Sunday 13 January 2019: The Baptism of Christ
Standing on the banks of the Jordan
Luke 3:15-17, 21-11
By Sergius Halvorsen
Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and Assistant Priest, Christ the Saviour Church, Southbury, CT USA
Context: A small, suburban parish comprised of about one hundred families.
Aim: Examines the dark impulses beneath religion and piety and attempts to locate hearers within the biblical narrative. The homily is written for Theophany in the Eastern Orthodox Church, a major feast that includes the great blessing of waters.
Today we stand on the banks of the Jordan. Leaving the noisy, hectic Jerusalem of our lives, we come to the Jordan of this holy place, to hear the preaching of John the Baptist. We came here on pilgrimage, leaving the soul destroying daily grind behind, to hear a good word and be transformed.
But pilgrimage is hard. When you woke up this morning, did you say, ‘Not today, not again. Not another thing to do. Why not just sleep in?’ On the way here did you consider turning back, going back home, or going to a quiet cafe? Sometimes I do. Because the spiritual pilgrimage of life is hard, like carrying an enormous weight. There are the massive weights of tragedy and crisis. But there are also the million tiny grains of guilt, shame, anger, disappointment and bitterness. The pebbles of every mistake, every grievance, every hurt and insecurity that add up to a crippling burden, making me feel small, and insignificant and worthless. So, I want to hear a word that lifts me up and lets me stand tall. Having come all this way, I want John to say something that really makes a difference.
I think I’d like to hear John tell me that I’m right. I’d like to hear him back me up on all the arguments that I’ve lost. I’d like to hear him stand up for me when I tried to do the right thing but got taken down by the powerful and the corrupt and the wicked. I’d really love to hear him take on the arrogant and the proud and knock them down a notch or two. That would be music to my ears!
But John didn’t say any of that.
He said, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance.’ Then he basically said, don’t pat yourself on the back for being a part of God’s holy people, because God can raise up children from stones. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I don’t know about you, but this is NOT what I was expecting. Is this encouraging, or uplifting or helpful? This is not what I came to hear!
And what did John say to the tax collectors and Roman soldiers? For a moment I thought, ‘At least I’ll get to hear John take them down a notch or two.’ But what did John say? He didn’t tell them to quit their jobs working for an evil emperor. Far from it! He said, if you’re a tax collector, don’t take more than is appointed, and if you’re a soldier, don’t rob anyone by violence or by dishonesty, and be content with your wages.
Really? That’s it? Where is the justice of the great prophet? What happened to speaking truth to power?
But then, something happened that nobody expected. Someone asked John about the Christ, and John said that he is not even worthy to untie the sandals of the coming messiah who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Then, after everyone was baptized, the people were praying, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, one of the crowd who had just been baptized, and a voice came from heaven saying, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’
In this moment, God reveals the Messiah, the Christ … and he’s one of us. The Christ is not some disembodied spirit that swoops down from the stars and lays waste to the unrighteous. He’s a human being, just like you and me, except he’s perfect—sinless—perfect God and perfect man. The Christ is not God’s politician, looking for fame; saying things that I want to hear. Christ comes with a message that is not of this world; a message from God. The voice from heaven says to Jesus and to each one of us, ‘You are my beloved.’ This is not a message of condemnation and vengeance. It is a message of mercy and forgiveness. It is an invitation to discipleship and communion. This is not the message I was looking for, but it is better than I could have possibly imagined. Today God says, ‘No matter the burden you bear, no matter your sin, or weakness, you are my beloved.’ And our Lord confirms the truth of the message by the shedding of his own blood on the Cross. Today as we lay aside our earthly cares, we follow Christ as he leads us home.
So, today we stand on the banks of the Jordan, all of us having been baptized, and as we pray, we discover that Christ is standing in our midst. God is with us. Today, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and upon us, and nothing will ever be the same, because God says, ‘You are my beloved.’
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