Year C Epiphany 1: For us, and for our salvation

After Christmas, after Epiphany, we come to the baptism of Jesus. In a way, this story is the culmination and confirmation of everything that has happened up to now. An angel announced his conception. Faithful even before he was born, cousin John, who would grow up to baptize the people, leapt in his mother’s womb at the news of Jesus’ gestation. More angels lit up the night sky and sang terrifyingly to proclaim his birth. Wise men offered gifts. An old man in the temple, and an older woman, prophesied great things about him, that he would redeem the nations and Jerusalem. John, all grown up, paved the way for his arrival on the riverbank, talking him up, announcing that “one greater than I” was coming, and coming soon.

There was a lot of excitement, a lot of expectation, one might say, a whole lot of hype to live up to.

And when Jesus had been baptized, along with all of the people, and had come out of the river to pray, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit came upon him in bodily form, as if a dove, and a voice came from heaven, the voice of God, name him as a son, a beloved child, one in whom the divine parent delighted.

It is a culmination and a confirmation of everything that Luke has been telling us up to now. It is true, he is telling us, it is real, there can be no doubt that this Jesus is the Messiah, is the long-awaited redeemer, is the One, because the voice of God, the very voice that spoke creation into being, has announced it.

But surprisingly enough, this story of Luke’s is not only about Jesus. If we read carefully this particular account of the baptismal story, we see that Jesus was not alone, nor just with John, when this took place. All of the people had been baptized, and Jesus too. Perhaps he went last; perhaps he had been in the midst of them. At any rate, the whole community had gathered at the river to celebrate their baptism together, and Jesus was among them. He took his place as one of them, as one of the community of the faithful, and it was in that context, in the community of faith, that God singled him out and fell upon him bodily, as if to embrace him, and spoke to him in a voice like thunder that seemed to come out of nowhere, out of clear blue skies.

It was in the context of the whole community of faith that the Samarians received the Holy Spirit at the hands of the apostles, and it was the whole community of faith, the faithful people of God that God addressed through the prophet Isaiah in our first lesson:

But now this says the Lord, he who created you, he who formed you:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

Do not be afraid, says God, I am with you. I have named you, I have claimed you as my own. When you are plunged into the waters of chaos, I who tamed the chaos and ordered creation out of the waters that covered the earth will redeem you and bring you back to dry land; the rivers shall not overwhelm you, and I will not let you down, I will not let you drown.

Do not be afraid; though the Holy Spirit burns like fire, you will not be consumed. Only the chaff, the protective layers that you thought that you needed but which you have outgrown, only that which keeps you from me, will be burnt away. My Spirit will fall upon you like fire, but you will feel her touch as the feathers of a dove, gently brushing away the ash.

I have named you. You are my daughter, you are my son, you are mine.

You have heard it said that God spoke at each our our baptisms: You are my son, my beloved one; you are my daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” But God did not say that to any of us in isolation. We are beloved together of God; we are not only children, any of us, but we are embraced in God’s family, and we are called to extend that embrace to all of our brothers and sisters, each one of God’s children, until they also know themselves to be beloved of God, cherished children, beloved of God with no exceptions.

The Holy Spirit came to Jesus in bodily form, wholly, fully, incarnate, because we are, we live in bodily form. We hear with our ears when someone pays us a compliment or lends us a kind word. We are satisfied in ourselves when someone offers us food or a cup of water; we are grateful for a hug or a healing touch. Even when we see God in the sunrise or sunset over the lake, we are seeing God’s embodiment in creation, in the orbit of the earth, in the movement of the planets, what we used to call the heavenly bodies.

And so our baptismal covenant calls us to love one another not only in spirit and in truth, not in ideas and prayers only, although they are vital, but in bodily form, in the giving and receiving of gifts, in the feeding of the hungry, in the blessing that comes from abiding friendship and companionship, in caring for one another’s bodily safety and wellbeing and joy. It calls us to care for all of God’s creation, the world around us which some have called body of God, to treat it gently and kindly as a fellow creature, another part of the creative act which gave us breath. It calls us to take seriously our name as the Body of Christ; a body which can offer an embrace, which can offer sustenance, which can offer protection and healing to those in need.

Some time ago, some miles away, long before I was ordained, I met a woman who was having trouble forgiving herself for something, and having trouble believing that God forgave her either. We talked a while, and at a certain point in the conversation, I asked her what it would take for her to know that God forgave her. She said, ‘I need some sort of a sign.’ I heard myself ask her whether the sign could be that a person came to her, to talk to her, in the name of Jesus Christ, and told her with certainty that she was forgiven and beloved by God. And she agreed that that could work.

Make no mistake, I was terrified at the idea of offering myself as a sign from God, but I have come to believe that the Holy Spirit was indeed working through my bodily form that day to tell this young woman, ‘You are my daughter, my beloved, and I still love you.’ And I believe that the Holy Spirit can at any time call upon any of us to become that bodily sign of God’s love and salvation, to be the Body of Christ that we are called to be.

After Christmas and Epiphany, after the private message of the angel to Mary, after the seclusion of the stable where she gave birth, which was opened up after all to the animals and to their shepherds; after their coming out to the temple and his coming forth to the river, Jesus’ baptism was an event, a party to which all of the people were invited. It was a culmination and a confirmation of all that had gone before, and it marked the beginning of a very public ministry which would span continents and centuries in its influence, in its impact, which continues today as long as his body endures.

One of my former teachers, Hank Langknecht, posted something on facebook before Christmas which struck me as brave, but true, and somewhat counter to all those “Jesus is the reason for the season” bumper stickers and taglines:

“You (and I and all creation) are the real ‘reason for the season’; Jesus came to serve not to BE served,” he said.

Jesus came for us. Jesus, the beloved Son of God in whom God was well pleased, whom the Holy Spirit embraced bodily, came among us, lived with us, loved us, was baptized alongside us, because God loves us, and has called us each by name, and has promised to redeem us, and to be with us always; and Jesus came to serve that promise.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my child, my beloved,”

And if you had been there, wet from the river, the drops of water running off you and mingling with those dripping from Jesus and from John and from your sister and from your cousin and from your neighbour and from the strange woman from along the way, drops of water running together into rivulets running back into the river ready to baptize whoever comes tomorrow, mightn’t you have remembered Isaiah, and the words that God had spoken to all of God’s people:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…
Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you …


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
This entry was posted in sermon and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s