Sermon, Feast of the Baptism of Christ and the Blessing of the Waters, Tessa Lang, 9 January 2022

From Isiah 43, v 1 Fear not: for I have redeemed thee; I have
called thee by thy name; thou art mine.
And from St Luke 3 v 22 Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am
well pleased.

Welcome to St Marks on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ,
subject of today’s gospel reading. It is a foundational story,
wonderful for the moment the Word of God made flesh
publicly enters time, uniting heaven and earth, calling forth the
voice of God the Father and descent of the Holy Spirit to
identify and accompany the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Because his baptism sanctifies the waters as a bath of rebirth
and renewal, today we also observe the Blessing of the
Waters, an Eastern Orthodox rite adapted to spare parish
youth any health and safety risk from a wintery plunge into
Canal waters. Yet we remain mindful of the theology and
intention baked into God’s simultaneous appearance in all 3
aspects of the Trinity, and what immersion and retrieval of the
cross represents. When we add Johnny Bucknell’s remote controlled
boat to shepherd the cross to shore, the Blessing
becomes a memorable and fun way to energise our worship
and witness in our community. We enact the emergence of
Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ… remember St Sophronius, a
7th Century Patriarch of Jerusalem who protected its Christian
sites and community through uncertain times…we connect to
our own baptism and the gift of redemption and eternal life.

Then let us revel in one Sunday, two feasts – a literal and holy
double dip observance that comes on the heels of Epiphany.
Set on Twelfth Night, it marks the arrival of the Three Kings
and presentation of gifts to the Christ Child; as this year’s
reading of T S Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” reminded us, it
was a profoundly spiritual journey to the light of divinity on
earth. In this parish, Epiphany is observed with hygienically
dispensed, socially distanced enjoyment of champagne and
galette des rois, accompanied by choral performance of the 12
days of Christmas. A fitting crescendo to the season.

In our sermon texts for today, we hear God speak in both
verses; firstly, through Isaiah, the Hebrew prophet who foretold
the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. Forward some 700 years of
turbulent history for the children of Israel, to arrive at a
supernatural crescendo in a one-off, miraculous moment of
divine manifestation in the River Jordan. The melody we hear
throughout is the voice of love, of God in direct relationship
with his people and his beloved only son, the whole family!

Here is the message that rang out then as it calls to us today,
and shall sound through all our tomorrows, until its ultimate
crescendo in the glory of his kingdom come. From extending
a parental arm of encouragement and comfort to the Hebrews
in Babylonian exile in the Old Testament text, to anointing
Jesus as Saviour and Son at the start of his earthly ministry in
our New Testament passage, God advances his plan to rescue
sinful, rebellious humanity from certain death and
destruction…to forgive sins, reconcile and heal humanity, and
re-unite heaven and earth.

From the start of his gospel, Luke asserts the certainty and
accuracy of Jesus’ story; it is the truth made available to him
through the Holy Spirit, fact-checked with eyewitnesses,
acknowledged and recorded by historians and ministers
throughout the known world. Chapter 3 describes no less than
the debut of Jesus Christ as an undeniable, active principal in
history with the launch of Christianity, beginning in the waters
of the river Jordan – a real event in a real place.

Isaiah reminds us that God calls and names his own for his
own unknowable purposes. Such as Mary, an espoused virgin
of Nazareth in Galilee, chosen to be mother of the holy child
called Jesus – a very young woman not yet married from an
obscure town far from Jerusalem and the Jewish heartland of
Judah.

Another is John, the son of Mary’s cousin, born of aged and
barren parents, commissioned by God to announce the
coming of the Lord and prepare the nation for repentance of
sin, followed with baptism by water. It would have been a
difficult message to sell to a people whose religion required
burnt sacrifice for remission of sin, with an animal as proxy for
the supplicant. Ritual washing was practiced to purify the
body but was not sufficient to clean the soul. Regular burnt
sacrifices were required for maintenance of righteousness as
well as a daily schedule of washing. John would have
understood that provision of a once-for-all sacrifice would be
of an altogether greater magnitude.

He must have had a fair amount of time to ponder such
matters from a young age as he lived in the desert, an
eccentric life choice, most likely spending some time in the
settlement known as Qumran, now a national park and the site
where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered by a shepherd
boy in 1947. Day 5 of William’s Diocese of Europe 2018
Pilgrimage included a dip in the Dead Sea followed by a tour of
the park. Here lived the Essene ascetic community, devoted
to prayer and ritual purification in preparation for the coming of
the kingdom.

The Baptism of Christ occurred about 6 miles north, on the
Jordanian side, although like most pilgrims we stopped on the
Israeli occupied West Bank directly opposite. The River
Jordan has a narrow waist at that point, and we could see
where Joshua parted the waters and arranged for 12 large
stones to be set into the river bed, both symbol of the tribes of
Israel and useful hard standing for its children to be lead, at
last, into the heart of the Promised Land. The place was called
Gilgal and later was the site for the departure of Elijah the
prophet in a chariot of fire. A holy and miraculous place,
always; in November sunshine, it was also a gratifyingly busy
one.

Whether John emerged from solitary seclusion or from this
isolated group, his charismatic preaching caused many to
question whether he was the messiah, a speculation he rightly
turned aside. But as an active prophet and forerunner of
Jesus, John links the Old Testament to the New. Our gospel
portion today warns of the destructive fire of judgment – that
was then – and prophesies the coming of one who baptises
with the holy spirit, a transformative fire within each believer as
the gift of his power and presence – this will begin with the
appearance of the Messiah.

Now imagine John’s inner turmoil when the next in line for
submersion was Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, John would
know of his identity and their kinship, although we have no
record of them meeting before that day on the river. As the
Messiah, Jesus would be without sin or need to repent. How
was he worthy to perform baptism for him?

As with every documented step of Jesus’ earthly path, we see
him in total obedience to God’s will no matter how difficult,
and in solidarity with the people for whom he will lay down his
life no matter how they receive him. Jesus stepped into our
dirty bathwater and made it clean, assuming the burden of sin
and guilt generated from disobedience of the first Adam. By
his own sacrifice he raises us from certain death to salvation.
That is why he is sometimes called the last Adam. In our
baptism, we become joined with him first in death, then raised
to newness of life, graced with his righteousness, and
bestowed with his peace. This redemption is impossible to
achieve without God’s plan, Christ’s agency and the gift of the
Holy Spirit at baptism. Otherwise we would be trapped on the
hamster wheel of imperfect human nature, unable to live fully
as children of God.

Good reason to remember your baptism on this special
Sunday and indeed, whenever you look for a reason to be
grateful, feel in need of love and support, experience
loneliness or adversity. “Remember your baptism” said the
plaque that Luther placed in his room because he relied on the
fact that baptism had more power than any doubt or anxiety
he could conjure. During his most severe depressions he
would repeat as an affirmation “I am baptised! I am baptised!”
Baptism is also a foundation for living together with love and
faith.

When the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu was announced
the day after Christmas and my son Tim was awaiting the call
to produce memorial content for the New York Times, I started
reading some of the Arch’s writings, including a forward to
“We too are baptised”, dubbed the first prayer book for those
then called lesbians and gays, first published in April 1996. In
it he writes:
“What a poignant testimony this book turns out to be. It is a
‘cri de coeur’ from the hearts of persons we have first
accepted as baptized fellow Christians, members together with
us all in the body of this Jesus Christ, wherein as a result of
that baptism there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female,
free nor slave – there is a radical equality. (NB from I
Corinthians 12:13).

Remember that your baptism is not just for the first Sunday
after Epiphany, it is for life. A better life for you and for others.
Eternal life. Amen.

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