Epiphany 1B 15
Martin Luther was a great leader of the Reformation, the man whose wisdom and courage set Europe ablaze with renewed zeal for Christ. But Luther was also a man of scrupulous conscience, a man very aware of his own frailties and failures, with a tendency to melancholy and depression. Martin Luther knew himself to be a “miserable sinner.” But he also discovered a spiritual remedy for his anxiety, his melancholy and depression. In the worst of times, under tremendous spiritual attack, he would put his hand on his head and proclaim, “I am baptized; I am baptized.” With that assurance he could do the work God had given him to do and proclaim God’s saving love and grace in Jesus Christ.
Today the Scripture lessons tell us of the baptism of Jesus – the reality of our baptism in him, a baptism of water and the Holy Spirit which begins a new relationship with God, a new relationship with ourselves, and a new relationship with other people.
The outward and visible sign of baptism is washing with water in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The inward and spiritual grace of baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family, the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit. (That’s in the Catechism, Prayer Book page 858. If you haven’t read through the Catechism, I want you to do so. It’s only 18 pages long, but we all need to know it.) Some history and background: The Jews were different from some ancient people because they bathed regularly, sometimes as often as once a month. God’s law in Leviticus 11 and 15 requires a ritual bath to wash away certain kinds of ceremonial uncleanness. In Jesus’ time many people were converting to Judaism and the ritual bath became a sign of conversion and new life in God’s covenant.
John the Baptist said to his fellow Jews, to those born to the Sinai covenant with God, “You have broken your covenant and you need to claim the covenant again as a convert, through the ritual bath” of John’s baptism. It is roughly as though we native-born citizens need to come in under a visa, wait our time, take the test, and the oath, and be naturalized. The baptism of John was a sign of conversion and new life in God’s covenant.
Jesus comes to John, the sinless son of God fully identifying with the situation of sinful humankind, as the Epistle to the Philippians says, to take upon himself the form of a servant, made in the likeness of men, humble himself and become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, because he loves us, and wants to bring us to that perfect unity with God the Father which he enjoys. Jesus suffered all the temptations any of us can suffer, and gave us an example that it is possible to be tempted and not sin, not break the unity with the Father.
But he gives us more than an example – he gives us he who was made manifest at his baptism, the Holy Spirit of God, the spirit of truth and power and adoption as children of God. John the Baptist said, “I indeed have baptized with water, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John’s baptism brought people again into the Old Covenant of Sinai. Jesus’ baptism brings us into the New Covenant, by water and the Holy Spirit. Isaiah had prophesied, “Behold my servant whom I uphold . . . I will put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
The manifestation of the Holy Spirit at his baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, a ministry of proclaiming God’s love in word and deed, even to the death on the cross, and resurrection to new life. Jesus died because of sin – common, ordinary, everyday, sin. Judas, for greed, betrayed him. The chief priests, for envy, lied and delivered Jesus a prisoner to Pilate. Pilate, for weakness, unjustly condemned him. The soldiers, for cruelty, scourged him. The crowd, for sadistic pleasure, taunted him. Jesus died for all those sins, and for all our similar sins, and for the sins of the whole world. “Father, forgive them . . .”
Jesus’ baptism, in perfect unity with God the Father, led directly to his death for sin, and his death is followed by his resurrection to life, his ascension to heaven, and the empowering manifestation of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, which led to our being here today.
The baptism of Jesus is the reality of our baptism in him, a baptism of water and the Holy Spirit which begins a new relationship with God, a new relationship with ourselves, and a new relationship with other people.
You can see in your daily life the death to sin and resurrection to fellowship with God as by the power of the Holy Spirit you resist temptation, claiming the power of the Holy Spirit to replace a mean word with a kind word, to express gratitude rather than complaint, to be generous rather than stingy, and as the Prayer Book says, “. . . to live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory . . .”
Like Martin Luther, we can put our hands on our heads and proclaim, “I am baptized; I am baptized.” And with that assurance we proceed to the work God gives us to do, to proclaim God’s saving love and grace in Jesus Christ.