Sunday, January 9, 2011
The Rev Deborah Magdalene
In the movie, ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou,’ three men escape from a chain gang and begin an epic journey through the South, looking for an illusive hidden treasure. At one point in their journey, as they are walking through a dimly lit forest, they begin to hear the sound of many people singing:
“As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!”
The fugitives hide among the trees and watched transfixed as a large group of men and women, dressed completely in white, hurry toward a ravine where a large, lazy southern river winds its way through the forest.
“O sisters let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sisters let's go down
Down in the river to pray.”
Then, continuing to sing, one man wades into the river and beckons the first woman in line to come into the water. With a forceful shove on her shoulders, the preacher pushes the woman down into the water and holds her there for a breathless moment.
The force of a gale propels the woman up out of the water shaking and sputtering with new life. She has no time to catch her breath as another woman approaches, ready for her turn to be shoved into the water. And so it goes, as everyone takes their turn to be baptized in the river.
Suddenly, one of the fugitives breaks free from their hiding place among the trees and pushes his way through the people-in-white and into the river, presenting himself eagerly to the preacher. The preacher looks him in the eye, recognizes his desire, and shoves him into the water.
Up he comes shouting jubilantly “I been saved! I been saved!” while his friends shake their heads in disbelief. What looks like foolhardiness to them is a true epiphany for the baptized man. Throughout the rest of their journey he remains a changed man. He thinks about his actions and worries about the helpless. It was a new being that rose up out of that lazy river.
This last Thursday was the Feast of the Epiphany, and the first day of the season of Epiphany. This is when we traditionally celebrate the arrival of the wise men, guided on their journey by a bright and luminous star, to Christ’s manger in Bethlehem. The foreign wise men traveled hundreds of miles in order to see a tiny prophet who would reach across boundaries and bring all nations together in peace.
When the magi visited the baby Jesus it was a foretelling of the future of Christianity. Because of Jesus, all nations would be invited to recognize the true nature of God. When the magi leaned in to worship the infant Jesus they recognized something new coming into the world.
This is what the word ‘epiphany’ means: a breaking-through of divinity into human understanding… a ‘showing’ or an appearance of God’s true nature in the midst of the darkness of our struggles, disappointments, and fears.
The word ‘epiphany’ can also mean a “perception of truth by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” We’ve all experienced an epiphany. Cartoons illustrate a light-bulb turning on suddenly in the bubble over someone’s head – that ‘aha’ moment when everything becomes clear and Popeye has a new idea.
This ‘new idea’ shines through the ministry of Christ throughout the season of Epiphany – unique manifestations of God’s nature as seen through the saving humanity of Jesus.
We traditionally celebrate the baptism of Christ on this first Sunday after the Epiphany. It is at the River Jordan that the immensity of Jesus’ ministry to the people of God is made clear to him. As he rose up out of the meandering waters of the Jordan River “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (Mat 3:16)
As Matthew tells the story, this is the first time that Jesus hears the voice of God, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mat 3:17) It is only after the baptism and this anointing by the Spirit of God that Jesus begins his public ministry.
In his novel, ‘The Last Temptation’, Nikos Kazantzakis explores how Jesus might have suffered before his baptism by John. He imagines that as Jesus reached adolescence he began to experience crushingly painful headaches that accompanied frightening ideas about his own death and the suffering of his people.
Except for the pain, these experiences were all shadowy and indistinct. The teenaged Jesus felt the deepest part of his being struggle with these bizarre visions that came from an even deeper and mysterious place within him. It was not until his meeting with John the Baptist that Jesus discovered the truth of his destiny.
Matthew emphasizes that it takes two important figures coming together in righteousness in order to complete God’s plan. The Baptizer immediately recognizes the holy nature of Jesus and begins to back away from him in humility. “No, no, it is you who should be baptizing me!”
But Jesus draws John back to him with the words, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." (Mat 3:15) And so the baptism becomes a dual act, an obedient coming-together of the baptizer and the baptized, setting the stage for God to show himself to Jesus.
The word, ‘righteousness’ is very important to Matthew. He uses either the word ‘righteous’ or ‘righteousness’ repeatedly throughout his gospel, drilling the concept it represents into our understanding.
So. What does ‘righteousness’ mean to Matthew? Joseph is called ‘righteous’ when he takes his dreams seriously and agrees to wed Mary and make a home for the Christ child. Jesus teaches that those who hunger and thirst for ‘righteousness’ are blessed and will be fed. (Mat 5:6) He says again, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and all that you truly need will be given to you. (6:33)
Righteousness can mean justice, uprightness, and redemption. It can be an attitude or an action. When we comply with God’s righteousness it implies that we are working, with unified attitude and action, toward the completion of God’s work on earth. We are literally bringing in the Kingdom of God with God.
Jesus and John the Baptist work together as equals, conforming their actions to God’s righteousness. This public moment becomes the template for all future baptisms in the name of Christ.
When the priest helps the child of God emerge from the water bath, they have participated together in the birth of a new being. For Christians, each time we witness a baptism we remember not only the moment of Christ’s own baptism, but his death on the cross.
Like the preacher in the movie, the cross shoves Jesus into the darkness of the river of death, where he stays long enough for us all to lose hope. Then, in complete alignment with God’s righteousness, Christ rises from the depths of the grave as a new and radiant being.
This is our promise, as baptized members of Christ’s family. Like Jesus, we know that we are beloved by God, and that we now share his new and radiant life in our lifetime and in the next.
Baptism is where it begins. Eternity is where it continues. It is the water that is our physical and outward reminder that we are part of God’s plan.
The oil used to seal the new Christian is a reminder of the epiphany of God to Jesus. As Jesus heard the voice of God, we hear the voice of the priest saying, ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.’ (BCP p.308)
This public act of adoption into Christ’s family was so important to the early Christians that it became part of their earliest creeds. In fact, in the reading we have today from Acts we hear an early form of this creed in Peter’s speech to Cornelius and his family:
“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-- he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:36-38)
Peter’s speech reminds us of the close link between Christ’s baptism in the water, followed by the sealing of the Holy Spirit. And at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he makes clear that the mission of the new Church is inseparable from baptism.
After the resurrection, Jesus appears to his closest followers, saying powerfully, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And lo, behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mat 28:19-20)
Jesus and John the Baptist showed us how to align ourselves with God’s righteous plan for his world. It is in baptism that we celebrate the new life we have in Christ as we are joined to Him and adopted as God’s own children forever.
Whether or not we remember the event, at our baptism God takes up residence in our hearts, willing us daily to pay attention to the holy and righteous purpose of God seeking to live through our attitudes and actions.
Like Christ, our ministry begins at the moment of our baptisms.
We belong to God, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are all gathered at the river, looking forward to the day when we will rise with Christ to life eternal.