First Sunday After the Epiphany
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 9, 2022
Good Morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the First Sunday after the Epiphany on which we and the wider church observe the Baptism of Jesus. This commemoration follows closely on the heels of the story of the Epiphany, that of the Magi following the star to Bethlehem that we heard last Sunday. The two stories – the Magi and Jesus’ baptism – work together as a pair or doublet in our Church Year, bringing us into this season of glory that emerges from the good news of Christmas. A third story also traditionally linked to these two is the Wedding at Cana, which is only assigned in this, the third year of our three-year annual cycle of readings. Next week that story gets added to our Epiphany chain. While these three linked stories have for centuries bathed the church in an Epiphany light, the calendar as updated in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer created a full season of Epiphany, different than how it had been embodied by our church before. And so this morning we step fully into a season suffused with the themes of revelation and manifestation, of light and glory, as well as of seeing, of perceiving that light. We might think of this time as a season of the senses, in which we are invited to take in the glory and grandeur of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, shining out to us and to all creation “like shook foil,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it. This glory glows in the most unlikely places, bathing us in its light and transforming us through that immersion. Epiphany grounds us in the glorious mystery of Christ and invites us to seek, to expect the presence of God’s light, even in the midst of uncertainty, the unexpected, or deep shadow.
This morning we receive that glorious grounding through water, or more specifically through Jesus’ baptism. Ever since its occurrence, people have wondered why Jesus would need to have been baptized in the first place. Given that part of the meaning of baptism has long been associated with cleansing from sin as well as newness of life and incorporation into the wider body of Christ, how might the disciples who witnessed this moment, and how might we, understand its significance? In our passage from the Gospel of Luke we hear that followers of John the Baptist wondered if he, John, might be the Messiah. Intriguingly John’s response emphasizes baptism: “I baptize with water but the one coming after me…will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). Jesus’ power, what makes John unworthy even to untie the thong of his sandals, was signified in his baptismal practice. And yet in the next moment suddenly John is baptizing Jesus. The style of its telling downplays John’s significance as the one doing the baptizing – “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” it begins (3:21). Jesus is immersed just as we are.
One line of early Christian response to this wondering about how to understand Jesus’ own baptism is witnessed by the second century C.E. theologian Ignatius of Antioch. In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius evokes the apostle Paul’s language about the cross being a sign of foolishness, but to him, to Ignatius, not just the cross but the whole story of Jesus, beginning with the Incarnation is about God’s outpouring wisdom breaking through barriers of propriety and prudence. Christ “was born, and was baptized,” says Ignatius, “that by himself submitting [to John’s baptism] he might purify the water.” The waters of baptism have their cleansing, healing, collective bodily joining, life-galvanizing impact because of Jesus’ immersion with us. I see in such early Christian readings of Jesus’ baptism an elaboration on what we see in Luke’s description. Jesus’ baptism joins us in solidarity, jumps into our proverbial mess, and transforms us with his glorious presence. It’s not that his is a kind of drop of green Palmolive liquid suddenly scattering the grease from our collective dish pan, or super chlorine for our pool…. I think of this baptism as akin to a warm soaking bath for all of us, as if through Jesus’ own baptism we are met, upheld, soothed, healed, made whole. In Christ we rise from that bath transformed.
And that transformation comes not only sacramentally, in our own original baptisms, but also through our ongoing call to train our senses to see God’s glory in our world, to receive it and help extend its invitation to others. Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism also has a distinct emphasis on prayer. It is not simply when Jesus emerges from the water but when he is praying that the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends upon him, and the voice emerges from heaven. Prayer is especially important to the Gospel of Luke’s portrayal of Jesus. In his version of the Transfiguration story, which we will hear at the close of this season of light, it is when Jesus is praying that he is transfigured (Luke 9:29). When Jesus is praying in our story, he hears a voice speaking directly to him, “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Luke’s detail that Jesus was praying suggests a Jesus who intentionally is immersing himself in his world, in our world, opening himself to the people and situations around him, grounding himself in God the Parent who had sent him into our world, and calling us to prayerfully attune our senses to God’s call, a call that flows out to us as an awe-filled response to God’s glory. Significantly, the next moments after our story show that call as taking Jesus deep into challenge, into the desert where he would be tempted for forty days and forty nights, as we’ll hear at the beginning of Lent. But in this moment, Jesus’ baptism with its open, prayerful response can remind us of his immersive solidarity with us, inviting us to train our senses to look for God’s glory in the midst of whatever uncertainty may be unfolding in our lives.
It can be so easy when faced with uncertainty, as we continue to be in this time of COVID, with the ongoing surge of the omicron variant, to feel overwhelmed, and to descend into a space of reactive fear. And it isn’t that we have no reasons for concern. Yet in this moment, we are reminded of God’s glorious presence immersed with us, consoling and healing, and filling us with life, continuing to extend God’s call to us, opening us to unexpected newness of life. I’ve been reflecting on how hard it can be to open oneself to that call, to that newness when so much is uncertain or difficult. As I’ve done so, a memory has come back to me from years ago of when Kateri and I were preparing to move from the Philadelphia to the Boston area. We were very young, just out of college, and we were heading to graduate programs, so we did know a significant amount about we were heading into. And yet in so many ways, we also knew nothing. We didn’t’ know where we would live, or who we would meet. We were overwhelmed. Particularly, we struggled with leaving behind our friends. We knew we would remain in touch as best we could, and yet also we knew it would not be the same to live in another community. We would meet new people. But who would they be? I remember a turning point came for me when I began to get a sense of possibility in the people I had not yet met—I just knew they would join with me, challenge me, change me in ways I could not yet envision. There that helped affect this internal turning for me, by Cris Williamson from an LGBTQ-themed album called A Love Worth Fighting For that I remember cutting straight to my heart at that time. The song was called “Help Is On the Way.” The refrain was, “help is on the way from places you don’t know about today, from friends you may not have met yet, believe me when I say, I know, help is on the way.” It could just easily have been love is on the way—it conveyed a sense of something out there drawing you forward, holding your uncertainty and surrounding you with a sense of loving presence. The song felt like an invitation to train my senses, to open my heart to possibilities even in the midst of my doubt and fear.
Yesterday with several other people from the Food Pantry community, I attended a funeral for Peter O’Sullivan. A longtime volunteer from the neighborhood who died recently, Peter had immigrated from Ireland in his mid 20s with next to nothing. He spent time first in Canada, and saved up money to come to the U.S. several years later, delayed because of a quota at that time on people from Ireland allowed into this country. For a period of time early in his stay, he lived in a rooming house, sharing a room with five people, as we heard from his son yesterday. My story of uncertainty is nothing by comparison. I try to imagine the uncertainty with which he must have lived as he made his way ultimately to San Francisco in 1956, where he had a few family members nearby. I think of immigrants to this country today who navigate terrible uncertainty at a time of increased barriers and skyrocketing cost of living. I think of how in the years after his arrival, Peter gave back to the people around him, including through the Food Pantry. Peter’s story makes me think about how crucial community is, that sense of being supported by friends, including those one may not have met yet, and of being that friend to someone else newly arrived, of both seeing and revealing Christ immersed in our uncertainties, Christ to and for us. We are joined, mysteriously immersed, already met in and by a collective body—as we celebrate in baptism, and as we will renew in our baptismal covenant in a few moments. With God’s help, by the light of God’s glory, we are being ushered into the next steps along our journey.
This is true for us, St. Aidan’s. We have been baptized into a body, into a love that is always already immersed with us, cleansing us, making us whole and new, even in the midst of uncertainty. This day, this season, we are invited to open our hearts anew, to train our senses to perceive the glory of God in all its unexpected grandeur shining out like shook foil. And in our wonder, our awe, we are invited to receive anew our calling as Christians, as our baptismal covenant proclaims, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; to resist evil; to strive for justice and peace in our world, respecting the dignity of every human being and of all creation. May our hearts be opened this day by and into Christ’s glorious immersion.
 Reginald Fuller, “Epiphany Season” in Carl P. Daw, Jr. (ed.), Breaking the Word (New York: Church Publishing, 1994), 58-59.  Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44395/gods-grandeur  Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians XVIII, in The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. 1 (London & Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912, 1998), 193.  A Love Worth Fighting For: A Celebration of Gay and Lesbian Singers and Songwriters (Streeter Music, 1995)  The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 1979), 304-5.