The diversity and creativity of the ways Christians celebrate can be astonishing, especially in the season of Epiphany.
Churches that spring from the Catholic tradition emphasize the visit of the magi to the baby Jesus. Churches in the Orthodox tradition emphasize the baptism of Jesus. We in the Wesleyan tradition incorporate elements from both Catholic and Orthodox traditions. We celebrate both the visit of the magi and Jesus’ baptism.
We don’t celebrate the baptism as vigorously as the Orthodox do, though. In the Tampa Bay area, thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians gather for the traditional blessing of the waters. At one point in the ceremony, the archbishop throws a white cross into Spring Bayou, and dozens of young men jump in after it. The one who retrieves it is said to receive a special blessing.
Even in Florida, the water is chilly this time of year. But the contestants don’t do this just for the thrill. This year’s winner says he did it because he wanted to emulate Jesus’ plunge into the Jordan River at his baptism.
He knew why he was jumping into the cold water. Somehow, he was sure, it would bring him closer to Jesus.
Jesus’ baptism is one of the few incidents in his life that is narrated in all four gospels. That means it’s important. Actually, it’s pivotal. Jesus’ baptism marks a turning point in his life.
There’s an 18-year gap in the life story of Jesus. Luke records a visit of Jesus’ family to Jerusalem when he is 12. The story then skips ahead to when, as Luke says, he’s “about thirty.” (Luke 3:23)
In between those times, we hear nothing. Speculation abounds. Maybe he goes to India to study with followers of the Buddha. Maybe he goes to the desert near the Dead Sea to study with the Essenes. Most likely, of course, he stays in his hometown of Nazareth, practices his trade as a builder, studies scripture as best as he can in such a small village, and meditates on the work of God that he sees ahead.
When he hears that his cousin John is calling Israel to repentance and baptism, he knows his time has come. He heads for the Jordan
We understand that when Jesus comes to John, he has no sins of his own to confess. Still, he humbles himself before God, before John, and before the others who come to be baptized. He fully identifies with those who repent of their sin. He accepts their plight as his own. He accepts their failings, their yearnings to be forgiven, and their longing for a future that is not defined by the mistakes of their past. He submits to baptism as a sign that even he is putting his past behind him and moving into the future with faith and hope.
What happens next is not visible or audible to John or to other onlookers, at least according to Mark’s version of events. That means that we know about it only because Jesus talked about it later. He talks about it because it’s an important moment in his life. It’s a powerful affirmation of who he is and what his mission is. It’s a personal epiphany, a fresh expression of his identity, a new way of seeing things into the future.
As he is coming up out of the water, he sees the sky ripped open and the Spirit of God descending upon him like a dove. And he hears a voice from heaven. We might imagine it to be a booming voice, but maybe it’s only a whisper. “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism is a pivotal moment in his life. He remembers and cherishes this divine affirmation for the rest of his life.
He remembers when he begins his own ministry, gathering disciples and going throughout the region proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God and demonstrating its coming by healing the sick and diseased and driving out demons.
He remembers when he is condemned by religious leaders and rejected by the people of his hometown.
He remembers when even John questions whether he is the one Israel is waiting for, and when even members of his own family question his sanity.
He remembers when some of his closest friends betray him, when the religious establishment conspires against him, and when the power of secular Rome crashes down on him.
He remembers when he is mercilessly whipped and when he hangs on a cross for six interminable hours, and he prays, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”
He remembers the words: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” That was God’s affirmation to Jesus at his baptism. It echoes throughout his life. He must hear it constantly and be encouraged by it.
What I would like you to understand today is that when you were baptized, whether you heard it clearly or not, God said something similar to you.
What I want you to understand today is whenever you recall or renew the act of your baptism, God says it again, whether you hear it clearly or not. God says: “You are my child, and I love you. You are my son, my daughter, my beloved.”
If you don’t hear that, if you don’t get that, you may live the rest of your life in a terrible darkness because you have the wrong impression of who you really are.
In many churches today, you will be told again and again that you are a despicable sinner, and God hates your miserable guts, and if you don’t repent, God will condemn you to a fiery eternity, which you totally deserve because you are such filth.
Let’s shed the light of truth on that whole awful narrative. First, admit one thing. You are a sinner. Can you say that? Say, “I am a sinner.” Now, let’s talk about a deeper, truer sense of who you are. Say, “I am a child of God.” Say, “God loves me.”
You are God’s beloved. That is your innermost and most important identity. Genesis 1.26 says that you were created in the image and likeness of God. You are by original nature a beloved child of God.
Yes, something has gone awry. The image in you has become distorted. You are bent toward sin. But that’s a condition that can be fixed – and Jesus wants to fix it. Jesus wants to restore you in the image of God in which you were created.
In Genesis 1.31, God looks out over all creation and pronounces it very good, supremely good, excellent in every way, as various translations render it.
Sure, things go downhill fast. But it matters where you start talking about it. We hear so much about “original sin.” But sin is not original. Goodness and blessing are original.
Jesus comes to restore us to our original state. Your baptism is a sign that this restoration is beginning. Your baptism is an epiphany, a revelation of who you really are, who you were created to be, and who you will become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God.
When you repent, you are changing direction. We’ve made “repentance” into an empty church word, but it’s a powerful real-life word. It means changing direction. You were going the wrong way. Now you’re going the right way. Surprise! It’s the direction you were intended to go all along. It’s your original direction. You are not turning. You are returning.
Your baptism is also a commissioning for service. Just as God is transforming you, you are commissioned to be an agent of transformation for others. You’re not baptized solely for your own redemption. You also are baptized for the redemption of others.
In few moments, we are going to reaffirm your return to God. First, we are going to join in a service of covenant renewal that John Wesley originated more than 250 years ago. After that, we will celebrate our baptisms. I will invite you forward, as if to receive communion, but instead of bread and the cup there will be water – ordinary tap water mixed with water from the Jordan and sanctified by a blessing.
I invite you to dip the fingers of one hand in the water. Then you may make the sign of the cross on the palm of your other hand, or on your forehead, or on your forehead, chest and shoulders.
Let this act remind you that you have been baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and you are God’s beloved. As you return to your seat, and go about your business in the days ahead, keep reminding yourself: I am a child of God, and I am God’s beloved.
“Beloved” is a message delivered Jan. 12, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from the text Mark 1:4-11.