Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Isaiah 43:1-7
Baptism of Jesus
The refrain “Happy New Year” is still ringing in the air. For some of us, its echoes are likely stirring up the kinds of hopes and dreams that new beginnings seem to invite. What kinds of exciting new things will come your way this year? Perhaps this is the year you have decided to take that dream vacation. Perhaps you are filled with the anticipation of transitions with all the joys and challenges they bring.
You might be looking toward big changes that will take place later in the year – we have some young people anticipating leaving home for the first time, or continuing study in a new, untested environment; for you, perhaps retirement is in the wings. Perhaps there is the expectation of a move, or big, potentially life-altering decisions that need to be made, or the anticipation of new life with the addition of a new member of the family in the coming months.
For others, the anticipation of new things may bring fear. Perhaps there is hopelessness because you can’t imagine a new thing coming, or you are concerned or frightened about the changes the new year will bring to your life and to your loved ones. You may be expecting changes that will present challenges you are not sure you are equipped to handle, and a future you really don’t want to face right now.
Perhaps you are dealing with loss, and expectation just doesn’t seem to mean what it used to. Maybe you are looking out at the political landscape and the increasing polarization of society. As we face the uptick of the political cycle and an election year that promises, frankly, to be quite ugly, dread may be winning over hope in your heart at the start of this year.
This is the reality into which God speaks through the scriptures this morning. God speaks to the people of old, but also speaks into this time and this place, and indeed, into this time of expectation – whatever that means to you today.
It is a new year – we are only 10 days into 2016. In the secular world, the new year traditionally signals a time ripe with fresh starts and new opportunities, including the chance to begin a new course of healthy living, or to engage in an activity too long ignored or set aside.
Here in the church we begin this new year of 2016 as we begin each new calendar year, in the season of Epiphany – a season framed by the revelation of Christ as the Son of God, the Messiah, the long-awaited one. It is the season of new light, of opening our eyes and our minds and our hearts to fresh understandings about who God is, what God is doing, and the lengths to which God will go to break down the barrier between heaven and earth and to remove the age-old separation between God and God’s creation.
God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s unmerited favor to us, that thing we call “grace,” are at the core of God’s action and God’s revelation in this epiphany.
And so, on this Sunday, the first Sunday after the Epiphany of Christ that was heralded by a guiding star and the magi, these words begin our gospel reading: “As the people were filled with expectation…”
The reading goes on that to explain that the thing the people are really wondering about is John the Baptist, the one who has gathered quite a following. He has been baptizing people, has been preaching the word and urging the people’s repentance. John the Baptist has been going around exclaiming that soon and very soon, God would reveal Godself in one sent by God as the awaited, promised, anointed one – the Messiah.
John has been talking to those who gather around him about the advent of God’s mercy and salvation, and they are wondering, with great expectation perhaps, or maybe even with a sense of trepidation, about John himself and whether he might be the Messiah. Perhaps they wonder if John will soon reveal himself to be the one that God in fact has promised and sent.
You see, the people Israel have been existing in this state of expectation for a long time. Their lives are hard. The political landscape that surrounds and envelops them is as ugly as it is frightening and oppressive. They expect deliverance. They expect God to save them. God has promised it and so they wait in varying degrees of hope and anticipation for God’s coming to be revealed, bringing with it a liberating sigh.
The expectation of their deliverance reaches as far back as hundreds of years, and it reaches into a future that is yet to unfold, a future that they have been praying for, hoping for, and looking for. Their expectation is based on God’s promise. Near the end of the captivity and exile of the people of Israel in Babylon, where they languished for more than a generation persecuted, oppressed, and burdened, God promised to bring them home, promised to bring them freedom and relief.
Now, hundreds of years later, again oppressed, again persecuted, again burdened and hoping against hope for God to save them, these words from God, spoken through the prophet Isaiah, seem to speak to them out of the past and into their present, offering the balm of hope.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” comes God’s word. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume. For I am the LORD your God, the holy One of Israel, your Savior.” This is God’s signature of supremacy and might. “I am the LORD your God, the holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
The people who surround John have been filled with expectation and anticipation, and hope and longing for as long as they can remember. They have been filled with hope that the promised Messiah would come and that through him God would do something amazing, fabulous, and everlasting - for them.
Their sense of longing has been building and building, filling them with the expectation that God will answer their prayer. In recent times, the rhetoric of John the Baptist has not only caught their attention but has led to a heightening of their sense of anticipation for the coming of the Lord.
Finally, in this gospel lesson in which it is reported that Jesus has been baptized, as he was praying, the heaven was opened. The Holy Spirit descended. A voice came from heaven, announcing Jesus as God’s divine representative. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
At this holy baptism, the realm of God is announced, a realm where “new life” means love, peace, justice, mutual support, freedom, and dignity hold sway over the complicity of the old age of sin and rebellion. In this text, we are reminded that that which separates us from God is no longer. In Jesus, God enters the world – God is no longer up, behind the firmament, up in the clouds, far, far away from us and from our struggles, rather, God is here, now, among us.
At the beginning of our worship today we remembered the gift of our own baptism. We remembered God’s promises to us. The reason we frequently have this intentional remembrance of the gift of our own baptism, through the reading of scripture, prayer and the sprinkling of water, is that every baptism is an epiphany kind of moment.
It is a moment when the heavens and the earth meet in determined solidarity, and then open, reminding us of God’s promises of everlasting love, grace and forgiveness for us all.
It is the promise that because Jesus lives, we can live too. Not just exist. Not just rest, mired in our own complacency, but we can really and truly live.
Jesus joins with us in our baptism, showing us the way. Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire – the fire of a love so strong that it transforms us into the living breathing children of God for whom God opened the heavens.
God’s claim on us at baptism is for a lifetime. It fills us with holy expectation. It anticipates for us the words we long to hear, regardless of our circumstance, regardless of what we might hope for or dread for the coming year:
Do not fear
For I have redeemed you
I have called you by name
You are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
And through the rivers,
They shall not overwhelm you;
When you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
And the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
Karoline Lewis writes, “Baptism is about promise – the promise of God’s love and God’s grace, God’s protection and provision, and the comfort of God’s community. But Jesus’ baptism reminds us that baptism is also an epiphany, and what God chooses to reveal about God’s self is not always seen in white gowns and water. The season of Epiphany….brings us closer to the fact that God will also be seen in rejection and suffering, death and denial, pain and injustice.”
At our baptism God tears the heavens open, pushes through the firmament and claims us. “You are mine.” “You are beloved.” “My grace is sufficient for you.” “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
Emboldened by this claim and promise, let us go forth, washed and empowered through the Holy Spirit’s transforming grace, power, and through prayer, to face the new year with all of its joys and challenges, living as though we believe God’s word, “For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Do not fear, I am with you. You are mine.”