Sunday, January 7, 2024 – First Sunday After the Epiphany
by Seminarian, Jason Von Ehrenkrook
Sermon preached by Seminarian, Jason Von Ehrenkrook
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 Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
As our liturgical calendar shifts from Advent and Christmas into the season of Epiphany, as we continue to trace the story of Jesus, a story that will take us to the cross and resurrection over the next several months, I think it’s worth pausing to note the extent to which this story, the gospel, the Good News, is inescapably political. The birth stories announce the arrival of a king who will, in the language of the Magnificat, cast down from their thrones the rich and powerful. Early on in the life of this young king, after a group of astrologers from the east traveled hundreds of miles to honor this king, he finds himself the target of a violent tyrant and is forced to flee his homeland, becoming a political refugee in the land of Egypt. And now the story of epiphany—god-manifest—continues as Jesus responds to a wilderness preacher’s call of repentance and baptism, a call to turn away from the systems of worldly power in preparation for a new and different political regime.
It’s interesting that the first character we encounter in Mark’s gospel is not Jesus but this weirdly-dressed apocalyptic prophet with an odd appetite for 6-legged creatures. John the baptizer is certainly a colorful character, most famously associated with the ritual of baptism, a Jewish ritual that involved the immersion of the body in water as rite of purification. But John was also known for his rhetoric. He was a fiery apocalyptic preacher, harshly denouncing the wicked as he sought to prepare people for the kingdom of God and the coming day of judgment. And he was also a prophet in the classic sense of that term, by which I mean not just a prophet who sees into the future but a prophet who speaks into the present, an agitating voice targeting structural injustices and exploitative systems of power. And not surprisingly, as often happens to prophets speaking truth to power, the social upheaval created by John led to his arrest and eventual execution.
That Jesus undergoes a baptism by this apocalyptic prophet is significant, even if the association with a ritual connected to the forgiveness of sins is a bit uncomfortable. In Mark’s gospel, the baptism of Jesus functions as his introduction to the reader, a kind of epiphany that underscores his messianic identity. It’s a remarkably ironic twist to the tale that the one undergoing “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is the one anointed to inaugurate the kingdom of God. And Jesus clearly identifies with the message and mission of John the baptizer. After John’s arrest, Mark tells us that Jesus continued to proclaim the very same political gospel that John was declaring: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). The symbolism of baptism, John’s baptism and that baptism which will continue in the Christian tradition, cannot be separated from this notion of the reign of God. Baptism is, at least in part, a politically charged ritual.
But what kind of a kingdom are we talking about? In the context of first century Judaism—the social location of both John and Jesus—this longing for God’s kingdom was the cry of the powerless, an articulation of hopeful resistance, an expectation that justice would overcome injustice. It’s the voice of a people who had been subjected to centuries of imperial domination and occupation—the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. So, when John and Jesus announced the arrival of a new kingdom, at the very least this stirred the embers of hope that political deliverance was imminent, that Rome had met its match.
But this story of kingdom takes a surprising, unexpected turn. Jesus, the anointed king, doesn’t raise a mighty army to overthrow the occupiers. He instead gathers a group of unremarkable people, mostly from the insignificant region of Galilee, and begins healing the sick and caring for the disenfranchised. He doesn’t brandish a sword to demonstrate power over the enemy, but instead talks of loving enemies and praying for oppressors. And when the enemy arrested and executed him as a political subversive, he didn’t stand his ground by calling down a heavenly militia but instead extended forgiveness as he took his last breath.
I confess, this is one of those stories that leaves me with an uneasy feeling of unresolved tension. Of course, the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ execution. We must add into the mix the resurrection narrative, along with the notion of a future, second advent of Jesus as a way to resolve a seemingly tragic end to this story of God’s reign. Nevertheless, it remains troubling that the promises of Christmas and Epiphany, which together announce the arrival of a new political regime, one that brings justice to a broken world, seem to have gone unfilled. The world we inhabit today looks just like the world before Christmas and Epiphany. Empires continue to come and go, exerting their dominance with swords, or muskets, or cannons, or tanks, or bombers, or drones, or whatever’s next on the horizon of destructive technology. And Christians (followers of the Prince of Peace) have, unfortunately, contributed to the status quo, transforming the cross into yet another symbol of domination. As a consequence, millions upon millions of people have and continue to suffer rejection, exploitation, injustice, oppression, displacement, violence. As one activist recently stated, “How much blood can this earth absorb before it vomits us all out?”
This is, of course, a complicated issue that gets us dangerously close to the intractable problem of theodicy, questions of divine justice and the pervasive presence of evil and suffering—a thorny thicket that is probably best avoided this morning. But notwithstanding some of these complicated problems, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that the political revolution initiated by Jesus and unveiled in his baptism was incomplete, insufficient, or incapable of transforming the world in the here and now. Jesus’ baptism, and by extension our baptisms, prompt us to consider our calling to pursue a politics measured not by its power to dominate but by its capacity to lift up the vulnerable. This model of politics has nothing to do with nationalism or patriotism. The kingdom of God is not America the beautiful. The reign of Christ is not capitalism. The gospel is not democracy. The mission of the church is not American greatness. The kingdom displayed in Jesus, the kingdom proclaimed at his birth and baptism, is a kingdom for the poor and marginalized. It’s a kingdom that transcends nationalities, that defies walls and borders, that welcomes strangers, refugees, immigrants. It’s a kingdom that disrupts the status quo by resisting evil with good, by countering violence with love.
Our liturgy this morning invites those of us who have already been baptized to revisit our baptismal vows, to consider the ways in which we have not lived up to the calling of these waters, and to renew our commitment to the work of justice symbolized in these baptismal waters. And the baptism of Jesus invites all of us, whether baptized or not, to consider how we might, in the year 2024, more fully embody the reign of God in pursuit a more just and loving world.