Homily from service on 9 January, 2022 – First Sunday after the Epiphany
Homily preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
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 Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.
Why did Jesus get baptized? It’s a little bit of a scandal, actually, in the New Testament texts. Each gospel treats Jesus’ baptism a little bit differently, in ways that make it seem as if they’re embarrassed, or there’s something here that calls for…explanation. If Jesus was the Messiah, why would he be baptized by John the Baptist? Doesn’t that render him a disciple of John, as opposed to being the Messiah himself? And the ritual itself was something of a scandal, too. In their day, Baptism was a purification ritual practiced among some Jewish groups [Source]. John the Baptist was preaching repentance and the need for forgiveness. So, if Jesus was the Son of God, the one without sin, the incarnate Word who has been part of the Godhead from the beginning of all time, through whom all creation was spoken into being, as we heard a couple of weeks ago at Christmas, why did he need to repent and be cleansed?
Why was Jesus, the Son of God, baptized?
And why do we get baptized? Why do we do this? It’s a bit of an irreverent question, but what makes baptism anything more than bath?
Sometimes we use big theological words to try to explain Baptism. Baptism is known as a sacrament, which our catechism describes as an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace” [BCP, 857]. You can see it right there, in the back of your Prayer Book.
“Outward and visible sign…” “Inward and spiritual grace…” So that clears things up, right? What do those words even mean?
You know when we think of Baptism, we don’t think of words like these, do we? What comes to your mind? What’s the most obvious thing about Baptism? We have this big structure at the back of the sanctuary…water. Right? // When we think of baptism, we think of water.
This outward and visible sign of water overflows with meaning for Jewish communities in Jesus’ time. At its most straightforward, perhaps, entering the water was a sign of repentance – of turning back to God; being washed in the water was a symbol of purification – of God’s forgiveness.
But behind that symbolic understanding of baptism, the concept of water would have carried a tradition full of meaning, conscious and unconscious.
Water might have evoked for this community the creation story, the first words of our bible: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2). The first thing God did was speak light into being. The very next act was to separate the waters from God’s new creation: order out of chaos. God acted in the water.
Water might also have called to mind Noah and his family seeking refuge in the ark to escape the flood and its destruction. And Moses parting the Red Sea to allow God’s people to escape from Egypt. And Joshua parting the waters of the Jordan River to enable the Israelites to enter into the land God had promised them. And Isaiah, as in today’s text, conveying God’s promise to bring the nation of Israel back from its scattered exile: “When you pass through the waters,” God says through Isaiah, “I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Isa 43:2).
But notice, this water…this water isn’t like our image of a baby being sprinkled gently on the head. In the swirling waters of creation, in the chaotic waters of Noah, in the surging waters of the River Jordan. Order out of chaos; safe passage through perilous moments; transformation from an old reality into a new life. God // works // in the water.
There’s an old spiritual that emerged from the long period of enslavement of black people in this country: Wade in the Water. It was first codified and published by the Fisk Jubilee Singers a couple of decades after the end of slavery:
Wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade, in the water.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
One of my favorite renditions of this song is by the group Sweet Honey in the Rock. When they performed at Carnegie Hall in 1987, one of the singers introduced the song this way:
“And when there is the promise of a storm, if you want change in your life, walk into it. If you get on the other side, you will be different. And if you want change in your life and you’re avoiding the trouble, you can forget it…Wade on in the water…” [Sweet Honey in the Rock, Live at Carnegie Hall, 1987].
God invites us in, and we come out on the other side, changed, somehow. And that doesn’t mean life is always easy – /// that God’s mysterious movement in the water means we won’t face heartbreak, or injustice, or turmoil, or loss. In fact, our baptismal promises can often call us into those very things:
- Striving for justice, and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being? That can call us into challenging places.
- Seeking and serving Christ in all persons? That’s not an easy road.
- Cherishing and protecting the beauty and integrity of all creation calls for us to sacrifice some of our ease and many of our habits and dependencies.
So, no. Baptism doesn’t promise ease. /// But God is at work.
To Luke’s community, in the “outward sign” of Jesus being lowered beneath the water, this broader story of God’s salvation would have flooded the event of Jesus’ baptism with a larger meaning, with a context that stretched back into the mists of their history. The community would have seen God at work. God at work in ways we can’t predict, we can’t fully understand, and we certainly can’t fully explain with words like “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.”
Over the years, the Christian tradition has tried to…improve the way we practice this “outward and visible” sign so that it might more completely reflect God’s grace. There is a long and very detailed history of revisions to the baptismal ritual, up to and including a substantial reconsideration that’s reflected even in our current prayer book [Source].
We even see signs of the very early church trying to understand and explain baptism. Today’s passage from Acts offers one example of that attempt, with Philip baptizing Samarians using a different set of words, so Peter and John had to follow up behind him to finish the job. Within the book of Acts itself there are at least three different sequences of how the God acted in baptism, with the Holy Spirit showing Her presence before immersion in water, in another case at the time of immersion, and in a third circumstance after immersion [Source]. No matter how much we consider and refine the sacrament of baptism… the rite itself can only convey a glimmer of the gift that is life in God.
So, yes, baptism more than a bath. It’s more than a sprinkling. The water of baptism carries with it millenia of meaning which has been conveyed through the centuries to us through Jesus’ choice to be baptized. This overflowing story of God reaching out to us, calling humanity into relationship; inviting us to leave an old way of life behind and be born into the family of God. And every time we fill that font with water and pray together over it; every time we renew our baptismal vows; every time we wade into the water, we are adding to that eternal flow of meaning. We mystically become members of the body of Christ; connected with each other; strengthened to continue opening ourselves to God and to the world.
Whether you were a baby being carried to the water, with commitment being made by your parents, your godparents, your community to raise you up in the body of Christ – or you’re an adult walking to the font on your own two feet, /// through this mystical, spirit-filled sacrament, you will come out on the other side changed. You will be a beloved child of God in whom God is well-pleased.
Even though we can’t understand it; even though we can’t explain it; even though our best attempt to wrap words around the experience of passing through the water falls far short, /// God is at work in the water.
Jesus showed us the way. So wade on in.