Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

January 8, 2011

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati


(Based on Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7; Acts 10: 34-38; Matthew 3: 13-17)


I invite you tonight to travel with me in our imaginations to the year—let’s say—67 or 68 AD. You and I are members of one of the Christian communities scattered around Asia Minor. In those days there are still eye-witnesses to the events in the life of Jesus scattered across the area. There are a few letters of the apostle Paul floating around and being quoted to help us to grasp the meaning of the faith we have accepted and the story we have become part of. But otherwise there is nothing else written to guide us.


Then someone turns to you or me and says, “Why don’t you write a more extended account of the events of his life? It could help us to know who he really was and what he was about. You could call it a “Gospel.”


So here’s the question: supposing we might know everything recorded in the four actual Gospels, what would we include in ours?


You might say: “well, of course, you’d have to include everything, wouldn’t you?


Well, as a matter of fact, no. When each of the evangelists wrote his version of the story he included some things and left others out. And it wasn’t just a matter of a small detail here or there, like Pilate’s wife warning him to have nothing to do with Jesus.


Just think: Mark’s Gospel is the first one to be written. It’s lean and trim. He doesn’t feel the need to include the account of Jesus’ birth; Bethlehem and Nazareth and the magi and all that. He goes right to the beginning of the public mission of the Lord. . . . Matthew believes it’s important to know the whole ancestral line of Jesus, going back through David all the way to Abraham. . . . You might say, “Well, certainly you’d have to include the parable of the prodigal son since that’s so central to our faith.” But in fact, Luke is the only one to record that nugget. . .  And by the time we get to John, the last one to compose a Gospel, he doesn’t even feel the need to include the account of Jesus instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper! He replaces it, instead, with something the other Gospel-writers didn’t mention: the story of Jesus washing to feet of his disciples—clearly letting us know that the washing of the feet is the key to understand what the Eucharist is all about: giving oneself away in love.


So we’re left with the question: what do we have to include if we want to capture the core of who he was? And what can you leave out?


The question points to the great significance of tonight’s Gospel and the feast we celebrate. Because the story of the baptism of Jesus is one of the few events recorded by all four Gospels. Apparently we can’t fully grasp who Jesus was and what he was about if we leave out the story of his baptism.


So it becomes important that we don’t just let the events of that day flow past us; we need to take a deeper look.


The first thing to consider is this strange character called John the Baptizer. When you think about it, he’s really weird, a kind of wild man. Roaming the wilderness in strange garb, eating odd food.


And yet there’s something about his preaching that makes people at least curious. He’s begun to attract a broad following. One of the evangelists says that people were coming from Jerusalem and Judea and all the towns around. And we need to remember that they walked to get there.


And who were they? Different writers include different types. There were Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem. They were there to check up on him, because his preaching might disturb their comfortable religiosity. . . . Tax collectors were outsiders so they were drawn to him. . . .  Luke tells us that even some soldiers, members of the roman occupation force, were there. . . .  And of course there were the ordinary folk, the ‘crowd’.


And what were they looking for? Luke tells us the crowd was wondering if John was the Messiah. That was their driving concern. This was a people who had waited and longed for centuries for the messiah who would free them. They were a people oppressed in their own land and the messiah would be a mighty king who would come in power.


And there in the midst of the crowd is—Jesus. Unnoticed. Lost in the crowd. No one has the slightest inkling of who he is. There are no haloes. (We’ve been exposed to so much wonderful Christian art across the centuries that we have to strip away all the glitter. It’s not just Jesus and John all alone. It’s a crowd. And he’s somewhere in the middle of it.)


He has no handlers, strong-arm guys saying, “Move out of the way; let the Messiah through.” There is no pope-mobile. Or armored car with tinted windows, like a president would have.


And there is no orderly line of people waiting patiently to have their ticket scanned by ushers. These are first-century Palestinians, pushing forward to get into the presence of the holy man.


Even John has no clue. He tells us that he didn’t recognize Jesus until God alerted him of one on whom the Spirit would rest.


And suddenly they are face-to-face.


John is totally confounded: this shouldn’t be. It’s all backward. “I should be being baptized by you!” Jesus has to tell him this is the way the Father wants it. Just do what you would do to any of these others. Allow it to happen, it’s right. It’s the way.


And it is at that moment that the Father declares “This is my Son!” The God who takes delight in being with the children of man (Proverbs 8:31) names his pleasure: “In him I am well pleased.” The prophecy of Isaiah in our first reading is fulfilled: this is the suffering servant who will free us.


Why? Because he has identified totally with us. At his birth he was already identified with our human nature. But that is not enough. Now he identifies with this motley crowd—and with us—as sinners. He has not yet preached a word. He has not yet healed anyone. This is the act that grounds his ministry and all that follows.


St. Paul puzzled over the mystery of Christ, searching for the words that might capture the unbelievable revelation he had received. In Second Corinthians, describing our role as sharing in the reconciling mission of the Lord, he comes up with an amazing formulation: “We implore you in behalf of Christ, be reconciled with God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor 5:21)


He made him to be sin.” I don’t think we can ever fathom fully what Paul was trying to name. But it is clearly a form of identification, a form of intimacy, between Jesus and us that was pleasing to his Father. Something so profound that words simply broke down.


Jesus identifies with us in all our human experience. He knows in his own body and human experience all the effects of sin. He experiences loneliness and human need. He shares our pain over death and loss. He struggles with anger and frustration at the incomprehension of those who walked with him for months and years. In some mysterious fashion he even experiences abandonment by his Father in his darkest hour.


Nothing that we experience is foreign to him.


Which means that we can bring it all with us as he assumes our offering and joins it to his own in the Eucharist.


I have a New Year’s gift to share with you. At Christmas I received a card from a life-long Jesuit friend. Frank often presides at what is called in Baltimore “The Radio Mass.” It was started many years ago by some Jesuits as a way of ministering to the home-bound. In his letter Frank told of a homily he gave on the air during Advent. This is what he said:


      Each one of us this morning can identify with the haunting words spoken by Jesus in   todays gospel: Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be   my disciple.” We find ourselves in those words because we each carry our own cross each day. We all know our own cross; we can name it; its very personal, isnt it?


      A cross that God allows some of us to carry is a sense of failure in our lives. A friend of mine gave me a prayer not long ago that I can identify with. Maybe you find            yourself in it too. Let me share some of it with you. I have myself arrived at where I           am today through countless hours of boredom . . . useless conversations . . .       incapacitating sickness . . . or sufferings I was fool enough to bring upon myself . . .    through energy I squandered . . . on unproductive planning . . . still-born projects . . .            fruitless undertakings. I contemplate the myriad opportunities I threw away . . . the     talents I neglected . . . the challenges I dared not face . . . the promises that never        were and, worse still, never will be kept . . .”


      But the prayer is not just a prayer of regret and sadness; it also has a bright

      message. Listen to it: “I contemplate this not with sadness, not with guilt, but with      patient understanding. For I wish to love life as much in its failure as in its success.            And I recall the parable the Lord gave us as a symbol of the Kingdom: the Sower     goes out to sow his seed; some of it falls on rocky soil, some among thorns and       thistles, some on the road where it is trampled on or eaten by the birds, and some of   it bears a hundredfold or maybe less, just sixty or thirty . . . and I love the whole of    that field . . . I love the rock and the fertile soil...the pathway and the thorns and   thistles . . . for all of it is part of life. I love the seed that is sensationally fruitful . . .       and the seed that has just average success. Today I especially love the seed that is       sown only to perish . . . so that before it goes into oblivion it will be blessed and           redeemed by my love. Finally I look at the Savior of the Cross symbolizing in his          broken body and his unsuccessful mission the drama of life in general, and my life in       particular. . . I love him too and as I press him to my heart I understand that   somewhere, somehow, all of it has a meaning, all of it is redeemed and made     beautiful and resurrected.” Amen.


It is all redeemed. It is all beautiful. And it is all resurrected.


Each time we renew our baptismal vows it’s not just acceptance of some creedal formulas, it is acceptance of life, in all its reality and fullness. We do what he did: we embrace our story whole, including its experience of sin and redemption. And the Father says of each of us: “This is my son / my daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”


Are we not blessed to share this table together?