I am delighted to be here with you for the first time, celebrating the Baptism of the Lord, which marks the first Sunday post-Christmastide. Some of us like the sense of a new beginning and reclaiming the space and time taken up by the decor and festivities; others are more like my son, who asks me, “Aren’t you sad that Christmas (or birthday, or etc.) is over?” whenever each “special” day comes to a close. Today is a new beginning in more than one way, and to me it is exciting. But more often than not, we approach the changes and seasons of our lives with mixed feelings. Specifically re. Christmas, this ambivalence is reflected in cultures around the world as they try to make high seasons last: some start as early as December 5th and give the kids their gifts on St Nick’s day, and yet others celebrate Epiphany – the visit of the Magi on January the 6th – with more exuberance than Christmas itself. And, for others still, Christmas is equal in importance to the Baptism of Jesus, which for us may be hard to believe. In those cultures, Epiphany is skipped altogether, the most special and magical “12th night” comes before the Baptism, and strange rites associated with water take place, such as polar-bear dipping where it’s freezing, and pouring wine into the sea where it’s warm!
The reason for these differences is that the three observances began as one in the early church, and later developed into traditions that each emphasized different aspects of the same story. The visit of the Magi and baptism of Jesus even have similar names, epiphany (“manifestation from above”) and theophany (“manifestation of God”). Note “manifestation”: might we say that the relationship between us and God may sometimes manifest itself as something small and fragile, like a new baby, and at other times – as a huge supernova that lights up the darkness and guides us towards God? If so, what does the baptism of Jesus reveal to us about God and ourselves?
We ponder, as John did, “why did Jesus come to be baptized”? RS Thomas, a rather eccentric Welsh Anglican priest of the last century, attempted to answer this question in his poem called “The Coming”. You’ll find it on p.3, and it’s worth a read at home, or as you wait to receive communion today. It describes an imaginary moment of decision when the pre-incarnate Christ decides to come to us, and significantly, he is said to look at the world, “as through water.” Similarly, I think that Jesus came to be baptized so that for the rest of his life, he would continue to look at the world “as through water” into which John the Baptist had just rinsed the failures and wrongs of the people who came to be baptized before him. That is, he would see us through the lens of compassion, empathy, and self-identification. Recall, interestingly, that it was also through the water of the Red Sea that the people were said to have first escaped the slavery of Egypt, and through the water of that same River Jordan into which Jesus plunged that they concluded their desert wanderings. Does water stand for transformation then? Perhaps. But, the Israelites behaved in the exact same way in Canaan as they did previously, and judging by the looks of our world – the poem describes it as scorched, fierce, and slimy – our baptisms don’t fully change us. Neither could an earthly baptism change the essence of God who existed before time. But, it opened his eyes to the awareness of his vocation. The gifts he had received from the Magi as a baby had already revealed what it was, for they were in fact the very same elements as those which would be used later on in his burial. In both birth and baptism – Jesus’ and ours! – God chooses to come into the muddy waters of our lives, healing and renewing our minds and hearts by self-giving. May we, like Jesus, aspire to have our actions, thoughts, relationships, and values be refracted through the lens of our own baptisms. Sure, in Isaiah’s words, we are but “bruised reeds” and “dimly burning wicks”. We have hurts and needs, limitations and losses. Yet, God “takes us by the hand” and “puts his spirit on us.” She inspires us to accept our mistakes and those of others, confess and forgive, serve and be truly present with each other, and foster each other’s faith and gifts.
Such is the miracle of baptism: it simultaneously begins something new, and manifests that which is already present. Likewise, on a smaller scale, every new ministry for each of us both opens the next chapter of being with God and people, and confirms the vocation we’ve had all along. For this reason, I was particularly happy that my first Sunday with you coincided with the observance of Jesus’ baptism. Even better, today’s service will include the renewal of baptismal vows – a reminder for us to work towards a shared vision of this world, our neighborhood, and each other “as through water”. This rite resembles a baptism in many ways, including the blessing and sprinkling of water, but what’s particularly relevant for today is that it will include saying the statement of our belief as a set of questions and answers as opposed to in unison, as we normally do. Likely, this simply reflects the way that the creeds were used in early church baptisms. However, I just love the symbolism of having this new beginning for me take the form of a dialogue with you. It is almost as though we will be pondering out loud who we are together in God. And I hope that the relationship that begins in such an interactive manner will also continue as such throughout my ministry here. Thanks be to God.