The First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord, 1-10-21

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this really hard year of struggle, one of the things we have lost was baptisms. We have not done one since the onset of the pandemic. We did not know how we could do one safely. This has had the bad effect, though, of cutting us off from one of our primary sources of spiritual renewal. And after the week we have had with truly historic, anxiety provoking, political conflict in our national life and record number of infections and deaths from the pandemic, we so need to be renewed. Thank you baby Eleanor and her parents, Brittany and David, Godparents, David and Ashley, for making your Christian commitments this morning. We will make our own also to you. We will also at this time renew our own prior vows and commitments with you. In this week when so much is contested, when the truth is not always at hand, and when we can feel just so tired. I can’t think of a better thing we could be doing as a Christian community. There is something profoundly renewing about revisiting our own fundamental shared Christian commitments. And more than that, seeing those commitments embodied in the world’s newest Christian, our Eleanor. In this way, through baptism, no matter how great our losses are, our community renews itself generation after generation. Our values, our integrity, our love, our worship, our song, our generosity, our morals and sheer decency, our commitment to one another, lives on ever renewed just as Jesus himself said when he declared, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:17-19).

We baptize Eleanor and renew on our own baptismal vows on the same day that we commemorate Jesus own baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s original call in the desert was a call for renewal. It was a call to bring every burden, every pain, every sin either done or suffered at the hands of others, everything horrible, and to bring it all down to the waters of the Jordan river. And once one is immersed in the water, all of that is left there beneath the surface as the baptized rises to new life. Baptism washes away afflictions. It is a new beginning. It is renewal.

Why that is is that the water is the waters of the Red Sea in the biblical book of Exodus. The ancient Israelites, suffering as slaves of Pharaoh, pursued by the Egyptian armies, passed through the waters, leaving both the slavery and their oppressors behind in the sea. Standing beside the water, John the Baptist, invoked all that liberating power and called and continues to issue his invitation for recommitting to first principles, for renewal, and new life.

Jesus accepts the invitation, responds, and goes down to the river to be baptized. One of the most curious aspects of this story is that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. He had no past to be redeemed, no sin, no guilt, and no shame to leave behind in the waters. You might also be thinking that about our baby Eleanor. What sort of beginning is this for her?

This Sunday is also the beginning of a new liturgical season, the season of Epiphany. It is the season after Christmas where we experience and Jesus’ ministry as an epiphany, that is, as it is revealed to us. As John baptized Jesus, “a voice from heaven said to Jesus, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’” From that moment on, Jesus began his public ministry with great confidence and assurance. What we know of Jesus’ ministry is that he invited everyone to share in his beloved sonship. There is a story of Jesus with just about anyone, women and men, Jews and Gentiles, tax collectors, soldiers, lepers, the blind, sick, young children, you name it. There is a story of Jesus communicating to them that through him they share in his worthiness and are accepted and are given a place in his family called the church. St. Paul himself says, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:15-16).

Jesus not only was this life-giving presence back then, but is that now with us as we gather together. The reason why we rehearse these reading and retell them to one another, is that by doing so, by turning our attention to them, by turning them over in our minds, by incorporating them into our prayers, we can experience in them, right here and now, some of the very light, healing, and liberation Jesus spoke of. Jesus, in this way, is present to us, in sacred scripture, in holy conversation, and in spiritual practice, much like he was on the rolling hills of Galilee. It requires of us some belief, some commitment, some expectation that Jesus can find us where we are. None of this is all that different from the prisoners, the lepers, or the sick, or the blind, who in the first century needed the same kind of faith that Jesus could find them and help them.

That Jesus extends his own beloved sonship to us, does not mean that John the Baptist’s message of judgment, repentance, and forgiveness goes away. It is needed as much as ever. It is offered to us each time we are invited to remember our own baptisms and to renew our vows as we are today. When challenged on every side as we have been this week, it is worth calling to mind that our most fundamental commitments don’t change. They endure and give us our bearings even on days when everything else seems unrecognizable. I applaud Brittany and David for committing to raise Eleanor in this faith and giving her something she can always rely on even when other things prove unreliable. I also admire Eleanor’s future church school teachers, acolyte, or youth choir leaders, many of whom today are committing to be there for her when she needs them to be.

As we join them in renewing our own baptismal vows, let us remind ourselves of our own most foundational commitments. While returning to them, look around you (at the many squares on the screen) and be encouraged by how many others share them with you. Listen for the voice from heaven that in its own quiet way is still saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And thank Jesus for including you in that belovedness because it has the power to renew us, even in times like we are living through now.

As we baptize Eleanor, we do so with the full conviction that this baptism is her incorporation into Jesus’ beloved sonship that yields a worthiness deep in her soul that never goes away. May all our actions as a parish community now and in future years, underscore that so she can always lean into that love whenever she is called to change and grow.

Father, may your Spirit of love come down upon us like a dove and empower us to repent, be forgiven, and grow, but most of all, may it give us an unshakable confidence in your love for us and for all those you’ve called us to serve. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet