Sunday, January 11, 2009

First Sunday after Epiphany B

Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 89:20-29; Acts 10:34-38; Mark 1:7-11

Every year on the first Sunday following Epiphany, the church celebrates the feast of the baptism of Jesus.  We know the story so well, perhaps because we’ve heard it told so very many times, perhaps because we enter the story every time we come together with a community of faith to baptize.  In baptism, our stories mingle with the biblical story we know, a story the gospels all tell a little differently.  When we put them together, we get something like this...John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness dressed in camel skins and smelling like locusts and honey, preaching about repentance, and baptizing people in the Jordan River.  One day, Jesus came to be baptized, and at first John hesitated, claiming that Jesus ought to be baptizing him.  But Jesus insisted, so John took him into the river, as he had done for so many others, and baptized him.  Then the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven announced, This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.  

This morning we heard Mark’s version of the story, and in this story, only Jesus sees the dove.  Only Jesus hears the voice of God, who says very personally, very intimately, You are my Son, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.  To the crowd, even to John, Jesus’ baptism looked just like all the others who came that day.  He looked the same as everyone else going into the water, dusty and determined, and he looked the same as the coming out, wet.  The crowd would come to know Jesus as God’s beloved Son in the world only by watching him, by listening to him, by following him, by letting him engage their lives.

The same is true of our stories, of our baptisms, right?  We look basically like everyone else when come to the font, whether we come as babies or adults, and we look basically like everyone else when we lift our heads dripping up from the water.  I suspect most of us don’t see doves or hear voices from heaven.  Our foreheads are marked with the sign of a cross, marked as Christ’s own forever, but even that mark remains invisible.  So, others come to know us as God’s beloved people in the world only by watching us, by listening to us, by letting us engage their lives.  

The gospel of Mark has no Christmas story, no shepherds, no angels; it has no epiphany story, no wise men, no star.  Instead, Jesus’ baptism is the moment of incarnation, of the revelation of God-with-us, of the naming of Jesus.  At his baptism, Jesus learns his identity, his name: You are my Son, God says, my Beloved.

At our baptisms, we, too, learn our identity, our names.  We learn who we are.  We may not see a dove or hear a voice from heaven, but the Holy Spirit moves around us when we make and whenever we renew our baptismal vows, and God says to each of us that we, too, are children, we are beloved, and with us God is well-pleased.  We might not hear it with our ears, but we can hear it here where a cross marks our foreheads, or perhaps here, where God dwells in our hearts.  We are beloved...

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ public ministry begins at his baptism.  Mark spares only two verses for those forty days in the devilish desert and then sends Jesus on to Galilee, where, Mark writes, Jesus started proclaiming the good news of God.  Our public ministry, likewise, begins at our baptisms.  Whatever age we are when we come out of that water, whatever gifts we think we have or don’t have, we are made there part of the Body of Christ, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and we are called to be God’s people in the world.  We are called to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.  We are called to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We are called to strive for justice and peace, to respect the dignity of every human being, to support one another in our lives in Christ, and to share in Christ’s eternal priesthood.

Maybe because we don’t see doves, maybe because we don’t hear voices from heaven, maybe because we can’t see the crosses that mark us as Christ’s own forever, we seem to easily forget who we are.  Sometimes we ignore who we are, but more often I really think we just forget.  We get wrapped up in our day-to-day lives, the good and the bad and everything in between, and we forget that we are people who have been given new lives.  When we forget, being God’s person in the world is reduced to something on our to-do list: go to school, do the laundry, pay the bills, fix the sink, say a prayer, feed the dog, rake the pine straw, cook dinner, take the kids to soccer, go to church, check the mail... Our day-to-day lives wring the water right out of us and we end up all dried out.  We forget who we are.  Or we know, but think we can’t be both who God says we are and who the world says we need to be.

So we come back to the font.  Barbara Sholis writes, “The touch of water upon our lives helps us recall our place in the biblical story, and reminds us that God’s creative force is still birthing us, claiming us, renewing us.”  Every now and again, when we have the good fortune to be present at a baptism, we get a little wet all over again.  If we pause just enough to remember how our story mingles in that water with Christ’s death and resurrection, how the water seeps into our skin, and with it, the Holy Spirit like a dove, then the words of God soak our souls, remember, you are my are my person in the are my beloved...

Perhaps we can also remember that our baptismal covenant is not a to-do list, but rather a sub-text for all the other things on our to-do list.  A sub-text for our day-to-day lives.  It was Martin Luther who called attention to the difference between one’s office and one’s vocation.  One’s office, Luther explained, is the thing one does for a living.  It uses the particular set of gifts and interests and abilities and resources that any one person has.  Our offices differ, and all are part of the ongoing life of the world.  My office is priest and chaplain.  My son’s office is 2nd grader.  

Our vocation, though, is the same - it’s the same for all of us.  Our vocation uses this very particular gift, this mark we share.  The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor writes that our vocation, our baptismal call to ministry, “involves being who you already are and doing what you already do, but with one difference: namely, that you understand yourself to be God’s person in and for the world.”

There is much to see and hear as we go about being the Body of Christ, the household of God, Christ’s own forever.  The mark that we cannot see is made visible as we engage the world with compassion, with wonder, with faith in the one who saw a dove and heard a voice from heaven.  There is much to see and hear today and every day as we live into who we are, who we have been named, who we are called to be.  We are daughters and sons of God, God’s beloved, and with us, in our dry-spells and when we are drenched, with us God is well-pleased.  Amen.

Artwork: "Baptism of Christ", by Macha Chmakoff

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