January 8, 2012 – Epiphany 1B
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
© 2012 Evan D. Garner
Throughout my life, there have been some bits of news that I have preferred to share with my father and others that I have preferred to share with my mother. Usually, it was the threat of punishment that helped me instinctively make that decision. Once, when I found myself in particularly hot water, I called the house, silently praying that my mother would answer the phone. When it was my dad who picked up, the first words out of my mouth were, “Is mom there?” He saw right through it.
Other times, though, I’ve turned to my father first. I was never an all-star at anything, but, on the rare occasion when I achieved something nominal on the sports field, my dad was the one I wanted to tell. Likewise, when I decided to ask Elizabeth to marry me, I didn’t even think of calling my mom. I went straight to my father’s office. There are some events in my life that I want to share with my father because I want him to be proud of me. And there are others that I’d rather keep from him because I don’t want to disappoint him. I think that says a lot about my need for my father to be pleased with me.
I wonder whether Jesus felt that way when he came up from the water and heard his heavenly father declare, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. It’s a part of the Epiphany season because, in that moment, when Jesus broke through the river’s surface, God revealed something both to his son and to the rest of the world. In that revelatory experience, as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, God showed us who his son really was. And he also showed us that the world would never be the same.
For me, the key to understanding how the world changed on that day is held in the nature of the baptism itself. Up until that moment, the only baptism that the world knew was a baptism of repentance. That’s what John the Baptist was up to in the beginning of our gospel lesson. He “appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” His baptism was a washing off—a cleansing from sin and guilt and shame. It wasn’t anything new, and, in Jewish and Islamic culture, it continues to this day. By focusing on repentance and forgiveness, that baptism was and is an attempt to wash off that which has contaminated a person.
But Jesus’ baptism has more to do with putting on than taking off. John baptized with water, but Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit. That means that this moment was a break in human history—a dividing line that separates the old from the new. The old baptism was about washing away sins, but the new baptism was about enduing someone with the Holy Ghost. That’s what happened in our lesson from Acts, when Paul came upon some disciples in Ephesus. He asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?” And they replied, “No, we didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit.” They had received the old baptism, so Paul baptized them anew, and this time they were filled with God’s Spirit.
There’s a difference between the baptisms of John and Jesus, and it’s a little like the difference I feel when I have something to tell my father—whether I’m ashamed or proud. When I do something that brings dishonor upon my family, when I disappoint my parents, I want to wash that guilt away through any possible means. In that moment, when I’m immersed in my shame, I would do anything to regain my father’s esteem. But, when I come home with my head held high because I have done something to bring honor to my family, I smile because I know that my dad will say, “I am proud of you, son.”
When Jesus’ head broke through the water’s surface, he was the same as he had been before he was plunged into the river. Jesus was always God’s beloved son. But, when Jesus was baptized, the world changed because in baptism Jesus declared to us that we, too, might receive the Holy Spirit and be named God’s sons and daughters. After that, nothing was the same. Because of Jesus’ baptism, our relationship with God is no longer defined only by whether we have been washed from our sins. Instead, God shows us that our relationship with him is defined by our adoption as his beloved children.
I’m guessing that almost all of us were baptized. Most of us were baptized when we were infants—a moment we can’t remember. A few of you were baptized as older children or as adults, which means that you can probably remember what that baptism was like. But whether you can remember it or not, I’m willing to bet that the sky wasn’t torn open, that the Spirit didn’t descend upon you like a dove, and that a voice didn’t thunder from the heavens. But I bet you can remember a moment when someone you admire was proud of you. Maybe you can even remember a time when your mother or father introduced you to someone else by saying, “This is my son…,” or “This is my daughter…my child who makes me proud.”
When we receive the Holy Spirit—when we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection—God says to us, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” When we believe in the power of Jesus to make us new, when we accept that which he has done for us, we become God’s sons and daughters. Because of that, we no longer have to worry about whether God will be proud of us. We no longer need to fear that we might bring shame upon our family. The only thing that matters is that God loves us, and that he has chosen us to be his children. Amen.