The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ
January 8, 2017
The Very Rev. Randall Hehr
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
3200 N. McMullen Booth Road
Clearwater, FL 33761
Today’s reading from Acts of the Apostles (10:34-43) reminds us that the Gospel is always in motion. Acts says, “That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced…” The Gospel is in motion because the people of God are called to carry and proclaim it. Brian McLaren, the author we will begin studying today in our Christian formation series writes about The Great Spiritual Migration. He says, “The Bible…tells a story of humans on the move…” (ix) Think of the Exodus and the Exile. Think of our Lord Jesus Christ, always moving forward, leading his disciples to the next city or town to accomplish God’s mission. His first words were, “Follow me.” His last words were “Go into all the world…” (ix)
We are pilgrims on a mission. We are called by Christ to follow him, and he is always leading us into the world, teaching us to reach out in love and to bring healing and hope. We are pilgrims on a mission. And here we have two important words that are important in our Christian vocabulary: Pilgrim: one who deliberately travels toward a specific holy destination. And mission: God’s purposeful work to transform, heal, and redeem the world.
Today’s Gospel (Matthew 3:13-17) informs our pilgrimage and our mission. Today we meet Jesus as he travels from his home in Nazareth to the Jordan, where John the Baptist is calling people to enter the water and be cleansed. While scripture is silent about the days that led up to this amazing event, I ponder Jesus leaving the safety of his home where he grew up in a Jewish household and was nurtured by the community of faith. Now, at approximately thirty years of age, he embarks on a new beginning. His baptism is the beginning of his public ministry. Heeding the call of his heavenly father, he moves deliberately into a much riskier future. Now the drama of his life is enacted in the water: he dies to his former life in order to begin a new life. Baptism involves both death and resurrection. John hesitates at first because he recognizes the Son of Man. Jesus encourages him, and John lowers our Lord into the water. Upon coming up from the water, Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending on him, and a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We claim this Sunday and this story every year as a day to mark our own new beginning. The story reminds us that we are pilgrims on a mission. Brian McLaren warns us that the Gospel “seethes with the deeply human tension between settling down and moving on.” (ix) Today’s story functions like a splash of water in the face, waking us up and reminding us about our Baptismal Covenant which calls us to follow our Lord into the world. Established congregations like ours need a splash of water in the face. We can be tempted into thinking of ourselves as a settlement. We long for comfortable patterns instead of seeking the adventure and the risk of the unknown.
As I wrote this sermon, I paused right here in my text because I had a very vivid memory from the year 2000. It was early in the morning, and I woke up a little disoriented in the dim light. As my eyes adjusted, I looked around and realized I was on the floor of the living room in my mother’s house in Largo. Pam was there too, and our two children, Tim and Christina. There were boxes piled all around us in the room. Our house in Clearwater sold very quickly and this was a temporary place to stay while we searched for a new home. How much I longed for the familiar surroundings of our house. How much I longed for things to be settled. I remember describing these feelings to people in my congregation at the time, and we all agreed that moving brings incredible chaos and disruption to life.
Holy Trinity stands on the edge of a number of developmental changes. Such change is important for us. It is how we learn and grow. Just recall the day when our children pull themselves up from crawling and take their first steps. We cheer them on! Just think of the day our kids become young adults and decide to leave home. We cheer them on! In our personal histories, we have moments of transition that teach us much about ourselves and our pilgrimage and mission. And so it is for us as the people of God. As we face decisions about our facilities and property, our programs, our leadership, and our budget, we recall Brian McLaren’s words. Our community of faith “seethes with the deeply human tension between settling down and moving on.” We long for more comfortable and familiar patterns even as we hear the strong, clear voice of God calling us out into the world as pilgrims on a mission.
Jesus stood on the banks of the Jordan looking ahead into God’s future. He knew a great deal about his past, and I am sure he had glimpses of the future. I believe our Lord embraced the unknowns of the future by relying deeply on his trust for his heavenly father. He relied on the very words he heard in the river that day, words that affirmed his identity and affirmed his mission. Today, as we stand at the edge of the river, it is time for us to renew our own Baptismal Covenant. God reminds us that we are pilgrims on a mission. As we embrace the future and move into the world, we know with confidence that we are God’s children, God’s sons and daughters, and with us God is well pleased.