8 January 2023 – First Sunday after the Epiphany | The Baptism of Our Lord
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
We love origin stories…Think of all iterations of Spider-Man and how many of them start with, or at least flashback to him being bitten by the radioactive spider, and then watching as Uncle Ben dies?
Or in the DC universe, how often are we reminded of the life-altering traumas experienced by the young Bruce Wayne—sometimes getting stuck someplace with bats, but always, always watching his parents being gunned down.
Origin stories are important…and they develop over time, as people begin to embellish a mere outline with more and more detail.
Jesus’ origin story is pretty sparse to begin with. Mark, the earliest gospel we have opens on John baptizing the wilderness…proclaiming that “one who is more powerful than I is coming…” and then Mark says, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And immediately the Spirit drives him into the wilderness (Mark 1:9-11). Not a lot there.
Matthew and Luke start things further back. Matthew starts with a genealogy that links Jesus to Abraham, then all of Joseph’s dreams, and Herod and the Magi, and the family flees and returns, and then we get to John in the wilderness, and the baptism, and the heaven’s opening and the dove and the voice.
Luke opens with Elizabeth and Mary, and angels and shepherds, and then he gets to John and the river, and the heavens opening and the dove, and the voice…but Luke also adds people. Did you notice there was no crowd in today’s reading. We assume that there are people around when Jesus is baptized, but neither Mark nor Matthew say that explicitly. It’s only Luke who makes a point of saying…“Now when all the people were baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized,” that’s when the heavens open and the dove and the voice…and then Luke gives us a genealogy that actually goes all the way back to Adam.
Of course, John is not going to be outdone or fool around with any mere human genealogy…John is Stanley Kubrick so his origin story is of COSMIC PROPORTIONS. “He was in the beginning with God, and all things came into being through him…”
What is your origin story? How far back does it go? Does it start with a genealogy? Who is in it? What are the major events? What are the themes that run through it? It probably doesn’t contain experiments with gamma radiation, or having an mysterious hermit give you your father’s light-saber; or a wizard asking you to carry a ring (or maybe it does…I don’t know…it’s your origin story)…but it undoubtedly it contains important people, and treasured objects, some hard-won wisdom and some time-tested values passed down over generations.
For most of us—just like Jesus—it includes baptism. Baptism is the event in our lives that empowers us for ministry…that provides us with the gifts we need which will enable us to do our part in healing the world and building God’s dream for all of creation. In Baptism we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP 308), but Baptism is only the beginning of our life in and with Christ…we’re not done the moment we become baptized.
Here’s a question: When does Peter Parker become Spider-Man? When the radioactive spider bites him, or when Uncle Ben dies? Or when he finally figures out how to use his webs? Or when he realizes that for the safety of all of his friends, especially Mary Jane, he will never be able to reveal who he really is? A lot of what we love about origin stories is watching the protagonist become the hero. In his origin story we get to see Peter (and more recently Miles Morales) becoming Spider-Man.
Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered when he’s eight; it’s a pivotal moment, but he doesn’t become the Caped Crusader when he’s eight…No, the Batman takes years to emerge.
The point is, Yes. Baptism makes us Christian…AND we then spend our lives becoming Christian…practicing and learning how to be more and more Christ-like.
It’s very intentional that Jesus is baptized at the beginning of his ministry, before he is even driven into the wilderness. So while, Baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” (BCP 298), it is not the culmination of our journey; it is the start of our life and our ministries. It’s the beginning of trying to live out these promises that we periodically come here to renew…
We are at the beginning of another year. A year that begins (as they always do) in a month named for the pagan god Janus…the two-faced god of beginnings and endings, transitions, doorways, and sometimes chaos. Janus looks both backwards and forwards, and so do many of us at this time of year. Recollecting what has happened…and anticipating what is to come. Looking back with nostalgia or longing…Looking forward with hope or dread…
And in the midst of all this re-collecting, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the church, in all it’s wisdom asks us to remember the Baptism of our Lord…asks us to remember that vital and immutable event in our origin story.
Today, I hope you’ll remember and reflect on your own origin story….your individual origin story, and the origin story you share with every Christian throughout the world and through all time. And as you look back over the year, or years, call to mind the significant moments…those times when you can see yourself becoming more and more Christian? And as you look forward, think about how you will endeavor to live out these vows you’re about to renew, and how you will continue on this journey of becoming. And above all, I pray that you will take some time to listen…to listen for that voice…the one that not only splits the heavens, and shakes the wilderness…but that also calls you by name…that numbers the hairs on your head…that knit you together in your mother’s womb, and that assures you that you are God’s child…and beloved, and well-pleasing to God.