First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord
Sunday, January 12, 2020
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Each year on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear the story of Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan. Surprisingly, unlike the Christmas story, this particular scene is so important that it is mentioned in all four of the Gospels. This passage is often used by those who argue that the mode of baptism must be “full immersion” as opposed to the way we typically do it by affusion, or pouring. The argument is this: in verse 16, when Jesus was baptized, the text says that he “came up from the water.” It’s true: scholars agree that Jesus went down into the water in the river Jordan and came back up.
While I’m not all that interested in combing through all of the arguments about the modes of baptism this morning, this passage always makes me think of my days as a Southern Baptist, and in particular, one memory from college. I worked for two years as music minister of Sycamore Baptist Church, a little country church in the middle of a forest outside Gurdon, Arkansas. The church got running water two years before I got there, and up until my second year, they baptized people by full immersion at the local pond. The pastor, Bro. James McCain, who drove a semi to Minnesota and back during the week, decided that we needed a proper baptistry – you know, one where you can properly baptize by full immersion in a pool of water. So he decided to ask one of the parishioners who owned a pool business for some help. I showed up one Sunday to find that the choir pews on the right side had been removed, and a large, gray hot tub had been installed. Well, guess who had a key to the church. I have to admit, there were many Sundays that last year I was there when I would turn on the heat after Sunday morning services and then come back with a group of friends that night. Don’t worry, I was a pure little Southern Baptist boy, so there were no shenanigans going on, but we sure felt like rebels!
Had they asked me for my opinion, we might have installed a lovely font like the one we have in the back. When the Baptists use this passage to argue for full immersion, I think the they are missing the point entirely. This story isn’t about the mode of baptism…in fact it’s not about Christian baptism at all: it’s all about the identity of Jesus.
Jesus comes to John the Baptist at the river Jordan to be baptized by him. This shocks John to the point that he wanted to prevent him from being baptized. It is equally as shocking to those of us who know that Christian baptism, among other things, brings the forgiveness of sins. “Jesus was sinless!” we think. Why in the world would he need to be baptized? As I said, this isn’t Christian baptism we’re talking about. St. John Chrysostom points out that though the baptism of John was intended for repentance, and Jesus clearly had no need to repent of his sins, the Greek word in verse 11 that we translate “repentance” actually means transformation or turning.
And his baptism is a transformation indeed. At his baptism, Jesus chose to identify with sinful humanity in a real and tangible way. The Jordan River wasn’t clean and clear like the mountain streams and lakes that I grew up around in Colorado, it was muddy and dirty, and still is to this day as we heard Fr. Sean tell us a few weeks ago when he described his recent trip to the Holy Land. Jesus didn’t choose to stand on the side of the dirty river while the sinners John was baptizing got into the muddy water, he chose to get in with them. He chose to identify with them.
He did this to “fulfill all righteousness.” Unlike other places in the New Testament, the word “righteousness” here isn’t a legal or forensic term, but is about discipleship. John is to baptize Jesus as an act of submission and obedience to God, even though he thinks it’s an appalling idea. In so doing, John participates in this unfolding transformation of Jesus’s ministry and tangibly lives out the revealing of the coming of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of which he has been a herald and a forerunner.
And so Jesus is baptized. When he comes up out of the water, God opens up the heavens and reveals to all that Jesus is God’s Son. God anoints Jesus with the Spirit, recalling to mind God’s anointing of the Hebrew prophets of old. It’s not that God’s Spirit wasn’t upon Jesus in any way before his baptism; rather, God’s Spirit came upon him in a public, formal, ceremonial way to inaugurate his public ministry as the Messiah. 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.”
The location of his baptism is hugely important. Jesus isn’t baptized at a font like this one in Kansas City, nor at a hot tub in Gurdon, Arkansas, he is baptized in the Jordan River, a place where all sorts of miracles and important events had happened throughout the history of Israel. Arguably the most poignant moment in the Hebrew mind at the Jordan River was that of the Exodus. When the Hebrews were in exile in Egypt, God delivered them from hands of Pharaoh and they began their journey home to the Promised Land. Because of their stubbornness, they spent forty years in the wilderness. The crossing of the Jordan River was the final step of their journey, and once they got to the other side, the finally realized the freedom they had been promised so long ago.
Friends, today’s feast isn’t about our baptism, it’s about Jesus’s baptism. 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 hope that Christ will bring us safely out of this valley of tears to that heavenly country where, with all the saints, we may enter into the everlasting heritage of his sons and daughters. Amen.
 David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 239.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!