Our gospel reading this morning is very key in our Epiphanytide. It is a commemoration of the baptism of our Lord, which in some traditions is the key Epiphany event. Those in the Christian East do an annual ‘Blessing of the Waters’ for Epiphany, which for them is ‘Theophany.’ The water is blessed as a reclamation of the waters of the Jordan that Jesus sanctified and consecrated–a preemptive blessing of our own baptismal waters.
One of the greatest gifts of Christian Liturgy, wonderfully written in our Prayer Book is the liturgy for baptism. It is a crystal clear description of the Christian life, its beliefs and what is expected of us as disciples of Jesus. We look at baptism often as a one-time deal but it is really a covenant that we enter into with God of and for all of life.
But let’s get back to Jesus’ baptism. What was happening? Why was Jesus baptized and why is this an Epiphany event? Matthew fasts forward from the Holy Family’s settling in Nazareth to the ministry of John the Baptist. In many ways, Matthew portrays Jesus as the ‘new Moses,’ who supplants and fulfils everything that Moses and the prophets wrote and spoke about. So the key term for Matthew is the term ‘fulfill.’ When the Holy Family fled to Egypt as refugees Matthew says it is a ‘fulfilling’ of the prophet Hosea who said, ‘out of Egypt I will cal my Son. When John questions Jesus’ desire to be baptized, Jesus says it is to ‘fulfill’ all righteousness.
This is very important. All the hopes and dreams of Israel’s messiah are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. ‘I have not come to abolish the Law,’ says Jesus in the sermon on the mount, ‘but to fulfill it.’ God is with us in Jesus. He fulfills the expectations of the messiah but he even goes further, he is God in the flesh. There is a wonderful portrayal of the Trinity in this passage. The Father speaks his approval, the Son is baptized and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove.
Jesus is the second member of the Trinity and this baptismal picture is echoed at the end of Matthew, when Jesus commands his disciples to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
There is more than a prophet, more than a man, even more than a messiah here; this is Immanuel, Christ the Lord. This bold claim has been challenged for 2000 years. Be sure that when Easter rolls around this year someone will come up with some kind of so-called new discovery of the ‘true’ identity of Jesus. We had the DaVinci code, we had the gospel of Judas, we had the director of Titanic say that he found the bones of Jesus.
A Muslim scholar was disappointed a few years back when he went to debate with Christian scholars in Europe and he won so easily because they all said, ‘Oh that Trinity thing, the divinity of Christ, we don’t believe that anymore.’
What did Jesus say? Be careful when someone claims says ‘I am he.’ It is possible to use the name of Jesus and to have the wrong Jesus altogether. Matthew is clear–this is God with us, this is the second member of the Trinity, this is Christ the Lord.
That, my friends, is an Epiphany. Or a ‘Theophany’ which means a ‘revealing of God.’ There are some points of theology that are debatable, but when it comes to the manifestation of God, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, we must proclaim it loud and clear. This is my beloved Son! Listen to him!
But there is the age-old question which John the Baptist began, why does Jesus need to be baptized to begin with? He should be the one doing the baptizing. He should be the one making the rules, not submitting to someone else.
Two reasons why Jesus is baptized. The first is a theological one important to the gospel writers. In essence, John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was ‘Elijah’ in the scheme of biblical prophecy. So, it makes sense for the representative of the Old Testament to be giving credence to the messiah. In essence, through John, it is a final commissioning of Jesus by the whole Old Testament tradition.
But there is another reason that relates directly to all of humanity.
Remember, John has prepared for us a powerful figure (military conqueror? ancient warrior like David? Prophet?) –yet here is Jesus who is from insignificant Galilee, wanting to baptized with everyone else.
To follow God’s upside down pattern, Jesus is not taking over the world in his first year of ministry. He is among his people, in their weakness, in their foibles, in their insignificance.
One author says, “As Jesus goes into the waters of baptism, he identifies with his people in their need; that is, he identifies with the sinful humanity he has come to save…”
Leon Morris: ‘He was down there with the sinners, affirming his solidarity with them, making himself one with them in the process of salvation that he would in due course accomplish.’
Jesus, by being baptized was not only commissioned, he was identifying himself with the world he had come to save in all of its poverty–both material and spiritual. His ministry was truly incarnational, among the little people of Galilee, rather than in Rome or even in Jerusalem.
There is much we can say here. Remember when we talked about Jesus radical call to discipleship. He said, ‘no servant is greater than his master,’ and that was spelled out in the events of John the Baptist himself, who was killed for his faith in Christ.
But if it is true in the death of Christ, that if Christ was crucified, why are we surprised if Christians around the world are martyred, then it is also true in the life of Christ. That is, if he identified and was among the materially and spiritually poor, then so must we.
This brings us back to our vocation as the Church of the Epiphany, who is defined by the ‘Epiphanies’ in the gospel. If Jesus’ baptism is an identification with humanity in all of its sin and brokenness, and that this is an ‘Epiphany,’ what then are we to do? No servant is greater than his or her master.
I read recently of a new movement among younger Christians that some are calling a ‘neo-monasticism.’ It is a movement that some are undertaking to have a greater and more radical impact on poverty stricken communities. Shane Claireborne has written a book called the Irresistible Revolution in which he describes a community that he and some of his friends started to be an intentional Christian community in inner city Philadelphia. They all live simple lives (they call their community the Simple Way) and they help the homeless and the downtrodden in Philadelphia. The house they purchased was a crack house and place of prostitution which they transformed into a place of peace and simplicity. There are other places like Clairborne’s in Jersey and North Carolina and it is beginning a welcomed trend–to live incarnationally as Jesus did. I know of a couple of churches renting apartments in the slums even here in Denver to transform neighborhoods. This is to live as Jesus did, to identify with the impoverished by living among them.
Not everyone is called to this, but I hope that someone is. I hope that there is someone even among us here who is willing to live like Jesus did. Maybe it is not living among the poor, but have the poor live with us, I don’t know.
But for most of us, we live in a different kind of world. Notice that I have intentionally used the phrase, ‘materially and spiritually impoverished.’ While the needs of the poor and the downtrodden are legion, and we need to be at the forefront in this area—the needs of the spiritually poor are even greater. By the spiritually poor, I do not mean the ‘poor in spirit’ that Jesus refers to. He is referring to those who are humble of heart. The spiritually poor are the spiritually broken or impoverished. In fact they are the ones who inhabit the world we live in. They are the ones who have everything they want in terms of material things, yet they are the ones who are blind to their own poverty.
We can identify with them because it is where many of us are. Who needs God when you’ve worked hard to get ahead in the world? Who needs God when we can extend adolescence into our 40s? Who needs God when there is so much fun to be had–even if it is of the ‘good clean’ variety?
Our task as Epiphany is to be a challenge to that mind set. Our task is to find the way in which we are called by God to be different and to run with it.
Next week we are having a bishop from the Sudan visit us. I think this is an indication that we are becoming more and more different as a parish community. That this church would be the one he would want to visit is an indication that we are making a difference, that there is something about Epiphany…