First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 7 2018
Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29.1-11; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11
Rev Loren McGrail, United Church of Christ / YWCA of Palestine
Don’t mind the mud.
A certain drowning is required as Breath
From above is delivered on the wings of a dove.
The Baptizer’s bargain is this:
There’s no getting right with God.
There’s only getting soaked.
From Ken Sehested, The Baptizer’s Bargain
It’s the first Sunday in Epiphany, the manifestation of the light. In the Orthodox tradition this manifestation is the birth of Jesus. They are celebrating Christmas today for this reason. In our tradition we have two celebrations. One is the arrival of the Wise Ones from the East who followed a star and then took another way home to avoid the violence of Herod. And the other celebration is the baptism of Jesus on the banks of the Jordan River. In addition, Epiphany is also the anniversary of my ordination, 14 years in ministry.
All of these events are manifestations of God’s light, God’s first gift. They are manifestations of God’s love for us as God seeks to be with us, lead us, and guide us.
The story of John the Baptist turns up in our lectionary at least three times a year: first in Advent, as the one preparing the way; second in Epiphany, as the one Jesus will apprentice himself with; and third in Lent, as the one who prepares Jesus for his desert time.
Wildman John, Elizabeth’s child who recognized Jesus while still in the womb lives outside the Temples of Jerusalem preaching the need for radical change as the first step in liberating oneself from the chains of oppression – personal and political. Locust eating John with honey dripping from his beard is similar to the Green man that appears as an ornament on ecclesiastical buildings as a symbol of rebirth with leaves covering his hair and spewing vegetation from his mouth. Both John and later the Green Man remind us of our primal connections to the earth lest we think sacredness is not of and part of the natural world too.
However, John is also part of that prophetic genealogy. He belongs with the truth tellers like Isaiah and Elijah who came to challenge imperial dominant powers and principalities. He is executed by Antipas for calling people to radically change the power structures of the world not just themselves.
For this he was beheaded. We are reminded that Jesus came to John also to pick up this prophetic mantle.
Far away from Jerusalem’s temples, John’s call for repentance takes place on the muddy shores of the Jordan River. It takes place in water because Water is the basis of life. The earth is made up of 70% water and we are made up of 60% water. A ritual immersion in water then is both an act of cleansing or purification and the conference of a new identity. John baptizes with water as a sign of regeneration and transformation.
Hundreds gathered by the river to be recharged and renewed by this prophet crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for our Lord. How ironic then that Jesus comes to him to prepare for his public ministry. Jesus, who has been who knows where for almost three decades, discerning and preparing, needs something to get him going. He is ready to begin the work that awaits him but he is not quite ready. He needs something. He needs a river, a ritual. He needs to be recognized. He needs to be called by his true name:
“You are my Son, My Beloved,” he hears as the sky tears open and he comes up from the waters, drenched with the Jordan; “with you I am well pleased.”
My Beloved. Is there anything sweeter than this? Baptism is an act of inclusion as well as grace. We don’t earn it. We receive it. For some it means we are saved from limbo in case of death, which is why I performed so many emergency baptisms in the hospital when I was a chaplain. For others, it is a religious rite of inclusion into the faith community, which is why the pastor often carries the baby around the sanctuary so all can offer their blessings of welcome. For others it is the renouncement of sin or the promise to not participate in acts of evil. I once heard an Episcopal priest say to a group of young people contemplating conscientious objection that he was proud to welcome them to his church because it gave him the opportunity to act on his baptism vow, to stand up for the right not to commit murder, to resist evil. His witness to his baptism vow inspired many on that cold February night not to enlist.
I come to this year’s baptism story of Jesus with all these understandings but also with the awareness this year that this act of immersion into the waters is also a small death, a dying to who we were or what we believed so we can be reborn and become something new. So as we renew our baptism vows today I invite you to spend a few moments in prayer letting go of ideas, beliefs that no longer serve you or which hold you back from being your highest self. Let them go. I also want you to let the word, “You are my beloved daughter or son” echo in your ears and heart. I want you to pay attention to how easy or difficult it is believe you are indeed beloved by God. When you have done this I want to invite you to look around the church today and with your eyes welcome all you see as also God’s beloved ones. I invite you to bring into your circle all those who you struggle with to see their belovedness.
Lastly, I invite you to think about what kind of river you need to dive into to set your beloved self free?
And finally as we stand on the hinge of this New Year, I want you to remember that we manifest the light in our own lives when we accept that we are God’s beloveds. I want you also to remember that this love demands that we stand against anyone or anything that denies the belovedness of others. This was Jesus’ mission. The sky was torn apart for God’s voice to be heard.
Expect the same. Go get soaked in love.