Here is the sermon I would have preached on Jan 8, if we hadn’t canceled worship for the day because of weather. We will still speak about Baptism and Epiphany on Saturday, Jan 14, but I’m writing a different sermon for that day.
Two of my favorite “churchy” holidays fall in the same week of the year this year. They are Epiphany, when the wise men finally make it to the Holy Family, and Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River.
Both of these celebrations of the church are worth noting and remembering.
Epiphany means “to reveal”.
In the context of the magi, those foreign astronomers who followed the star to Jesus, it is the revealing of the Messiah to people outside the family, so to speak. The magi are the first non-jewish people to get their own revelation about Jesus.
In the context of Jesus’ baptism, it’s a big reveal—God’s own voice speaking from the heavens.
First we have John the Baptist, who as a child in his mother’s womb, leapt when pregnant Mary visited. He’s been waiting 30 years for the big reveal of the Messiah.
He calls ALL to repentance, and speaks of the winnowing fork and separating the wheat from the chaff.
John’s message reveals an uncomfortable and inconvenient Good News to a brood of vipers such as us.
TURN BACK TOWARD GOD.
Don’t think that the fact you were born into the right family, or the right congregation is going to matter.
John, by calling them a brood of vipers, as opposed to a passel of vipers, or a crowd, or a bunch, or a gaggle, is claiming that they are the children, the offspring, of these vipers. And surely the snakes from whom they are descended didn’t lead them to repentance. John has not much nice to say about the religious leaders of his community.
So John asks them—who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Who, he wants to know, called them to this repentance.
I imagine the crowd on the riverbanks started to reconsider following this guy. “Umm…you did, John. You’re the one who called us here. Remember? Voice crying out in the wilderness and all that?”
But what were they expecting when they came to the riverbanks? One event that would magically change their lives so that nothing bad would ever happen to them? An easy, “presto!” moment of salvation that doesn’t require any change in your life?
John’s big reveal is calling them to something much deeper. Sure, he can baptize large crowds, but if they are just going to go home and live as if everything is the same, except now they have magic salvation power, then it is just a waste of everyone’s time.
To the crowd’s credit, they seem to get it. This epiphany works. At the end of this long lecture about vipers, axes leaning against trees, and everlasting fire, instead of fleeing back to the comfort of their homes, they ask him “what, then, should we do?”
His answers are pretty specific. If you have 2 coats, you should share with someone who doesn’t have one. If you have plenty of food, you should share with those who are hungry. He might get all metaphorical with the axe lying at the root of the tree, but here the reveal is easy to see.
His answers are specific to different people as well. If you are a tax collector, those people who make their living by collecting money from their own people to give to the occupying Roman leaders, you are told to only collect what has been assigned—no skimming off the top at the expense of your people.
If you are a soldier, you should be a soldier with integrity.
Interestingly, his instructions are fairly modest. He doesn’t tell the tax collectors to stop being agents of the Romans. He doesn’t tell the soldiers to become pacifists.
Following God’s call, for John, means to be who you are, with integrity. Not everyone needs to quit their jobs and become Pharisees, preachers, or prophets. Just be who you are. With integrity.
So, heeding John’s call to repentance means that your life should be “of a piece”. In other words, you shouldn’t come to church on Sunday to be a Christian, and then rob, cheat, or steal during the rest of the week.
John wanted those who were coming to be baptized to understand the life altering implications of their actions. Living as people of repentance means we share what we have, look out for others, live with integrity, and by so doing, prepare a way in the wilderness, making a straight highway for our God. It’s a big reveal, a big epiphany, because it calls for change.
And it opens you up for trouble too.
Inserted rather clunkily into this text is an accounting of John being arrested by Herod. The way Luke puts it in the story, you wonder who baptizes Jesus if John’s already in prison. All 4 gospels tell of Jesus baptism, and I have great confidence if was, indeed John who baptized him.
In order for John’s life to be “of a piece”, however, he had to say inconvenient things to dangerous people. Herod had many evil behaviors with which John disagreed, and when Herod married his brother’s wife, (and according to another gospel), said he would have dated his own daughter if she weren’t his daughter, John publicly spoke against the immorality.
One gets the sense that had Herod come with the crowds to be baptized, after John had given career advice to the tax collectors and soldiers, he might have said, “and if you’re Tetrarch, then rule the people with fairness and justice and stop asking your daughter to dance for you. That’s disgusting.”
Speaking truth to power will get John killed. The big reveal is also that the Good News of the Gospel is not uniformly received as being good news. If you’re unwilling to be changed by it, it is threatening news.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ baptism is stuck at the end of this story about John, and John’s arrest. And Jesus’ baptism is connected to everyone else’s baptisms too. In Luke’s telling of the story, you wonder if Jesus was with the crowd at the beginning and if he, too, asked “what then, shall we do?” as they did.
This is another one of those moments in scripture where we realize our faith is personal, but it is not private. Jesus doesn’t get his own, private baptism that is unrelated to his community. He’s baptized as the crowd is baptized.
His baptism takes a turn that perhaps didn’t happen when you or I were baptized. The heavens are opened. In Greek, they are “torn apart”, as if ripped and therefore not fully able to be closed again. Talk about a ‘big reveal’.
And if the tearing apart of the boundary between heaven and earth wasn’t exciting enough, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, or a dive bombing pigeon. And a voice from heaven:
“You are my Son, the Beloved. With you, I am well pleased”.
Again, it’s a personal voice, but it isn’t a private one, whispered in only Jesus’ ear. It is not a note that God passed to the back of the class, only for Jesus to read. It’s a big reveal.
There’s still a lot about Jesus that will be a mystery to people, his close friends and family included. People will still be asking lots of questions and misunderstanding Jesus’ motives and strategy.
But in Jesus’ baptism, what is revealed is God’s love and God’s pleasure. In us. God’s voice fell on ALL who were baptized
It’s perhaps easier for us to believe God would find Jesus beloved and find pleasure in Jesus. Because Jesus walks on water, heals people, and all that.
The first part of this passage, when Luke has John call everyone baby vipers and warn them about the wrath to come—that’s the obvious news to us. We know we’re disasters most days. We get that we need to do better, even if we’re still asking questions about how to do that.
The big reveal, the epiphany of Jesus’ baptism, is that we, too, are God’s beloved children. We are as God made us—imperfect, flawed, joyful, clever, stubborn, generous, kind, and selfish. With us, God is well pleased.
There’s a circular nature to this story. We work on repentance and getting things right so that we’ll be in the right place when God’s voice rips the heavens apart and announces the good news. AND because we’ve heard God’s voice declaring us beloved, we go about the work of repentance.
It’s not cause and effect. We don’t do good work so God will love us. We do good work because we are God’s beloved children and God is primarily about love, with a side dish of being well pleased.
Imagine the Big Reveal to the world if we started living as if we were God’s beloved children in whom God is well pleased. Imagine the Big Reveal to the world if we started treating God’s other beloved children as if they, too, were God’s beloved children, in whom God is also well pleased. Imagine what can yet be revealed to a world in desperate need of God’s love. Let’s make it so.