The Baptism of Jesus – January 8, 2107
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Epiphany is all about revealing the divine in expected and unexpected places. Today’s revelation is all about water, one of the most common and taken for granted aspects of first world life. Our tap water, flowing Jordan waters, waves on Cape Cod shores, the water of the womb, and the waters that nourish our crops and our bodies. Yet, water can be scarce in drought-ridden Africa and in Western USA, where water is still available but no longer taken for granted. 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 the wake of Christmas and the feast of Epiphany, many of us are getting back to “normal,” to the ordinariness of time, but when time becomes too ordinary, we become spiritually dehydrated, thirsty for living waters which are always here but which we often neglect in our quest for more sophisticated experiential beverages for body and spirit.
This Sunday, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, our own baptisms, and the water that gives us life. Yet, 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. ButGod’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. Baptism is not a ticket to salvation or another thing to do to earn God’s grace. It is a sign of the holy, a revelation of Spirit, and Spirit touches all of us.
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, 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 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 or not we are aware of it or even if we believe that we have fallen from grace. As the great Celtic saint Pelagius (wrongly branded a heretic) proclaims, God’s face is present in every newborn.
Acts 10 describes the universality of grace. God’s grace embraces Jew and Gentile alike. Cornelius’ household receives God’s grace just as do 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. Many persons assume that God’s grace is absent from their opponents whose viewpoints are bereft of truth and good 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. Leadership welcomes diversity, whether in the stranger at our door or the stranger on our borderlands. Hospitality includes AOC and also Donald Trump, BLM and Me Too, and MAGA. All are needing grace, and all are challenged to repent, turn toward God and each other, and awaken to solidarity with all creation.
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. Look in the mirror and proclaim, “God’s beloved child,” “God loves me,” “I am the light of the world,” or “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so/Little ones to him belong, they are weak and he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me….and Jesus loves everyone else.” Let it be so.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION, and THE PROPHET AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org