Fr. Andrew Armond – The First Sunday after Epiphany, January 9, 2022

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As many of you know, our Diocese has a large and impressive facility called Camp Allen, located outside of Navasota northwest of Houston. If I’m counting correctly, I’ve already been there and back from Longview five times since I became part of the Diocese of Texas last summer for various events. There’s no good way to get there from here. The route is quite rural, but it is a beautiful and peaceful drive for the most part.

There’s one section in particular that is quite hilly, on state highway 21, coming down from Alto into the Davy Crockett National Forest, close to Mission Tejas State Park. And in this section, coming down the hill over the bridge, you can see that, at some point fairly recently, a tornado must have come through. The trees are broken and scarred; the landscape opens out and in that space there is a sort of terrible beauty. Those of you who have seen it will know what I mean; and if you haven’t, you have probably seen something similar at some point in your own life.

Every time I read Psalm 29 now I think of that forest. The voice of the Lord, the Psalm says, shakes the wilderness. The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare. This is a person who has seen a magnificent and terrible storm. This is a person who has seen that the beauty and terror of such a storm are closely aligned. There is strength, amazing and marvellous strength, in the wind that produces such effects. And there is beauty, the beauty of the forest laid bare by such power. In fact, it is so beautiful and strong, so lovely and terrible, that it causes the psalmist to reflect on it as though it were a moment of profound holiness in God’s Temple. All, the psalmist says, are crying, “GLORY!” 

Maybe this is a moment akin to some of our most holy and powerful rituals in the church. I know that our burial liturgy is one such moment for me, particularly the phrase, spoken over the body: “yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” Perhaps there are other such moments for you within the context of our worship: baptism, or even the weekly celebration of the Eucharist, moments at which the veil seems to part and we see, touch, feel, hear, experience just a taste of that GLORY.

There’s a reason that the image of the forest stripped bare is a good image of the Glory of God, because it’s not necessarily a comforting image at first glance. What it reminds us of is the sheer otherness of God, a power so foreign to our own experience that we can only marvel at it. God’s glory is powerful, after all. God’s holiness is something that we can only imagine, something like the sun. We can’t stare into it directly but everything is nevertheless illuminated by its rays. 

John the Baptist knew this and believed this, and that is why his own images for the coming of Jesus are filled with similar ideas. Jesus comes, in John’s prophecy, to cleanse the world of sin, to restore it to right relationship with God. He will come like a tornado through the forest, stripping us bare of our pretense, our ego, our self-righteousness. Before his loving but powerful gaze our chaff is burned away, and the idea that we can in any way earn God’s love, or save our own selves, burns away as well.

Some of you may recall our most recent baptism here at the parish, celebrated by Bishop Fisher, or you may at the very least know by reputation how Bishop Fisher baptizes. He will show you, if you ask him, what the pages of his Prayer Book look like, and how they are soaked through from the waters of baptism. He uses, in other words, a lot of water, and he is quite animated in how he throws that water around. This is all intentional on his part, and is an effort to demonstrate visually what baptism really means for us: participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

Baptism is a kind of death! As the Dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee writes in the manual I was trained in at seminary, “Baptism is evocative of drowning: Paul wrote of one being buried with Christ, while others wrote of going down into the waters of baptism and being raised up as a new person.” And so, Dean Turrell continues, “it is hard to make this symbol sing if one is using a salad bowl.” Who would have thought that the dean of an Episcopal seminary would argue that all baptismal candidates should be immersed–but that is exactly what he says in this manual. “If one cannot manage to immerse the candidate,” he concludes, “water at least should be poured in great quantity over the candidate at the font.”

Why? Because baptism is, like the image of the forest being stripped bare, a symbol both terrible and wonderful at the same time. Because it demonstrates what God has done for us in Christ, bringing us, as our Eucharistic prayer says, out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

Feasting on the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, being buried and raised again: the primary symbols of our faith are not necessarily tame, are they? But we believe that this is by God’s own design. 

God demonstrates God’s love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We celebrate these rather strange rites and rituals of our faith because of this fact. We celebrate them because it is indeed a rather strange, and somewhat terrifying, and above all, incredibly consoling and meaningful fact that God became human for us, and that in dying to our old selves and being raised with Christ, and in participating in his very life through his Body and Blood, we are brought to new life. We are raised out of death into life. We become participants in God’s story, in God’s life, in ways that we never could have imagined possible.

Those ways are enumerated in our baptismal covenant, which we will renew shortly on this celebration of Our Lord’s baptism. Jesus was baptized to lead the way for us on this journey of faith, to be the first to offer us the Grace and Power of God’s Spirit to empower us for this pilgrimage. He, too, plunged under the waters of baptism. Did he see his own death in that moment? Was he given a glimpse of the suffering he would endure on our behalf? 

Whatever Jesus saw or experienced in that moment, we know that it was a profound and life-changing experience for him. We know that he prayed in that moment; that he received the gift of the Holy Spirit; and that he heard the voice of the Father saying “you are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

These are the same gifts passed on to us in our Baptism. In that moment, we hear God say: “You are my Beloved daughter. You are my Beloved son.” Plunged into the death and burial of Christ, we are raised with him to new life. Raised to the new life, we are then empowered as God’s agents of hope, peace, love, and change in the world around us! Raised to new life, with God’s help, we continue in the apostles’ fellowship, resist evil, proclaim the Good News of God in Christ by word and example, seek and serve Christ in all persons, and strive for justice and peace among all people.  

It is only by virtue of the power of God, the might of God, the terrific and strong voice of God, that we can accomplish the promises of our baptism. The voice of the Lord that makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare promises to remake us, to refashion us, to make us fit vessels in the service of the Almighty God. And in the temple of the Lord, all are crying “Glory.”  AMEN.