Today as part of our Epiphany observance we are called to focus on the next step of the Jesus story. We witness his baptism which we believe marks the beginning of his adult ministry. Baptism for Jesus was not a coronation event of His kingship. At its very heart it is an invitation to journey with him into some of the most challenging situations of life. In order to best understand His baptism, one must understand some of the circumstances which prevailed at the time.
It was a time of horrible political oppression by leaders who sought in every way to stamp out oppression [do you mean opposition?]. It was a time of great division among the people on socio-economic issues. There were huge disparities between the rich and the poor. There were enormous tensions among the various religious parties on who were authentic Israelites based upon their proximity to and relationship with foreigners and sinners. In other words, in many ways, it was very similar to the times we’re living in today, minus the stress of a pandemic.
My friends, in the years since humanity has journeyed from primitive cave dwelling to the dawning of the age of space travel, we Christians have learned that as much as the goodness of God prevails and sustains, evil has a tenacity that allows it to survive like a virus in the face of all the goodness of God. The eternal narrative about humanity seems to be that we love to dabble in evil even as we strive to be godly. Darkness seems to be a constant shadow even in the glory of the light of God. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Roman 7:9) As testimony to this is the fact that as individuals, or, at times, as families, friends, faith community and nations, we find ourselves being led by the spirit of selfishness rather than the spirit of generosity. And this is what constantly tears us apart.
Jesus’ baptism may best be captured by the prophecy of Isaiah 43:2-3: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” Our baptism brings us into a different relationship with God and a new understanding of our faith. Baptism does not remove our tendency to sin. But it does take away the power of sin to hold us.
This is deeper than a mere question of sin versus salvation. Our baptism allows God in Jesus Christ to become part of our daily lives. Baptism allows us the power to not be overwhelmed by life’s struggles. Baptism into Jesus’ omnipotence empowers us to find new life when death and brokenness shatter our world. Baptism nurtures within us a spirit that never surrenders in the face of evil. Baptism allows us to walk into the flames of the world’s battles and yet not be burned. It allows us to walk into the darkness of the unknown and not be fearful.
Christians in communities throughout the nation today are crying out for an alternative to the vicious cycles of brokenness and hate that we struggle against in our lives today. The role that the church is called to fulfill is to offer Christians a space within which we can encounter the rest and peace we desperately seek … away from the claws of the demonic spirits of separation and division.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother telling the local obeah woman that my siblings and I will prosper in spite of any obeah act because God is bigger than any evil spirit! Her chant was “No weapon formed against us shall prosper” (Isaiah 54:17). So, you see I have always known that I am a child of the Living God! I declare it: I am a child of the Living God! I will not be overwhelmed by all that life throws at me and my household and my church because I lead a baptized family and a baptized community.
My friends let us today – in the face of all that the Darkness has created as its declaration of the power of death – let us boldly declare that we are baptized in the name of Jesus and that the flame shall not consume us because our God is the Holy One of Israel, our Savior.” As Jesus was praying after John baptized him in the river Jordan, the voice of God declared, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) This same God is asking you to hold fast to a spirit of prayer so that you, too, will be honored with the words, “You are my very own and I will watch over you forever. For I am the Lord your God!”