The Baptism of Our Lord

Good morning, and it’s so nice to be back with you. I love a snowy weekend! It’s festive and beautiful, like an extension of the holidays. Today is the first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany, a Sunday we always set aside to remember the Baptism of our Lord. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, and that began his earthly ministry. 

I can’t read of this event without thinking of the Byzantine-era mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, depicting Christ’s baptism. They’re from the 6th century, and some of the oldest surviving mosaics from Eastern Christianity. [Actually, same emperor who built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, if you were here for the Christmas Eve sermon.] 

In the Ravenna mosaics, Jesus is always shown as a beardless youth. We don’t know what Jesus looked like or even if he had a beard, though we assume he probably did. But there was a branch of early Christianity that believed this moment was when he became divine--not from his birth, but from his baptism. And they showed that by making him beardless before the baptism, and bearded after. The mosaics are gorgeous. One of the most memorable moments of my life was standing beneath the gold-drenched byzantine dome of the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna, looking up at a youthful Jesus standing in the clear waters of the Jordan.

Our branch of Christianity never took this to be the moment Jesus went from human to divine. But it was a significant moment nonetheless, attested to in all four of the Gospels. It marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he emerged from three decades of obscurity in Nazareth to become the most important person in the world. 

The feast celebrating Jesus’ baptism always falls at the start of a new year. Baptism is about beginnings, not just for Jesus, but for us, too. 

After this sermon, as we do every year on this feast day, we’ll say the Baptismal Covenant, which contains the vows said at our baptism and the core teachings of our faith. 

And as we say them on this first Sunday of the new year, we get to think about whether we’ve done everything in our power this past year to honor these vows. Is there someone we’ve hurt, or neglected? Or given up on? Have we grown too world-weary to care about all those who are suffering? Are our finances in line with what we say we value? What do others see when they look at the choices we’ve made?

Living out the Christian life takes work--we feel the strain of it, and often. Immediately after Jesus was baptized, he was swept into the desert where he suffered temptation. Baptism, and challenge, go together. Jesus was baptized as an adult. Most of us were not. But that shouldn’t make it any less immediate, the hold these promises have on us and the need to routinely measure our lives against them. 

In just a moment, where we’d normally recite the Nicene Creed, we’ll repeat our own Baptismal Covenant. Our confirmation kids this year will be memorizing it; I used to make them memorize the Nicene Creed, but the covenant speaks more plainly about what it means to be a Christian day in, and day out. 

Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? 

That’s about our connection to community, to the church, to this weekly act of gathering, learning, encouraging, and remembering where it all started, with the sharing of bread and wine among Jesus and his friends all those years ago. You can’t live a good and meaningful life without checking in, and being accountable, to others.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? 

That’s about always being on the lookout for ways you’re drawn into thoughts and actions that harm, rather than heal, the world. And when that happens, because none of us are perfect, recognize it quickly, repent, learn from it, and try again. 

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? 

That’s about both speaking of and living out your Christian faith. Someone saw to it that we were once baptized. Or maybe with some of you, you made that decision. Belonging to a faith is an honor--we should speak about it wherever and to whomever we can, without hesitation or embarrassment. But we mustn’t dare speak of it if we’re not also living it. By word and example.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? 

Your neighbor is “all persons.” That’s what I love best about that one. If we could see Christ in everyone, how much different would our world look? How much more peace would we have? How much love Between and among ourselves, country to country, person to person?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? 

This one makes me think of a line from Martin Luther King Jr, that “True peace is not the absence of tension, it’s the presence of justice.” Christian peace isn’t tepid or wan, a kind of self-help tranquility. It’s the peace that comes from doing right, of knowing you’re making the world as good a place as is in your power to do.  

Today, as we stand on the cusp of a new year, we remember the thrill of new beginnings that baptism represents. And we’re called anew to this life in Christ, together. Amen.