Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord (Lectionary 1)
Sunday, January 10, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Do you remember your baptism?
If you’re like me, you were baptized as an infant, and you don’t remember a thing about it. I was three weeks old when I was baptized. While I don’t remember my baptism, I suspect those gathered at St. John Lutheran Church, in rural Northeast Iowa on the last Sunday of April 45-years-ago, did not experience the heavens torn open or see a dove descending as splashes of water were poured over my head. I suspect it was a pretty routine baptism of the latest child born in the congregation.
The details of Jesus’s baptism, however, signify that his baptism was no ordinary baptism. In the baptism of Jesus, narrated by St. Mark for us today, [Mark 1:4-11] there were cosmic, heaven shattering power. The details proclaim that power: the heavens torn open, a dove descending, and a heavenly voice with an intimate message for Jesus: “You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
In light of the sedition and insurrection that happened this was week in our nation’s Capitol, the baptism of Jesus gives us the opportunity today to reflect on power, and how Christians use power.
Theologian Deborah Krause points out a key detail in the link between the baptism of Jesus and power, the detail St. Mark states in the description of Jesus’ baptism that is easy to overlook: that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee. Krause writes … “In this detail Jesus is established as an outsider. He comes from a small backwater in a marginal region of tremendous economic hardship and political disenfranchisement. First-century Palestine was occupied by Roman imperial power and governed unevenly by a series of appointed governors and Judean religious authorities … this combination of factors led to the particular marginalization of the Jewish peasants of Galilee.”
Jesus did not grow up in Jerusalem or even in Bethlehem where he was born. Nor was he baptized by the temple priest in Jerusalem. Here at the beginning of his ministry, and in his baptism by John, it is established that Jesus grew up among the marginalized and disenfranchised in Nazareth of Galilee and began his ministry outside the seat of power.
The importance of this, is to recognize, that the authority Jesus claimed in his ministry, did not come from a claim on earthly power. Jesus did not claim authority because of his earthly origin, because of what was expected of him from his neighbors. Jesus grew up with no earthly power and his ministry was not established in earthly power. And as it turns out, Jesus would not be at all interested in claiming earthly power.
Instead, the power Jesus claimed in baptism, or perhaps we might say, the power that claimed Jesus in his baptism, was heavenly power. The ministry of Jesus began in the power of the voice that spoke from heaven proclaiming Jesus God’s son. This was indeed power – the power of the voice sweeping over the face of the waters creating lightness and darkness and creating the heavens and earth – the voice that was the power of God tearing open the heavens in Jesus’ baptism.
Because the ministry of Jesus was rooted in the power of God, Jesus was not interested in playing the games of earthly power … games that create winners and losers … games that ultimately divide, conquer, and kill … games where powerful insiders profit, even at the expense of their followers, and certainly at the expense of the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed.
“John and Jesus participate in missions that announce the presence of God,” Krause continues, “and do so with the edge of challenging those powers that have served to privilege certain people at the expense of others. That Jesus ministry begins against such a backdrop offers those who follow him the opportunity to test their own ministries for their connection with these purposes and for their location with those who are bereft of land, economic power, and political privilege. It is in such places and among such people that the Spirit of God is pouring forth.”
The ministry of Jesus that began in his baptism, was not a ministry designed to accumulate power for himself. It was a ministry to proclaim the power of God for others. And ultimately, it was power that gave itself away for the life of the world.
Theologian Stephen Cook addresses the question about why Jesus was baptized in the first place? If John’s baptism was for the repentance and the forgiveness of sins, what did Jesus have to repent of? What sins did Jesus commit that needed forgiving?
Cook writes this: “Jesus had no need whatsoever for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Yet Jesus submitted to it obediently, faithfully, knowing that his mission was one of complete solidarity with his people. His work was to share their predicament, identifying with them in their suffering and sin. In Jesus’ way of living, others get priority. The self purposefully takes a back seat, willing even to bear vicariously the brunt of God’s decisive judgment.”
In receiving a baptism he did not need, Jesus foreshadowed his crucifixion on the cross he did not deserve. I think that bears repeating: in receiving a baptism he did not need, Jesus foreshadowed his crucifixion on the cross he did not deserve.
This was power and this was how power was to be used! Heavenly power was about solidarity with the suffering, about entering into the pain and reality of those who suffer, to bring the life and healing of God!
In faith, Cook writes, we are invited to know that …“what really changes the world for the better is a ministry of sensitivity, like that of Jesus, God’s true Servant. Such a ministry empowers other people to open up to each other, and to God. It nourishes the tender reeds and flickering flames of people’s souls and allows their spirits to spring forth. Such care-filled work is inconvenient and even risky. Worldly structures do not encourage it; Jesus died in his commitment to it. Because of this work, however, the world changes seismically, and God’s new creation begins. Let us commit ourselves afresh to this selfsame work in earnest.”
This is power: the power of God to bring life into the world. This is how power is used: for the sake of others.
Today, on this Baptism of our Lord Sunday, we are invited to affirm our baptisms.
In affirming our baptisms, we are invited to make important decisions today:
Do we draw our meaning from the accumulation of earthly power? Or, do we draw our meaning from living in heavenly power?
Do we align ourselves with those who seek earthly power for personal gain? Or, do we align ourselves with the power of God to work for the common good?
Do we, side with seditionists desperately clinging to earthly power who are ready to lie, deceive, kill and tear everything else down if they don’t get their personal way? Or, in faith, do we align ourselves with Jesus Christ, who was ready to die so that we might live, who yielded his power, so that the power of God might rush into the world and that the world would be renewed and saved?
As we Affirm our Baptisms today, Deborah Krause asks us to reflect on this: “To what extent does our preaching and congregational mission [and I add – participation in government] promote the proclamation that God’s power serves justice for the poor and disenfranchised in our world. Is our church on “the inside” of political power and economic privilege? If so, John and Jesus call us to “repent,” to turn around, and to look for God’s presence and purpose on the margins of our communities.”
To Affirm our Baptisms today, is to affirm that we will draw our meaning, and find our identity, and take our orders, like Jesus did in his baptism, from the power of God. That we will use any earthly power we are privileged to hold always for the public good. That we will see that real heavenly power is power that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, cares for the sick, visits the prisoners, and welcomes the stranger.
And, when the time comes, to yield earthly power. To release power, to give it away, so that others may have life and healing.
Friends, may the Holy Spirit lead you to the faith to choose heavenly power.
With courage and boldness, let us reject and renounce the use of any earthly power for personal gain.
Alive in Christ, may we use power for the sake of those in need – especially those who are victims of prejudice, oppression, exploitation, and fear.
Alive in Christ, may we yield earthly power when it leads to the common good.
Indeed may it be so.