Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on January 1, 2005
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The Baptism of Our Lord
Sermon preached by
The Rev. Ethan Cole
January 1, 2005
Water is a creature of life. Over the waters God moved at the beginning of creation and brought all things forth. One of life's sweetest and simplest pleasures is a nice cool drink of water. But water is a creature of death, too. We have seen this to be so true in the tsunami disaster. So much water crashing in and killing so many-and then more dying for lack of clean water to drink. Buildings, homes, families, livelihoods and lives swept away without warning or mercy. Water's power has seldom been more clearly demonstrated.
Today we lift up the power of water in our faith life in a very special way. We remember today the fact that Our Lord was baptized by John in the waters of the river Jordan as the fitting inauguration of his ministry. That Jesus found this to be the fitting start to his work is somewhat troubling if we look at it closely. The classical theological definition of Christ's nature says that with respect to his humanity he was like us in all ways except that he did not sin But remember back to Advent when we heard John preaching about what the baptism that he offered was for-it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Why then would Jesus undergo such a washing with water? John the baptizer himself protested as Jesus came to the water. Jesus answered his protest by saying enigmatically, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." And then Jesus goes into the water, that mighty creature, whose mixed symbolism of death and life punctuates the scriptures of Israel, from creation to Noah, from springs in the desert and water from the rock to Jonah's shipwreck and on and on.
I can eke no meaning out of this tsunami disaster. It seems totally senseless to me, and full of waste. This disaster in Asia comes on our radar screens mostly because of magnitude though, I think. Little disasters go on all over the world, all the time. All of us have had our lives marked by some personal flood waters that make us ask God, "why?" There is surely hardly a single human being who has not suffered something tragic and seemingly senseless-disease, car accident, personal betrayal, financial ruin there is an endless list of calamities that have plagued just plain folk. But from this gospel story, I know that Jesus is in the water. He was submerged in the Jordan to fulfill all righteousness. He did not need to go down into the deep and death that water baptism so strongly symbolizes-but down he goes not so that the waves will not rise over our heads, but so that when they do, we know that God is with us. I do not know why the tsunami happened, but I believe God was in those waves, not as a destroyer, but as fellow sufferer. I do not know why anything tragic happens, but I do know that Jesus is with us wading in the troubled waters.
When Jesus emerges from the waters, the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends in the likeness of a dove and alights on him. I think that the dove that flew from the ark and returned with an olive branch to let Noah know that the flood waters were receding is this same dove, showing the Holy Spirit of God resting with Jesus. It is the dove of promise that the flood waters will not always threaten. As the Spirit is descending a voice from heaven proclaims, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." The Father proclaims that this one in the troubled waters is his special son, Jesus. This is the Manifestation of God-not of the Father only, or of the Son or Spirit, but of the Holy Trinity: the Father speaking from heaven, the Spirit as a dove descending, and our beloved Jesus standing in the river of all human troubles.
It is the good news shown in a beautiful story. With a voice from heaven God declares that in this powerful moment, he is made manifest in a special way. In the grace and humility of the sinless one going down in the river of troubles for a baptism he does not need, God is shown forth. In fact, it is a little Easter. It is a story that connects the turbulence of our own lives marked from time to time by watery chaos with the final defeat of these chaotic forces at the hands of the risen Christ who came up from the tomb just as he came up from the Jordan.
This is the good news of Jesus: not that there are no troubles or sorrows or pains in our life, but that God in Jesus is there with us in the flood of them-and that he will bring us at the last through them all to our Father who holds us all as his beloved daughters and sons. Amen.
©2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York