Fr. Bill Carroll – The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 8, 2023
I am the Lord. I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand and kept you.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This week, as I was thinking and praying about the baptism of Jesus, I was reminded of a photograph of our family. (I just showed it to the children. It is my current profile picture on Facebook.) In that picture, Danny has just been baptized. He is in a long, white gown, which Rachel also wore when she was baptized.. The gown was a gift to us from Holy Trinity parish in Clemson, South Carolina, where Tracey was serving as a priest.
Rachel is almost three in the picture. I know she’s not three yet, because her third birthday was “nine-eleven.” And she’s sitting on my hip. She is wearing a flowered Easter dress with matching shoes. Tracey has Danny in her arms. Dorsey Henderson, our bishop at the time, has his arm around Tracey and his hand on Danny’s head in a gesture of blessing.
I am thirty-one years old. So much has happened since. We were about to move to Sewanee, where a few years later Bishop Henderson would ordain me as a priest. And, like the birth of any child, Danny’s arrival would soon change everything, but we didn’t realize yet how much.
As he made the sign of the Cross on Danny’s forehead with holy oil, our bishop said these powerful words: “Daniel, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Maybe you have heard these same words spoken to you, or to someone you love.
Every baptism is about renewing the faith of the whole community in Jesus. It is about renewing the ties that bind us together as the Body of Christ. Whenever we baptize someone (of whatever age), we witness God’s grace poured out on a new Christian. We also renew the vows of our Baptism.
Baptism is an unrepeatable act. It is about our once-and-for-all immersion into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Baptism, God says that God loves us and that nothing can change that—no, not ever. And, even though we don’t repeat Baptism, we need to be reminded, again and again, of the grace we receive there. We need to remember the promises we make as well. That’s why we are renewing our Baptismal Covenant today.
This week, I was reading a book by Fr. David Fleming. In one of the chapters, he reflects on the relationship between memory and imagination. “In terms of our Judeo-Christian heritage,” he says, “each of us enters into the Israelite experience of needing to look back—to remember God’s ways of acting—so that those past ways might shed light on our present and future directions.” In every Baptism, as in every Eucharist, we remember our sacred story together. We remember God’s faithful love for Israel and the Church. We remember God’s faithful love for each and every one of us. Above all, we remember the words and deeds of Jesus, and his boundless Spirit of love.
Here too, God is calling us to remember with a purpose. We recall God’s mighty deeds, in order to catch sight of his life-changing vision for us. Martin Luther called sacraments “visible words.” Whenever we celebrate them, we use our five senses to receive Jesus and the Kingdom. God uses everything that we are and everything that we have to bring us into that Kingdom of love and mercy. We encounter Jesus in the flesh. The sacraments also convey his Spirit, which falls on us afresh. And Jesus and the Spirit renew us in all God’s ways.
Today’s Gospel gives us a kind of snapshot of a key moment in the life of Jesus. It is the first story we hear from his adulthood. Indeed, the Gospel of Mark begins with it. Among other things, it makes clear his unique relationship with his Father and his growing sense of his calling to be the Messiah. Right afterward, Jesus will go out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Then, he will begin his ministry as a wandering preacher of repentance and forgiveness and love, as well as an exorcist and a healer. By everything he says, everything he does, everything he suffers, Jesus shares God’s amazing love with us all.
Today, we are called to meditate on his baptism. First, Jesus arrives on the banks of the River Jordan. He is one of thousands of pilgrims. Most of them are the outcasts of society. Few of them are righteous in the eyes of the world. The Good News has always made the most sense to those of us who are outsiders, to those who see ourselves as having no other option. Jesus appeals especially to those who need a fresh start. It’s for people like us who know we are weak and spiritually poor and vulnerable. It’s for everyone who knows that we need God. That is why those who are considered unworthy and untouchable flock to Jesus. As Robert Maly once said in a Bible study: “If you’ve got sin, come on in.”
In the story, Jesus emerges out of the crowd. He’s the only one among them who is completely righteous. And the Baptist recognizes his Lord and Savior immediately. “Why are you coming to me?” he asks him. “I should be coming to you.” But Jesus says to him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” By submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus gives us an example of humility. He shows us the value of repenting, of turning our lives around, so that his priorities become our priorities and his values, our values—above all, the value of love.
Then, as he comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. And the voice of God declares for all to hear: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” As we remember this awesome gift and these life-changing words from God, they should summon us to remember our Baptism (and any that we’ve ever witnessed or been a part of). For the Spirit that falls on Jesus is the same Spirit that burns in our hearts today.
For thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the Lord. I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand and kept you.”
You are my beloved children. With you, I am well pleased.