So today we conclude this season celebrating the divine Incarnation in Jesus. A tad over two weeks ago, we began the 12-day time of Christmas culminating in the Feast of the Epiphany three days ago – the Nativity in Bethlehem, the revelation of Jesus to the Magi. And now today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John and the revelation of him as the one anointed by God to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. Originally, all of this was held together on one day, January 6, as an all-encompassing celebration of the Incarnation. Next to Easter, it’s one of the oldest Christian feast days. In fact, the Armenian Church still holds onto that tradition even though the other churches have separated them out.
Nevertheless, despite a story important enough to be told or at least alluded to in all four Gospels, it’s still a bit puzzling. John is baptizing, that is, immersing people in the River Jordan for the repentance of sins, but then Jesus comes to be baptized as well. Why would the sinless one need to be cleansed of sins? In Matthew’s account, John recognizes this as well. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John didn’t even see himself as worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals. So what’s going on?
Well, let’s focus on what this story says about Jesus. With what we have in the Gospels, what do we know about him so far? He was a Jew from Nazareth born in Bethlehem to a virgin mother. He is also the Son of God, and not only that, he is the Incarnate Logos, the eternal Word of God. But he is not one to use that divine power to lord it over others, so to speak. As Paul writes in the Letter to the Philippians, “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
There’s an image I love that was especially popular in Syriac Christianity, one of the three great traditions of the Early Church along with Greek and Latin, and that’s the image of the robe of glory. In the 6th century, the poet Jacob of Serugh wrote, “Christ came to baptism; He went down and placed in the baptismal water the robe of glory, to be there for Adam who had lost it.” There’s also a Syrian Orthodox hymn for Epiphany that says, “He who had no need of it was baptized in the river Jordan, leaving in it the garment of immortality for the naked so that they might be covered.” He did not need to do this, but he chose to do so, to lay aside this garment that it might clothe those who had none. He had no need to be sanctified, but he chose to sanctify the waters that they might truly be the waters of renewal.
When he came up out of the waters, the heavens were opened, “torn apart” as Mark writes, and the Spirit descended upon him as God the Father declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This was not the kind of statement that made something new but rather proclaimed what already was so that the world might know. It is the declaration that this is the One anointed to announce the good news of God’s Reign on earth as witnessed by the eternal abiding of the Spirit. As Child of Humanity and Child of God, Jesus announces it through his words, his action, and indeed his very being.
Looking ahead in the next chapter of Luke, we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” There he overcame the worldly temptations of Satan, and one might say he gave notice to the demonic powers that their rule was at an end. Afterwards, “Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.” In the synagogue in Nazareth, he declared fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He gave notice to the earthly powers of empire that they did not enjoy God’s favor or hold ultimate authority.
But Christ did not do so through feats of great strength or armies of domination but through teaching and healing and, ultimately, his death. Again as Paul writes, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, on the Feast of the Theophany (what we call Epiphany), there’s a celebration of the blessing of waters in which a cross is thrown into a body of water (if there’s one available), often followed by some of the young people jumping in to retrieve it. But think about that image for a moment. Christ goes down into the river not just with the robe of glory he has had but also the cross he will face. He knows where the path he is on will lead. He goes not up to joy but first he suffers pain and enters not into glory before he is crucified, to borrow from the Prayer Book. He proclaims a great challenge to the powers of the earth, knowing that it will lead to an excruciating death reserved for the lowest of the low, especially those who threatened the rule of empire. But they find that their power as lords of death cannot defeat the Lord of life.
So what does that say about us? Well, today is one of the great baptismal feasts in The Episcopal Church, along with the Great Vigil of Easter, Pentecost, and All Saints. As Jesus chose to be baptized in the Jordan, so we choose to be baptized in the font or to renew the covenant of our baptism done earlier; and we set out with Christ in his ministry to the world. In the waters of baptism, we are buried with Christ in his death, but from those depths, we rise with him in his resurrection, clothed in his robe of glory. As Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism and as the Apostles received the flames of the same Spirit and were sent forth to proclaim the gospel, so we are anointed, being sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. In baptism we are joined in communion with all the saints past and present in Christ’s Body. We are grafted into the one Body in one Spirit where “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
As members of that one Body, enlivened by the same Spirit, we share in Christ’s ministry to set aside our privilege and proclaim good news of freedom to the downtrodden, to untie the thongs of the sandals of the other and wash their feet. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we need not fear the powers of the world and empire’s might. Instead we are to heed the call to stand against them, knowing that we will pass through the waters of destruction and the rivers of fear and not be overwhelmed, for we have been raised with Christ from those depths. We will walk through the flames of oppression, hatred, and despair and not be consumed, for we are filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the fires of justice, love, and joy. And this Easter when once again we witness baptisms in the waters of that great font out there, we will as one body with one spirit remember the baptismal promises and declare with one voice, “I will, with God’s help.” We will receive them into this household of God, and with them we will confess the faith of Christ crucified and proclaim his resurrection as we all share in Christ’s eternal priesthood. Amen. Alleluia.