January 13, 2013
Baptism of Jesus
Donna G. Joy
Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke3:15-17, 21-22
Our readings this morning are all about the long awaited fulfillment of a sacred promise. God had promised the Israelite people that he would always be there with them; always leading them into a new and promising future. And Jesus’ baptism is the fulfillment on this promise. Throughout the history of the Israelite people they were often reminded of this promise when they were in the midst of difficult times . . . when fear was rampant and hope was lost.
And that is why this message has been so important throughout the ages, and why it is so important to us in the year 2013. The culture in which we live is based on fear. We are afraid for our own personal and communal safety (a fear, of course, that becomes intensified with mass shootings such as the elementary school incident last month). News releases continue to feed our fears over health risks and issues: which germs are currently permeating the environment, what will they do to us and our loved ones and how can we guard against them? Economic, health, environmental, fear – along with so many other brands of fear – dominate so much of what we think and what we feel. One Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent makes the point that these fears are primarily shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability. Culture teaches us that human vulnerability is to be overcome with tangible solutions while our faith tells us that human vulnerability is a gift to be filled with the presence of God. Also, certain national security advisors argue that terms such as ‘War on Terror’ are intended to generate a culture of fear deliberately because it intensifies fearful emotions and makes it easier to manipulate the public. In his 2004 BBC documentary film series, The Power of Nightmares, subtitled The Rise of the Politics of Fear, journalist Adam Curtis argues that politicians have used our fears to increase their power and control over society. So, we live in a society where fear is rampant and is understood by many to be strategically manufactured, all for the benefit of others.
But today’s readings challenge this cultural penchant for fear. Even though at some level fear is a normal human reaction to war, starvation, exile and uncertainty – scripture challenges our fears and assures us that with God there is nothing to fear.
Based on my research, the phrase “do not be afraid” appears 67 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible and the words “fear not” 74 times in the King James version. And, indeed, these very words are found in our first reading, taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. These words, “do not be afraid” or “fear not” – so often found throughout Scripture - do not mean that nothing bad will happen but that no matter what happens, we will not be alone, God is always here, and there is a better tomorrow that we cannot imagine. (It may not look like the future we expect, but it will be good.)
The people to whom these verses in this morning’s reading were first addressed had every reason to fear. Except for a short time under kings David and Solomon, Israel was never really considered an equal to the big nations with which it was surrounded. Israel was almost always at the mercy of competing empires – in reality Israel was not considered at all significant to most nations.
They existed for the most part in-between other larger nations and when the conquering armies swept from one point to another Israel became – for the most part – collateral damage in the midst of larger conflicts. Human vulnerability was very much on the mind of Israelite culture and although they were reminded over and over again that God was filling that hole that comes with vulnerability with courage, strength and hope, they (like us) seem to have allowed their fears to override this promise.
So, in our passage from Isaiah this morning we hear those very words of comfort, “do not fear, for I am with you.” God is saying that he is with the Israelite people in the midst of all their fear and hardship. God is saying that He was with them, forming them, from wilderness to Egypt to desert wandering to glory and now to exile – and will soon lead them to a new place in their journey. And throughout it all, they need not fear, because that same ever faithful God is always – always – with them. God will call all of Israel from the ends of the earth, all of Israel’s daughters and sons and bring them together once again. This passage speaks of a strong and powerful God, and this God is always – always – there. This God cares for and loves His/Her people unwaveringly.
Clearly, Isaiah’s message is that better times are on the way.
Once again, when we hear this kind of assurance we often assume it means that things will be “restored”; they will look the same as they were before. But often, the new and better times will not be like they were before but they will be times when the will of God will be fulfilled.
For Christians, this message ‘Do not fear . . . for I am with you’ gains momentum as the birth of Jesus is foretold and experienced.
Early in Advent, we were reminded of Mary, a young, unassuming girl, living her rather ordinary life in the way that she had always known it to be, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, she is visited by an angel who says to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” A young, vulnerable girl, living in the midst of terrible political injustice and unrest, being called on to do something that is most surely going to put her at risk and in danger . . . but the angel says, “Do not be afraid.”
On Christmas Eve, as we remembered Luke’s telling of the story of the birth of Jesus, we were reminded of the shepherd’s role in that particular story. Those poor, despised shepherds, just doing their jobs, taking care of the sheep as they had countless nights before, living with the ongoing stresses and pressures of life and work… when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, they are visited by an angel who says to them, “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people!”
This great and glorious birth is the climax of the story of salvation. The promise made by Isaiah is made manifest in Jesus, who is the one who has come to be with us in a way that allows us to become intimately connected/related to him… which, of course, brings us to our Gospel for today: Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism – the long awaited fulfillment of this promise.
The baptism of Jesus is the moment when God’s own son becomes intimately connected to humanity, and he does so at a very low and difficult moment in history. Chapter 3 in Luke’s Gospel begins with “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Phlip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
The way Luke records the date anchors the event in history and makes the message clear. John the Baptizer comes to announce the Messiah at a moment in time when – once again - the people are filled with fear and have lost all hope. All the traditional territory of Israel and Judah is listed as being under foreign rule. Even the religious leaders were appointed by the Romans . . . but the great verses about the one crying out in the wilderness shout out to us that even when nothing is going right, even under the rule of Rome, God is still present. God is acting in a new way – God is coming to God’s people in a brand new and intimate way.
And in this morning’s passage, while John is baptizing the people, Jesus appears. It seems that he didn’t necessarily stand out – he looked like everyone else. And this ordinary looking guy (just one in the midst of a very large crowd) becomes baptized by John, and in Luke’s telling of the story, when he comes out of the water he sees the heavens open up and the spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, saying, “You are my son; with you I am well pleased.” Of course God is well pleased. Generation after generation after generation has anticipated this moment. And here it is.
People often ask, if Jesus was without sin, why was he baptized? Well, he was baptized – not because he needed it, but because we do. He was baptized in the River Jordan – for the forgiveness of sins. Think for a minute about the cycle of water, and that the water we experience today has been with us since the day the world began – was with Jesus in the Jordan River as he was baptized . . . it just keeps getting recycled. Repeatedly it simply goes through the process of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and then dispersing in various places to go through the process again, and again, and again . . . So, Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan automatically – physically – connects him to us through the waters of our own baptism. In the waters of the River Jordan He became baptized so we could be physically connected – related to him through the waters of our baptism.
And of course, the symbolism of water warrants some attention as well. (Death. Birth. Cleanse. Refresh.) So, indeed, in the waters of the River Jordan died for our sins; was born to a new life in and with God, for us; was cleansed, for us, and refreshed….. And, perhaps most importantly, became physically connected/related to each of us. We need to remember here that part of the birth narrative where it is said, “And they shall call him ‘Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’” The proclamation “YOU are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” becomes an important moment of clarity when the birth announcement and the affirmation at Jesus’ baptism merge into one great truth. God, indeed, through Jesus’ baptism, IS with us.
The Good News is that through Jesus’ baptism, God makes the same claim to each of us when we receive the Sacrament of Baptism.
When we are baptized God claims each of us as beloved, and we publicly declare our intention to strive to be like Jesus and follow God’s will for our lives. When we choose to have children baptized we make that commitment on their behalf. Not only does God say “You are mine” but we also say “We belong to God”. Through our baptism, as members of God’s family, we are enabled and have responsibility to do the things that Jesus calls us to do. We have been signed with the Cross – something like branding an animal or tagging its ear. Even though this cross is invisible to humans, we know it is there and that helps to mold our lives. Those who are baptized in Jesus need to nurture that new life so it can grow and mature in ourselves and others. That's why church membership, prayer, regularly sharing the Eucharistic meal, and Bible Study are important.
Indeed, with live in a culture of fear. But as baptized disciples of Jesus, we need not be afraid.
Through our baptism, we are united with Christ – intimately united with Christ – we are called by name – we are never alone.
“God of the torn heavens and of gentleness, of communal waters and of new names, you have washed us with the waters of your love and said, "It is good". You have renamed us, "beloved child". Knowing this precious truth flows over us like the waters of our baptism, making us gasp for air at the thoughts of such unimaginable Love. With the assurance of this name that we carry, and in your soaking love, give us hearts that want to share your love. Give us opportunities this day and every day to walk among others and say, "And you too shall be called beloved." Amen.