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Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

    Jan 13, 2019

    Passage: Luke 3:15-22

    Preacher: Rob Donehue

    Series: Sermons for Year C (2018-2019)

    Category: Epiphany

    Detail:

    Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C, 2019)
    January 13th, 2019
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel at CCU) 

    Isaiah 43:1-7 Acts 8:14-17 Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

     

    I’d like to begin this morning by pointing out a question that has puzzled Christians for a very long time. The question comes from what we are observing today. Today we are remembering and celebrating the Baptism of our Lord. The baptism of Jesus is the second in a series of events that we commemorate during the Epiphany season, and it is important because it’s the start of Jesus’ public ministry. In all four Gospels, the story of Jesus’ public ministry begins with his baptism by John in the river Jordan. So it makes sense that we’d set aside a day to celebrate the occasion when Jesus began to teach and do the things that would eventually lead him to the cross. But the question that Jesus’ baptism itself raises is: why was Jesus baptized?

     

    More pointedly, if baptism opens for us new life in Christ and forgiveness of sin, then why would Christ himself, whom the church believes is sinless, need to be baptized? Christians have wrestled with this question for ages, and there have been all sorts of explanations given. I won’t catalogue all of the various answers, but the basic theme that runs throughout is that even though Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, he did so in order to show his solidarity with the people whom he came to save; to show that God does not stand removed from human experience but rather embraces the fullness of the human condition. 

     

    And as a result, something amazing happens: as the Gospel tells the story, after Jesus was baptized, “heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” There’s something going on here that is far more significant than God announcing that Jesus is special. The significance of this event is that WE hear the voice of God. Our human nature - whatever it is that makes us what we are as humans - is enabled to hear the voice of God, saying “You are my beloved.” And that message is the foundation of the hope that we proclaim and celebrate at our own baptism.      

     

    And even if we are convinced that we don’t deserve to hear God say it, it’s true. We are loved. Even if we are afraid that things we’ve done have put us beyond the pale - the voice of God speaks loudly and clearly to us that we are beloved. And that message breathes life into us and fills us with the power of God’s love.   

     

    A friend of mine recently told me the story of one of the most powerful moments in his life. He and his wife wanted to have a child, but when they found that they could not have a child of their own, they decided to adopt. They began working with social services, and eventually they were matched with a young pregnant woman who was willing to put her baby up for adoption. They waited eagerly until the day arrived, and when they got the call to go to the hospital, they were filled with joyful expectation. But when they arrived at the hospital after the baby had been born, the doctor met them and told them that there was some bad news. The baby’s lungs were not fully developed, and it appeared almost certain that the child would die within days. Given the circumstances, the doctor suggested that they call the social worker to cancel the adoption so that they wouldn’t have to deal with any of the technicalities. But my friend and his wife immediately refused. “No,” my friend said, "even if he dies tomorrow, that is my son.” And when they went into the neonatal intensive care unit to see the baby, my friend knelt down next to the incubator and said to the baby, “You are my son. I love you. No matter what. You are my son. And you are beloved.” For the next several weeks, this was the constant refrain that my friend and his wife spoke to their son as they kept vigil. “You are our son. We love you. No matter what. You are our son. And you are beloved.” And now, nearly five years later, every night before they say goodnight to their healthy son, those are the words that they use. Because, as my friend put it, those are the words that give life.          

    I often wonder about how many of us can go for years without ever hearing that we are loved. Or how many of us can go for years thinking that we don’t deserve God’s love; or have somehow squandered the grace that has been given to us. And I am convinced that a tremendous amount of the world’s suffering is the result of our inability to admit the possibility that we are lovable. Because the inner torment of believing that we’re not worthy or capable of love can make us feel like we’re drowning in despair. And in our despair, we lash out at others in all sorts of destructive ways. I seriously think that a profound amount of suffering comes into the world because we don’t believe we are loved.   

    That’s why the Gospel message of Jesus, at his baptism, hearing a voice proclaiming, “You are my beloved,” is good news for us. Traditional iconography of Jesus’ baptism shows him standing in the river Jordan and treading on a serpent or dragon. Above him is the image of a descending dove. The idea being conveyed in such imagery is that Jesus has gone into the water where death and despair have overwhelmed so many; and that the voice of God proclaiming “You are my beloved,” has triumphed over all of the evil that threatens to destroy life by convincing us that we are not loved. The image of the dove reinforces the point: if you remember the story of Noah’s Ark, then you’ll remember that after the flood a dove provides the sign that new life has appeared on earth. Just so, the dove descending upon Jesus is a sign that God’s love has come to rest upon us.   

    And so today, even though we are remembering specifically the baptism of Jesus, the hope is that we will all remember our own baptism. The hope is that we will remember that, in baptism, death and despair do not have the final word. The hope is that today will remind us all that we too were made to hear the voice of God saying to us, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”