In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every year we make this big leap from thinking about Jesus as a baby to thinking about Jesus as a 30-year-old man, baptized by his cousin John in the River Jordan. It’s a crazy kind of time travel, and sometimes it’s hard to get our minds around the fact that Jesus is now all grown up and starting his public ministry, when just 2 days ago we celebrated the visit of the “Wise Persons” from the East.
Week after week in the season of Epiphany we consider Jesus revealed to the people around him in the first years of his ministry, as well as to the people who came from far away in the first years of his life. We see gift after gift revealed in Jesus, who, in the end, gives it all back to us in the greatest gift of all.
So today we open the adult part of Jesus’ life with the story of how his ministry was announced to the world: the story of his baptism. And it’s very fitting that today we’ll be baptizing one of Jesus’ energetic little lambs, Karissa May.
We all know that a sacramental baptism involves water. We use water because it’s everywhere on the earth. It is utterly essential to our existence. As they say in Uganda, “water is life!”
And we use water because it also reminds us of cleansing, and when adults are baptized we do believe that they are washed clean from deleterious stuff in their backgrounds: sin, if you will.
But water carries with it another association. That’s something we see with water in the Old and New Testaments. Water also has the connotation of danger. We can be overwhelmed and swept away by too much water. We can drown.
But we can also be carried over it into newness of life, and in that respect water may represent the means by which wegrow and mature. It’s as if being submerged in water is a kind of death to the old person and our re-emergence out of the water is a chance for a changed, new life. This imagery is central in baptism.
Jesus’ baptism stands in a long line of Bible stories where water marks the difference between what was once, and what is now. For instance, in Creation it was water that brought life and growth to a sterile planet. And here are some other places where water played a huge role: in the story of Noah, whose passage over the flood marked him as God’s new chosen one; the story of the more mature Jacob, who wrestled with the man/angel on the banks of the River Jabbok and limped away with a stronger understanding of God’s provision; the Exodus, where the Hebrews gained more understanding that they were God’s Chosen People by passing through the Reed Sea while Pharaoh’s army drowned; and the story of Jonah, who emerged from the belly of the big fish a changed man, a prophet who had no trouble obeying God’s call and being honest with God after his ordeal.
And now, what about Jesus? After his immersion in river water he emerges with a strong blessing from God. He hears that he’s God’s beloved Son, and that God, his father is very pleased with him. What a blessing that is to hear from a parent. That we love our children, and that we’re very pleased with them. Parents, please remember this teaching from the gospel, and speak these truths to your kids as long as you live.
Now, from what we read in the gospels, Jesus gains a deeper understanding of his mission going forward from his baptism. And what is his mission? It’s articulated pretty well, actually, in the reading we have from Isaiah this morning.
This part of the book of Isaiah was written probably 600 years before Christ, and the SERVANT in today’s passage was originally the people Israel. Later on the early church leaders applied this passage about the Servant to Jesus, because it fit him so well.
He fulfilled the prophet’s idea of who Messiah was to be. He was to bear God’s light to the people. He was to bring forth justice in the world. He was to be filled with humility. He was to heal and to teach. And he would be crushed. And resurrected.
Now I want to end this sermon by challenging us to read this passage from Isaiah as if it is God giving this mission to each of us, baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. And by the way—that’s an utterly legitimate way of reading Holy Scripture. Not only was something initially written for a person or situation millennia ago; it’s also written for each of us today and for those still to be born. As St. Augustine of Africa said, the Bible is a love letter from God, written to each of us.
So let’s take a look at the Isaiah reading and see what we are being charged to do. To be a light-bringer to the nations—to everyone we encounter. To work for justice and peace for ALL people. To open eyes that are blind by way of our words and example. To help anyone in any kind of prison (and there are lots of types of prisons) find release and fulfillment. These are very lofty and exalted marching orders from Isaiah, aren’t they?
And it turns out that they’re prototypes for many of the promises we’ll be making in our Baptismal Covenant when we baptize Karissa later on. We’ll be renewing our promises to be light-bearers when we pledge to “Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” We’ll sign on to Isaiah’s charge to bring justice universally when we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” We’ll confirm our commitment to being God’s apostles by promising “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
You know, it’s really fashionable these days to complain about how awful the world is right now—in so many ways. But these baptismal promises ask us to stop wallowing in our various dissatisfactions and go and DO something proactive. Bring peace and justice. Heal people. Listen to them and help them. Stretch to try to respect every person, not just the people we find easy to be around. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Our baptismal promises rooted in Isaiah’s words are a very tall order. However--we don’t have to go it alone. How will YOU take the challenge to be a light-bringer?
May we all be able to say and to mean, “I will, with God’s help.”