First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, Year A
Last week Aldon invited us to reflect on journeys—myriad journeys within the biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth: the journey that Luke mentions of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem to take part in a census, Mary and Joseph’s journey with the baby Jesus described in Matthew from Bethlehem into Egypt and then back again to Nazareth, the journey of the shepherds from their fields to a manger, the journey of the wise men from the east, and the journey of the word becoming flesh to dwell among us. And our own journeys that have brought us to this moment in time and this place and will lead us forward from it.
Today, thanks to our Gospel reading, we can add two more journeys to that catalogue: Jesus’ journey from the Galilee to the Jordan River in Judea—perhaps somewhere not far from the town of Jericho—to be baptized, and, most intriguing of all, the journey of almost an entire young life between his infancy and his public ministry, for which we have no reference except a brief mention in the Gospel of Luke of his visit to the temple at age 12. What was Jesus up to, during those 15 to almost 30 years (depending on how you count them)?
Many imagine Jesus working diligently away as a carpenter, obediently following in his father’s professional footsteps, generously helping his mother with household chores, studying Torah at the local synagogue. And that is a possible scenario. But I’m not convinced. I am much more attracted to stories—equally impossible to confirm—of an adventuresome Jesus, heading off, perhaps on the trade routes, looking for truth and wisdom among the cultures of the Orient and South Asia. How cool would it be if Jesus, as a young man, made his way to what we now call India, and discovered that much of what he most valued in his own Jewish tradition flourished in the ancient Hindu and Buddhist traditions of that subcontinent as well.
The Baptism of Jesus, by Indian Christian artist Brojoe Joseph
The principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, for example. As in, if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other also. Notions of eternal rewards for devoted commitment and service to God: Renouncing themselves for Me, full of Me, fixed to serve only the Highest, night and day, those I will swiftly lift from life’s ocean of distress and death. Cling to Me with heart and mind and you will surely dwell with Me on high. That’s Lord Krishna speaking in the Bhagavad-Gita, but it could easily be a paraphrase of a passage from the Psalms or the Gospel of John. Or the concept of the Bodhisattva, a person who postpones his or her own transcendent salvation in order to assure the salvation of others. How cool would that have been for Jesus to learn about these venerable spiritual traditions and to find so much in common with them. How cool for us to learn that much of the best of what we think and believe as Christians is shared by many more millions, even billions, of people around the world than we might have assumed.
But, whatever the details of Jesus’ so-called missing years, if Jesus did indeed share our human nature as we say in our Eucharistic service, we can be sure that his aughts, teens and twenties were a journey. A journey of growth and self-discovery, full of hopes, dreams and expectations, plans realized and plans unfulfilled, successes and failures, perhaps of love gained and love lost. A complicated, complex, emotional journey just like ours.
Which brings us to Jesus’ baptism and our own renewal of our baptismal vows this morning. Whatever the details of his youthful years, Jesus meets John in the wilderness when they are both about thirty years old. He is baptized by him and begins, soon after, his public ministry. Perhaps we can think of that baptism is a sort of fresh start—a public bookend on all that has gone before, and a commitment to serve his heavenly Father among his Father’s people, come what may. And perhaps his insistence that John baptize him and not vice versa is a symbolic affirmation that Jesus will not be acting alone, but will need the help of others—John’s help, his disciples’ help, our help—if he is to fulfill his divine commission.
As we renew our baptismal vows in a moment, perhaps we could think of that rite in a similar way. Whatever our journeys have been, whatever more or less circuitous route we have taken to this moment and this place, today we make a fresh start.
Relinquishing the past, though certainly wiser and richer for it, we publicly proclaim and reclaim our commitment to live lives of ahimsa—non-violence towards our neighbors, ourselves and all of creation; our commitment to serve God, God’s people and God’s creation, with steadfast devotion, come what may; and like the bodhisattva, our commitment to value the needs of others as much as, or more than, we value our own. That is to say, we declare anew our intention to journey from hence forth on Jesus’ holy way of love.
And we acknowledge that that journey of love and service requires the strength of mutually supportive community—like this one at Grace and St Peter’s.
Then, having made that fresh start, having renewed our commitment to non-violence, service and devotion; having embarked anew on our journey with God; I have no doubt that a voice will stir within us, perhaps quietly, but stirring nonetheless—the voice of God’s Spirit descending upon us. Because, ultimately, baptism is a time when God makes God’s intentions knows to us even as we make ours known to God. And from that voice we will hear words like those that Jesus heard as he rose from the waters of his own baptism in the Jordan River: “You, each one of you and all of you”, that heavenly voice will say, “are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.”