By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
I would like to start out by commending you all for braving this morning’s storm to attend church. By so doing, you have undoubtedly added to your treasures in heaven. Now for the actual sermon!
Last Friday was the feast of the Epiphany. In the Western Church, the focus of that feast day is the manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi. But in the Eastern Church, the focus is the Baptism of Jesus. So in a sense, this Sunday is a liturgical tip of the hat to our Eastern brethren. And as the focus of the day is baptism, the Episcopal Church commends this day either for baptisms or for the renewal of baptismal vows. That explains the insert found in your bulletin.
Our readings begin with a poem about God’s Servant, taken from the 42nd chapter of Isaiah. I call it a poem, because the Hebrew is written in a classically poetic style. But the reading comes across more as a service of installation or commissioning than an actual poem. The unnamed Servant of God is first commended to the listeners. Then, he is directly addressed by one who speaks on behalf of God. We learn that this anonymous figure has received God’s Spirit and will be a bringer of justice to all nations, not just to Israel. He will be a light to open the minds of those who live in spiritual darkness. And he will free those who are imprisoned, both literally and metaphorically. What is particularly striking about this Servant of God is that he will be exceedingly gentle to the weak and the vulnerable: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Now, the identity of this Servant of God is a source of some debate between Judaism and Christianity. Our Jewish brothers and sisters see the Servant as a personification of Israel, while we Christians have consistently maintained that the Servant of God is none other than Jesus Christ. And today’s Gospel reading, we see that Isaiah’s proposed service of commissioning was, in fact, fulfilled in the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.
Our second reading today comes from the Acts of the Apostles and takes place immediately before the baptism of the Roman centurion Cornelius, along with his relatives and close friends. Here, St. Peter gives some pre-baptismal catechesis, explaining what God has recently revealed to him: namely, that salvation is available for all people, not just the Jews. In the course of his teaching, he recounts to them how Jesus was “anointed” with the Holy Spirit and with power, a reference to Jesus’ baptism. And he reminds them that “all the prophets testify about [Jesus] that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Here we get an echo of a major theme of Epiphany, namely, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
Finally, we come to the Gospel reading from Matthew. St. Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus is unique in one significant respect. It tells how the Baptist was reluctant to baptize the sinless Jesus and did so only because Jesus insisted. Jesus explains to John, and to us, that it is fitting that he undergo baptism, so as to fulfill God’s righteous will. For us, it comes across as an act of solidarity: of solidarity with the ministry of John the Baptist and of solidarity with the repentant sinners who had gathered to be baptized by John. Even here, we find that Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us.” The immediate aftermath of Jesus’ baptism is a theophany, a revelation of the Divine. The gates of heaven open, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove, bringing to mind the Spirit of God hovering and fluttering over the waters of the Deep at the time of Creation. And just so that we cannot possibly misunderstand, God announces, “This is my Son.” Interestingly, what happens next is that Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tested.
The focus of all three readings is the identity of Jesus and his relation to the Father and the Spirit. And part of the take-home message is that Jesus was the suffering Servant of God prophesied by Isaiah; that his ministry was empowered by God the Father through the action of the Holy Spirit; and that he will be a gentle judge who will bring justice and righteousness to all peoples.
Now, despite the fact that the emphasis of today’s readings is the identity of Jesus Christ, the lections also provide us an opportunity to contemplate aspects of our own baptisms. Most here, I expect, were baptized as infants and have no memory of the event. I know I don’t! But I know that a few of you were baptized as adults and do remember that day. In any case, all of us who were baptized by water in the name of the Holy Trinity received the same Spirit that anointed Jesus at his baptism. Now, there is only one Christ with a capital C. But we who are baptized are all “christs” with a little C, for the Greek word christos simply means “anointed one.” As a sign of that spiritual anointing, the Episcopal Church has revived the ancient tradition of physically anointing the newly baptized with perfumed oil blessed by the bishop. And like Jesus Christ, we too are meant to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to free those imprisoned in darkness. That is why, at baptisms, we light a small white candle with the flame of the Paschal Candle and present it to the newly baptized. And again like Jesus, each of us is commissioned at our baptism to be a servant of God, and with that commissioning comes responsibilities, some of which are enumerated in the baptismal vows we will be renewing in just a minute.
But one baptismal responsibility did not make it into the vows found in our prayer book. And that is to be gentle with the weak, just as Isaiah’s Servant of God was commissioned to be: to refrain from breaking the bruised reed and to avoid quenching the dimly burning wick. We are to be gentle workers for justice and gentle judges of one another—or perhaps it would be better to say that we are to be gentle non-judges of one another! I would ask you to remember this call to gentleness the next time someone at church is really irritating you—especially if that someone is me! For you never know, at that moment, you just might be dealing with a bruised reed or a dimly burning wick.
In conclusion, as you go out into the dark, rainy world after this service, do so in the sure and certain knowledge that by your baptism you have been anointed by the Holy Spirit and commissioned to share the light of Christ to all who are trapped in spiritual darkness; to work unstintingly for universal justice; and last but not least, to be gentle, caring “christs.”
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.