Sunday, January 10, 2016

"You Are My Child, My Beloved; With You I Am Well Pleased"

First Sunday after Epiphany – Baptism of Our Lord (Year C)
(Baptism of Joseph Kehoe)
Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
Sunday, January 10, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

So, as of this past week Christmas is over. If you’re like me, the ending of the Christmas Season always seems to be a bit anti-climactic. That is, if you even recognize that there is a Christmas Season. According to the church calendar, Christmas is the twelve days beginning at sundown on December 24th, Christmas Eve, and extending to sundown on January 5th. Therefore, the church recognizes the following Sunday or two (depending on how the calendar falls) as being within the Christmas Season, with additional Gospel readings related to the birth and early life of our Messiah. Yet, we place so much emphasis on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that the following eleven days seem to be somewhat of a downhill slide.

Growing up, the Christmas Season did extend beyond Christmas Day, but not by much. In my family, the sense of Christmas always ended on New Year’s Day. That was the day that, following the ritual of watching the Rose Parade, we always took down the Christmas tree, took down the nativity set and the other decorations, packed up the ornaments, and put Christmas away for another year.

After all, it’s hard to maintain any sense of Christmas much beyond the beginning of the New Year, when you have to return to work or school, and the world returns to a sense of normalcy following the holiday season. As an adult, I have attempted to extend Christmas by keeping the nativity sets up until at least January 6 – the Feast of the Epiphany – when we commemorate the coming of the Magi. In fact, in my own household, the nativity scene is not even complete until Epiphany, when I finally put the figures of the three Wise Men out. And then, a few days later, the whole thing gets packed up. Even so, the sense of Christmas can start to wear a bit thin in those last days from New Year’s to Epiphany. Because the rest of society has moved on with normal, everyday life.

But maybe the Church is on to something with its liturgical calendar. Just because Christmas is over does not mean the mystery and miracle of that season has ended. Or that it needs to end. After all, Christmas is immediately followed by the Feast of the Epiphany which has a whole richness of meaning all its own. Epiphany, meaning “manifestation” or “appearance,” celebrates the revelation of God the Son in the form of Jesus Christ. While this revelation began with Jesus’ birth on Christmas, Epiphany is meant to celebrate the ways that the Son of God is revealed not just to a few shepherds and onlookers at the birth event, but how he is revealed to all of humanity – to Jews and Gentiles alike. This is why the Magi or Wise Men are the symbol of Epiphany. Because the Magi were travelers from the East – non-Jews, Gentiles – they represent the broad spectrum of humanity. In this, they represent us. They represent the fact that the revelation of Jesus to the world is meant for us. Because of this revelation to humanity, Epiphany is really an extension of what God began with Jesus’ birth at Christmas.

But there’s more to Epiphany than this one event. Just as Christmas is not a single day but a whole season, so too is Epiphany more than just a single day. There is a whole season of Epiphany, called Epiphanytide. Depending on which sources are used, this season extends at least to the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd, to as far as Ash Wednesday, which is February 10th this year.

The Season of Epiphany is meant to recall and celebrate the various ways the Son of God is revealed to humanity in explicit ways through significant events in Jesus’ adult life and ministry. Over the next five weeks, the Sunday Gospel readings continue to provide epiphanies, revealing to us more and more of who this Jesus is, and what it means for him to be God incarnate, God in human flesh. Epiphanytide is, in a sense, a continual giving of God’s gift of his Son to humanity.

This Sunday, the first Sunday in this Season of Epiphany, is always the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, where we hear about Jesus coming to be baptized by John the Baptist at the River Jordan. The account of this event is the first public revelation of Jesus, now an adult, as God’s Son. Admittedly, Luke’s account, which we heard today, really seems to only mention Jesus’ baptism in passing. While there is no discussion of the event itself, what is important is what follows. What we hear when Luke tell us that after Jesus had been baptized, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Lk 3.21-22).

Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, there had been much speculation about the identity of the long-expected Messiah. John the Baptist, whom many thought to be the one, is very clear that he is not the Messiah. God definitively settles the matter by proclaiming to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

These words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” serve as an epiphany, a revelation, of who Jesus is. God clearly reveals that this man, Jesus, is the Son of God. You can’t get much more of an authentic epiphany than words directly from God. But these words are not just an epiphany of who Jesus is. Looking at the whole story of Jesus’ life, of how he was made human to come and live among us, of how he was crucified and resurrected to give us new and eternal life, shows us that these words from God are also an epiphany, a revelation, of who we are. Of who we are in the eyes of God himself. For God speaks these words to us as well, saying “You, (insert your name here), are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And this season of Epiphany is really about seeking the ways the Son of God is manifest in your own lives.

One of the most important ways he is revealed as the Son of God, particularly to broader humanity, is summed up in the final words that Jesus speaks to his disciples at the end of his life, after he has been resurrected, just before his ascension. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28.19-20).

Through baptism, which follows the example first set by Jesus himself, we are made his disciples, which affords great benefits. We are all familiar with what those are. We are all familiar with what happens in baptism. We learned it in the preparation for our own baptisms, if we were older. Or we learned it at some point in the course of our regular Christian formation. That the waters of baptism cleanse us of our sins. Our sins are not just forgiven. They are washed away. Forever. In so doing, we die to our old way of life and are born to a new way of life, complete with a new identity as beloved children of God. Children with whom God is well-pleased. This new identity includes a mystical, spiritual union with Christ, symbolized by our incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. And in that whole process, just as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, we too receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which inspires, enlivens and energizes us as the people of God, to be who God has created us and calls us to be.

But I think one of the most spectacular things is what happened in Jesus’ own baptism. And in what that means for us. People often question why Jesus needed to be baptized. After all, he did not need to have his sins washed away and forgiven. As the Son of God, sin was not an issue. And all the other gifts and benefits we receive in baptism are moot for Jesus, because they relate directly to relationship with Jesus and God. In this, Jesus’ baptism is unique. It was not something he needed to do for himself, but rather something he needed to do for us. This was the beginning of his messianic ministry. We needed some action to allow God to affirm and to bless this ministry to his people.

But even more than the affirmation conveyed in this action, the act of Jesus being baptized was meant to provide a direct connection with us. While not a sinner, by entering into the waters of baptism Jesus identified himself with sinners. In being baptized he made the statement that even in our sinfulness, he stands in solidarity with us in those waters. This is incredibly powerful. God being omnipotent, our sins presumably could be wiped away with the snap of God’s fingers. No need for the mess of taking them from us and placing them on Jesus. But instead, God, Jesus, made it more personal, more intimate, by choosing to stand with us in those waters. And in so doing, he changes our lives forever.

Baptism is meant to be a life-changing event. That’s why we make such a big deal of it. That’s why, even when we don’t have any candidates for baptism on a designated baptismal feast day, we always remember our own baptisms in the renewal of our baptismal vows. Today, we not only renew our own vows. We also have the privilege and honor of witnessing and participating in the baptism of Joseph Kehoe. And just as Jesus stands in the waters of baptism with us, so too do we, through our renewal of vows and our pledge of support and witness, stand with Joey in those waters. As those who are already Jesus’ disciples and members of the Body of Christ, we stand in solidarity with Joey as we welcome him as the newest member of God’s family. This is an awesome privilege. An awesome responsibility.

Now, as we prepare to baptize Joey, as we prepare to renew our own baptismal vows, I want you to remember. Even though the words are not part of the baptismal vows, know that God is smiling, and that in your heart and your spirit, God speaks to you saying, “You, [insert names of parishioners here], are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In those words, the mystery and miracle of Christmas does not end.

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