Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Washed by the Waters

Nearly 2,000 years have come and gone since Jesus of Nazareth walked the dusty roads of Palestine, and still we have not even scratched the surface of the depth and significance of his life.  And while it is tempting to focus almost exclusively on his death and resurrection as we attempt to understand him, we do ourselves a great disservice if we fail to grasp the absolute significance of his baptism.  This moment in time, when Jesus waded into the crisp waters of the Jordan River…this is the moment when the world’s eyes were first opened to true beauty of Jesus of Nazareth…when they saw that he was not merely the son of a carpenter, nor just another prophet in a long line of Jewish truth-tellers.  This is the moment when the heavens were opened, and the voice of God echoed into eternity: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In the Christian East, today’s feast is called the Theophany, meaning the ‘appearance of God.’ And for good reason, because the fullness of the Godhead was made manifest right then and there…right in the water and the mud of a river that we can still travel to today…right in the midst of the world, the fullness of God showed up.  A voice from heaven, an obedient man, and a descending dove.  A baptism that ‘fulfilled all righteousness.’ A man, Jesus, full of true humility and obedience, seeking to do only the will of the God of Israel. A summons by the Father to all who would seek to be an agent of the Divine in the world. “If you would love me, follow me, and serve me…then follow in the footsteps of my son.”

But, lest we over-spiritualize what it means to follow in the footsteps of the son, and make it only a matter of an inner-spirituality, we would do well to first heed the message of John the Baptizer.  ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ Just before Jesus showed up, John was laying out a message of coming calamity and judgement.  To all of those standing on the banks of the Jordan, John was sounding a clarion call, a warning…a summons to prepare for the coming horror of divine judgment.  Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  And it was into this cacophony of judgment, into this tidal pool of horror, which Jesus descended.  Into the waters of judgment, Jesus entered as one who stands in solidarity with those on the receiving end of said judgment.  Jesus didn’t remain on the banks of the Jordan, pushing people into the waters as he shouted to John, “Preach it, cousin!” Rather, as one who fully shares in our humanity, he prepared his own body to receive those baptismal waters of judgment.  And if what we believe about Jesus is true, that he is God incarnate, God made flesh, God with us…then what we see in this divine revelation, this theophany, is nothing short of the willingness of God to enter into the suffering and brokenness of the world to redeem it from within.

It’s fitting, then, to keep this feast so closely to our celebrations of Jesus’ birth.  For the God who was born as we were, as an infant vulnerably thrust into the brokenness of the world, is also the God who chooses to embrace and enter into the waters of judgement, suffering, and calamity…all products of a world that was adrift, lost as it were on the ocean of human brokenness.  This Jesus of Nazareth began his public ministry in the same way he ended it in his death upon the cross: standing alongside of those he came to redeem. He humbly entered the waters of baptism in order to show us the way out of the wasters of chaos we so readily plunge ourselves into, time and time again.

It seems that even to those who saw him with their own eyes, firsthand, Jesus was a divine mystery.  For even John the Baptizer expected the Messiah to bring with him the winnowing-fork and the axe, to come ready to set the world on fire with his judgment.  Instead, Jesus radically reoriented what it meant to be the Messiah, the Son of God.  And by his willingness to enter into those waters of judgment, and by the sign of a Dove and the voice from Heaven, reoriented for the people the true character and nature of God.  I truly understand that God shows no partiality,’ said St. Peter, ‘but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he 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.”

So if his baptism is an embrace of the brokenness of the world, not from a distance, but from within, what then does it mean for us who gather today to ‘follow in the footsteps’ of the one that pleases the heart of the Father? What does this mean for those of us who have been marked as Christ’s own forever in our own baptism?  It means that we, too, are called to seek out the broken and vulnerable in our own world.  It is a summons for us to see our post-baptismal life as not simply about our own individual salvation, but about the salvation of the whole world.  It means letting go of the fears that would lock us in this building, and embracing a spirit of openness and courage that would lead us out from here with the Gospel on our lips and healing in our hands.  What we encounter today is a summons to live with our eyes open, actively looking for opportunities to offer the people of Los Alamos a word of hope that says, ‘Redemption is here! Follow me to the Promised Land.’ For God is counting on you, my sisters and brothers, to be the hands a feet of Jesus…to show them the way to the God of grace and mercy.  God is counting on you. For those of us baptized into Jesus Christ have the same summons given to us that was given to the Son. From the prophet Isaiah, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

* A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on January 8, 2017. The texts were Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17, and Psalm 29.

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