First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord
Sunday, January 10, 2021
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The summer after my junior year of high school, Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed suddenly in a car accident in Paris at the age of 36. I didn’t know much about the British Royal Family, but was fascinated that the death of a former princess affected so many around the world with such profound, public grief. I was so fascinated that I decided to wake up to watch her funeral at 3:00 a.m, and what I saw in terms of pageantry and ritual marked the beginning of a love affair with the British Royal Family, both in terms of church and state.
One of the first things I came across in my many hours of reading on the subject was the fact that members of the Royal Family are baptized not with tap water, but with water from the Jordan River, the same river in which our Lord was baptized. This river is about 150 miles long, and forms the western border of modern-day Jordan, and the eastern border of parts of Israel, and of the Palestinian West Bank. It was a dirty river back then, as it is today, filled with mud and sediment. All those who came to John the Baptist to be baptized in the Jordan knew just how special this place was: it was here that their ancestors entered into the Promised Land when its waters were miraculously parted by God. After their time as slaves in Egypt, they had spent 40 years roaming about the wilderness, the very same wilderness not far from the Jordan River in which John the Baptist appeared before Jesus’s baptism.
The wilderness was a place of awful hardship for the Hebrews. Food and water were scarce. They got so hungry, in fact, that they longed to be slaves again in Egypt, for at least there they’d be fed. This is also the same wilderness where Jesus was thrown by the spirit to be tempted by the Devil for forty days before the beginning of his public ministry. In the three temptations of Christ, according to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Satan seeks to dissuade Jesus from being a Messiah of self-sacrifice, but to be to a Messiah of power. He says, "in this period of "wilderness"… Jesus is exposed to danger and is assaulted by the temptation and seduction of the Evil One, who proposes a different messianic path to him, far from God's plan because it passes through power, success and domination rather than the total gift of himself on the Cross. This is the alternative: a messianism of power, of success, or a messianism of love, of the gift of self.”
I’m not sure about you, but I feel like I’m living in the wilderness right now. I’m hungry, not for food and water, but for sharing a long meal with all those I miss and can’t spend time with because of the pandemic. I honestly feel like I’m being tempted much more than usual. The promise of power, success, and domination seems much more tantalizing than giving myself wholly and entirely as Jesus did on the cross. The persistent, systemic racism in our country is really getting me down. Seeing a Confederate flag in the Capitol building, after the initial shock and fury, made me literally cry out loud, “How long, O Lord?”
In the midst of their horrible, seemingly never-ending journey in the wilderness, God provided the Hebrews manna in the desert for food. So too God provides for our needs in this wilderness. But more importantly, Jesus’s baptism reminds us that the wilderness doesn’t last forever. When he comes up out of the water, God opens up the heavens and reveals to all that Jesus is his Son. God anoints Jesus with the Spirit, recalling to mind God’s anointing of the Hebrew prophets of old. The Spirit descends upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Just as God delivered the Hebrews from their misery in the wilderness by a miraculous crossing of the River Jordan, so too He will deliver us from sin and death in the new exodus of salvation in Jesus Christ. Today, the Church remembers with joy the transformation of our Lord in the dirty water of an old river. We remember that day when God chose to publicly identify with sinful human beings like you and me. We remember that day when all of John the Baptist’s proclaiming of the coming of the kingdom came to fruition when the Spirit of God descended from heaven like a dove upon the One who was so long expected.
In the Baptism of our Lord, just as the Hebrews experienced their freedom at the end of their long journey from slavery, so too do we see the beginning of the freedom from sin and death and suffering promised to us. Let us this day reaffirm our deep and abiding hope that God will bring us safely out of this valley of tears to a land flowing with milk and honey, where racism and the coronavirus are no more, and where, with all the saints, we may enter into the everlasting heritage of his sons and daughters. Amen.
 “General Audience". Vatican. February 2, 2012. Retrieved January 8, 2021.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!