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First Sunday after the Epiphany

Jan 12, 2020

Passage: Matthew 3:13-17

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Baptism

Category: Epiphany

Detail:

Sermon for The First Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A - 2019)
The Baptism of Our Lord
January 12th, 2019
St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)

Isaiah 42:1-9        Acts 10:34-43        Matthew 3:13-17

 

Years ago in a small town in SC, the town drunk stumbled across a Pentecostal baptismal service on Sunday afternoon down by the river. Curious to see what they were doing and being freed from his inhibitions, the drunk proceeded to walk down into the water and stand next to the preacher. The preacher, not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to save a lost soul, asked the drunk, “Brother, are you ready to find Jesus?” The drunk replied, “Yes, I am.”

The preacher then dunked the man under the water and pulled him right back up. The preacher asked, “Have you found Jesus?” The drunk said, “No, I didn’t!” The preacher then dunked him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up and said, “Now, brother, have you found Jesus?” The man replied, “No, I did not.”

The preacher then dunked the man again and held him under for at least 30 seconds. This time the preacher brought him out of the water and said, “Well, NOW have you found Jesus?” The drunk wiped his eyes and said to the preacher... “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”

I’d be willing to bet that most of you knew the punchline to that joke well before we got there! I start out with that bad joke because as a homiletics professor of mine once said, even if you don’t have a great opening, you do have to begin somewhere. And that’s actually a pretty good general lesson for us when thinking about today’s readings. 

So… today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, and it’s the day when we commemorate the Baptism of Our Lord. Christians across the ages have seen Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and even today in many churches across the world, this Sunday is a day when Christians are asked remember their own baptismal vows, which we will do shortly. So the theme of today is very much a theme of beginnings. 

As beginnings go, the one we hear about in the Gospel lesson is not all that auspicious. What I mean here is that if you think about Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of his public ministry, it’s not what I’d call amazingly public. Remember the story: John is out in the wilderness along the Jordan, and Jesus goes out into the wilderness where John is baptizing, and it’s there, in the wilderness, that he’s baptized and sees the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” If you think about it, it’s not all that public a place. It would be like Jesus appearing at a boat landing in Nichols. There probably weren’t that many people there. So even though we remember and celebrate Jesus’ baptism as being an event of major significance, I think it’s worth noting that it was likely not all that grand an affair when it happened. 

The lesson from Acts is kind of telling the same story. Generally, the book of Acts tells the story of how Jesus’ first followers spread the gospel message, and the reading we had for this morning is part of the larger story about how the church came to accept that the good news was meant for everyone; not just for a select few. If you remember in that lesson where it says “Peter began to speak to them,” the “them” is a centurion named Cornelius and his family who have asked Peter to come and share the good news of Jesus with them. And we’re told that Peter, who was Jewish, normally would not have thought that it was acceptable to interact with a gentile, but he had a vision which convinced him otherwise. Only Cornelius is not just a random gentile. He’s a Roman centurion. He’s part of the occupying force that many thought Jesus had come to overthrow. And even if he was God-fearing and friendly, still his job would have put him at odds with many of the Jews in that region; especially the ones who believed that the messiah was supposed to come to end the foreign occupation of Jerusalem. So it’s interesting to note that in the book of Acts, we hear that the spreading of the gospel to the gentiles begins in the most unlikely of places - in the house of a Roman centurion.  

What the scripture lessons from today tell us is that no matter how humble or strange the circumstances may have been at the beginning, the important thing is that there was a beginning. 

For us who are about to renew our baptismal vows, I’d guess that there are many of you who do not have any memory at all of your baptism. Or if you do have a memory of being baptized, then perhaps you remember it being not that grand an affair. I know that a number of you were baptized as infants in a private ceremony after church on Sunday with only a handful of family members in attendance. That used to be the norm in the Episcopal Church. There are others of you I know who were baptized in small country churches with tiny congregations, and so you don’t remember your baptism as being all that remarkable an event. No matter the case, though, you made a beginning. 

I know others of you might have been brought up to believe that in order to belong to a church, you have to be a certain way; and that if you step too far out of line, then you’re no longer welcome in the church. And you might have stepped too far out of line for the church you grew up in to consider you welcome - even though that’s where you learned to love Jesus and still want to gather with others who are trying to follow his teachings. And so you may have come here to see whether the love of Jesus that you discovered at the beginning is still at work in you. If that’s the case, then I assure you that it is, and I hope that you take home the message that the gospel can take root even in the lives of those whom some in the church would rather not acknowledge. 

The key, I think, for all of us, is making a beginning. No matter how humble or how outlandish it might have been, the important thing in your life of faith is that it started. Our lives as Christians, as members of the larger church, begins at baptism; whether we remember the occasion or not. And today, we get the opportunity to revisit that beginning, that defining moment in our life of faith, and to reclaim that beginning for ourselves. 

But it’s not just to remember the past that we renew our baptismal vows this morning. It’s also to acknowledge that what began in us in the past is still at work in us and still has a claim on our lives. So as we reaffirm our faith in God and our intention to order our lives in response to God’s love, I encourage each of you to pay attention to what those baptismal vows might be prompting you to do. If you feel called to be more disciplined in your prayer life, then - today - make a beginning. If you feel called to get more involved in outreach ministries, then - today - make a beginning. If you feel called to be more willing to share good news with others, then - today - make a beginning. If you feel called to look more intentionally for the presence of Christ in all people, then - today - make a beginning. 

The good news about making a beginning in your life of faith is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be remarkable or really even memorable. It just has to be a beginning.