have not been baptized. Baptism is referred to as a sacrament, an invisible sign of a visible grace. But God’s grace is manifest in a variety of ways and not just the rites of the church. Saving grace comes to us in the touch of a friend, a word of forgiveness, a loving home, and the opportunity to begin again. God’s graceful interdependence is manifest in all things, and on occasion we discern these occasions as “thin places,” to use the language of the Celts, in which heaven and earth are transparent, and the word is made flesh in life transforming ways. The waters of baptism join us with the waters of creation and the call to care for the Earth’s wondrous, yet fragile, ecosystem.
Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized. Although John is not eager to baptize one whom he believes to have a unique relationship with God and who has, I believe, been his lifelong companion, Jesus insists on being baptized to “fulfill all righteousness,” to be in solidarity with all who struggle to experience God in transformative ways. As Jesus rises from the Jordan, a dove descends and God’s voice is heard, “this is my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” While some believe God’s voice defines Jesus as other than us, a supernatural interruption in the ambiguous human history, I believe that Jesus’ baptism and God’s affirmation is, in fact, an affirmation that Jesus is part of our story and that we share in God’s love just as Jesus did. In our own unique way, we embody holiness. Contrary to those who believe we are born into “original sin,” I believe that God every child bears the face of God. God says the same word of grace to everyone who comes for baptism, and to every child who is born. We are God’s beloved children, whether we are aware of it or even if we believe that we have fallen from grace.
Acts 10 describes the universality of grace that transcends ethnicity and class. God’s grace embraces Jew and Gentile alike. Cornelius’ household receives God’s grace just as orthodox followers of Judaism. No one is excluded from divine mercy or love. These words are especially powerful these days: our nation seems to be polarized, racially, ethnically, politically, culturally, and sexually. Racial exceptionalism, especially among older whites, manifests itself in hate speech, traumatizing children, and violence against the Jewish community.Many persons assume that God’s grace is absent from their opponents whose viewpoints are bereft of truth and good will. Yet if God’s grace is absent from persons different from us, then they have no rights worth considering. Destroying or demeaning them is in line with God’s will. Acts 10 is not just about Cornelius and Peter, but the unbroken interdependence and unity of humankind. We are all standing in the need of grace, finite, broken, dependent, and mortal. And God’s grace is offered to all of us regardless of whether we’ve been baptized, our political viewpoint, ethnicity, or nation of origin. All are welcome to share in the waters of grace.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of a righteous spiritual leader whose life will change the world. Leadership, biblical speaking, is about healing, hospitality, and justice. Leadership involves the use of power, but power is defined by love rather than domination or supremacy, whether this leadership is religious or political. Leadership is about aspiration and unity, rather than division and domination. Isaiah reminds us to challenge yet love those who conflate God’s will with that of their political leaders. Only God deserves our allegiance.
Psalm 29 is a worthy companion to the other readings. Awe and wonder characterize the Psalmist’s prayer. God is amazing in God’s grandeur, revealed in the macro and the micro. Energetic beyond our imagination, divine power courses through the universe. Yet, divine power is guided by wisdom and love. The power of God to transform our lives is ultimately graceful and intimate and not overwhelming, despite its immensity. The world is created and sustained by love, uplifting and intimate love, not the need for praise or obedience.
Today, the divine affirmation – you are my beloved – pertains to each and all of us. The ethic of baptism is aspirational and inclusive, inviting us to see all creation, including the non-human world as God’s beloved.
Bruce G. Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA. He is the author of over fifty books including “Piglet’s Process: Process Theology for All God’s Children,” “he Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh,” “A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care,” “Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry”, and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.” He can be reached at email@example.com