Homily: The Baptism of Christ, Affirmed By Love

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11;  Titus 2: 11-14, 3: 4-7;  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

       Water, wind and fire: something important is about to happen, and it always helps to have special effects. So far, you may recall that the Gospel of Luke has been full of important events, especially the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, and each one accompanied by the movement of God’s Spirit. Sometimes, people have been afraid – angels appearing in the sky and all. Maybe that’s why the words, “Do not be afraid”, have occurred so often already, by this third chapter of Luke.

     Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds on a hillside have all been reassured by angels not to be afraid. But water, wind, and fire have always had the power to inspire fear in humans – just think of the disasters in recent years, including a tsunami in Southeast Asia, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and countless fires in Southern California and, most recently, Hurricane Sandy and its terrible consequences..

     And yet all three of these have a mystical quality, too: Water is the stuff of life – beginning with birth, we thirst for it all our days and someday we may fight wars over it. After all, we might be able to live without oil, but we cannot live without water, the stuff of life. Fire brings light in the darkest night and heat in the coldest winter, and harnessing its power has helped us to build civilizations. And wind – wind is the most evocative sign of the Spirit moving among us; in fact, the word Spirit in this week’s reading from the Gospel of Luke can be translated also as “wind,” and when the heaven was opened, the Spirit descended like a dove upon Jesus, standing there in the River Jordan. One can imagine that it felt like a great wind blowing through.

     It’s not a coincidence that we hear the story of the baptism of Jesus here, in the season of Epiphany. The word “Epiphany” means manifestation or revelation or showing, and suggests a shining light. This story is full of revelation – imagine the heavens as they open up and the voice of God speaks directly to Jesus, saying, “You are my Beloved.” However, there are also those words of John the Baptist right before the baptism, when he says that Jesus will baptize them – us – with the Holy Spirit and fire. Again, there’s that wind, water, and fire.

     How often we have heard preachers call out to us “Remember your baptism!” They want us to remember each day who we are, and whose we are, and how beloved we are. Even in an age when we spend so much time talking about ‘self esteem’, don’t we still long to hear that we are beloved?

When I think of baptism, I remember something that happened many years ago. It was one of the first years of receiving new converts into the church through the RCIA, publicly, on Holy Saturday night at the Easter vigil. This middle-aged woman was to be baptized who had met with us through that year, learning, building community, sharing our struggles and our joys. Those of us who had been with her knew how difficult her life had been. She stepped forward and said. “I just want to thank God for this day, that I have a chance to start my life over.” And there was that shining light, that fire, that wind, that glimpse of the Spirit at work right before our eyes that day, in that place.

   Today, in churches around the world, people are still being baptized, still being washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God’s grace and a word of forgiveness and life, still waiting to be included, to find their place in the story of healing and salvation, still longing for the chance to start their life over. The voice from heaven says, “You are my Child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

These words may come from heaven but they do not come out of the blue: they echo God’s words from Isaiah long before: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (43:1b, 4a). God remembers us, Isaiah says; in fact, God reassures us, “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49:16).

God’s love didn’t start yesterday, or even in the New Testament. It’s from the very beginning, and it’s focused on each one of us, by name. We belong to God, and God loves us. It’s as if God is trying to say to each one of us, “No matter what happens and no matter how low and discouraged you feel, no matter what is happening around you and in your life, don’t you ever let anyone tell you that you are anything but a precious and beloved child of God.”

We are Blessed. We are Beloved. Fire, wind, and water: life is utterly mysterious and yet, here in the unknown, here in the midst of all that might make us afraid, God is near to us, just as God was near to Jesus as he stood there in the River Jordan, with so much still ahead of him. As he moved ahead through it all, step by step, he knew that he was God’s Beloved Child.

Whether we can remember our baptismal day or not is less important than whether we can remember that we too are blessed and beloved. Even if we have not yet been baptized, we can rejoice that we are blessed and beloved, for baptism is a blessing that doesn’t make us or our lives sacred; but acknowledges, recognizes that we are filled with grace.

It doesn’t matter if the sky opens up and the voice of God can be heard….for the Spirit is truly in our midst and, in this Epiphany season, there is no doubt that we will be blessed to witness the workings of God’s Spirit in many and marvelous ways, from the smallest kindnesses to great healings, from stories of reconciliation and newfound faith to visions what is still ahead in ministry for this great parish of ours …there is so much to look forward to, in faith.

Something important is about to happen, indeed.       (© Kate Huey Weekly Seeds)

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