Sermons That Work

John Milton, Who Once…, Epiphany 1 (A) – 1999

January 10, 1999


John Milton, who once marvelously celebrated the birth of Jesus in his “Ode to the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” later attempted a sequel upon the Passion. After writing a few stanzas he ceased in despair and later published the fragment he did write with an appended note: “This subject the author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and not satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.”

Whatever our years may be, they do not mature us to deal with a theme of such magnitude as the suffering and death of our Lord. When we have said our finest word about the whole redemptive drama, there is something that breaks through language and escapes. Similar words could be uttered about the Baptism of our Lord. As we move into that dim borderland where our reach exceeds our grasp, we must be measured at last in terms of our splendid failure to say the impossible.

In the movie The Apostle, starring Robert Duval, there is a powerful scene. Duval is running from the law. He has bludgeoned the youth pastor in the church where he was pastor. The assumption is that he has been baptized and ordained as a minister of the Gospel. The scene in the movie shows a contrite and repentant Duval baptizing himself in a river. He announces to God and to no one else that he is baptizing and ordaining himself as an apostle. (There is an old black man who has just finished fishing who witnesses the baptism and ordination. Duval is not aware of his presence.)

The scene raises questions about the Baptism of our Lord. Why did he not baptize himself? Why should he seek out John the Baptist and insist that John baptize him? Perhaps an even larger question without an adequate answer is: “Why did Jesus feel a need to be baptized?”

At the risk of attempting to answer questions that have difficult answers, perhaps some conjecture will suffice. John the Baptist, recognizing the difficulties in this situation, refused to baptize Jesus. He insists that Jesus should baptize him. Harvard’s chaplain Peter Gomes suggests that Jesus “is baptized as a witness to God’s claim upon him. He is baptized and by that action says, in effect, ‘I belong to God.'”

In Baptism, Jesus identifies with a community. We do not know all that we would like to know about John the Baptist’s community. We do not know who was present at this baptism, other than John the Baptist himself. We can surmise that there were others in the community who witnessed this Baptism. While we are now in the season of Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus is a ratification of his Incarnation. He identifies with a community and with the people in that community.

In our Baptism, we too gain an identity. At the time of our Baptism, the priest or bishop makes the sign of the cross on our forehead and announces that we “are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” We become a part of what God has been doing in the world since the time of creation. Baptism is the initiatory rite into the church and indicates full inclusion into the household of faith. Like our Lord, we too become incorporated into the human condition.

The season of Epiphany is the season in the Church Year in which the identity of Jesus is made clearer to his followers. Baptism calls us to claim our place and our power. There is a period of silence in the life of Jesus from about the age of twelve to his thirtieth year. From the time of Jesus in the Temple, we know little until his Baptism. Out of his Baptism comes a clearer view of what his life’s work was to be.

The story of Jesus does not end or begin with his Baptism. The story begins in creation. The Creator, after each act of creation, stood back and said: “It is good. It is very good!” When Jesus is baptized that same delight of God is expressed when the dove descends and the voice from above says: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” It was out of this sense of delight that Jesus was able to claim his place.

The story does not end here. Because of the delight of the Father, Jesus was able to accept his mission. He was able to believe that life as it is given is good. He was able to say many times after his Baptism that he “was one with the Father.” Our Baptism brings the same presence of the Holy Spirit and a clear voice from above that rejoices in what we are becoming.

Gabriel Marcel Marques, in his book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, writes about a village in Central America. A virus strikes this community and the effect of the virus is that is causes amnesia. It becomes necessary to hire a person from the outside world to help them recover their memory. This person, from the outside world, goes about the village putting signs on all things with their names. The signs remind the villagers that “this is a ceiling,” “this is a floor,” “this is a table,” and all through the village everything has a sign naming what it is. Outside the village, the outsider places two signs. On one sign is written: “This is the village of Macondo.” A sign posted above that reads: “God Exists.”

Our Baptism and the Baptism of our Lord are signs and symbols of God’s delight in us. Each time a person is baptized, it is a sign that God exists. The sign of the cross on our foreheads reminds the world that God exists. It is also a sign that the Creator takes delight in us and calls us to the community of faith.

Hear again these words from the baptismal rite:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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