On 15 January we recalled the Baptism of Christ. Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 40:1-12, Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42.
Today is the second Sunday of the Epiphany season. I suppose as we meet on Epiphany Island, we of all people should be aware of what Epiphany means. The Greek epiphaneia means manifestation or striking appearance. It refers to some kind of new insight and realisation which gives new understanding or a different perspective on a problem.
Archimedes benefited from an epiphany when he climbed into his bath and noticed the displacement of water (probably not for the first time) and suddenly made the connection to finding the density of an object. Newton must have seen objects dropping to the ground under the influence of gravity many times, but one occasion proved to be an epiphany for him when he was able to connect the fall of an apple with the force which kept the moon orbiting the earth.
Originally, and still within the Church, epiphany refers to insight given by God or a manifestation of God. (Taking the name Epiphany Island thus presents us with a challenge to be a true revelation to those in SL of what God is like.) Last week we recalled God incarnate in the child Jesus, the new king of the Jews, revealed to the nations, represented by the magi. Their gifts acknowledged Jesus as king, priest and sacrifice.
We could have remembered the baptism of Jesus last week but missing the magi and the feast of Epiphany, our patronal festival, would not have been a good idea. Fortunately, the readings for today allow us once more to examine the baptism of Jesus through the eyes of John, the Gospel writer.
Unlike the other gospels, we are not given details of Jesus actual baptism. We are instead given John the Baptist’s recollection of it. Just before what we have read today, John was questioned by priests and Levites. They were sent by the Pharisees and travelled from Jerusalem to Bethany to find out who John actually was. John was clear that he was not the Messiah, Elijah or the awaited prophet. He was rather: ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”’. John warned his questioners that one greater than he was among them although they didn’t recognise him.
The very next day, Jesus came by and John pointed out to his disciples that this was the one he had been referring to when talking to the priests the day before. That one, the Messiah, was the very reason for John to be where he was baptising with water; as we have just read: ‘that he might be revealed to Israel.’ John had been told by God to baptise with water and to look out for the Spirit descending on someone and staying there. John confirmed that he had indeed seen this happen and was bearing witness that this person was the Son of God. We may wonder why the Son of God needed to be baptised. God used this event to show himself in human form to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus’ baptism was an epiphany, a manifestation of God.
The day after this, Jesus again came past where John and his disciples were. We have to assume that he was staying nearby. John didn’t waste the opportunity to follow up what he had been saying the day before. He pointed Jesus out to his disciples: ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ Obviously the two disciples, Andrew and John, were keen to learn more about this man that John the Baptist had identified as the Son of God. They followed Jesus and were invited by him to ‘come and see’ where he was staying. Before settling down for the rest of the day with Jesus, Andrew went to find his brother Simon so that he too could ‘come and see’.
There is no way that those men could have known what would follow from their initial curiosity. How their lives changed! They saw Jesus perform miracles; they themselves performed healings and exorcisms (and sometimes failed to do so). They were scared out of their wits at times; they were called dimwits at other times; Simon Peter, though called to be a rock, was even called Satan. They left home, family and security; they became itinerant notorieties with no place to stay. The choice to ‘come and see’ meant that life was never the same again. Nothing they had imagined for their future could prepare them for what happened.
The Psalmist praises God for his plans for human beings. John the Baptist knew that he was called by God and had a purpose in his life, to be a voice preparing people for the coming Messiah and to point people in the right direction. Isaiah, in one of his Servant Songs which we have read today, highlights that God’s servant (whom Christians identify as Jesus) was called from before his birth to bring glory to God and to draw God’s people back into relationship with him. Each of us has been known and loved by God since our conception and has been called with a purpose. We are invited to ‘come and see’, to spend time with Jesus and to have our lives completely transformed. And, like Andrew, we are not to keep the good news to ourselves!
For most Christians, baptism marks the start of this new kind of life. It is through our baptism that we are united with Jesus and all that he did. As St Paul wrote to the Romans:
‘Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.’
Our baptism links us to Christ as members of his body. However, we must be careful not to think of baptism as some kind of magic formula. Jesus criticised the Jews for relying on externals: ‘And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.’
Paul also made it clear: ‘Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.’
Baptism may be performed on an infant or on someone old enough to choose it. However, it is only effective when we accept it for ourselves and seriously live out what it means to be members of the body of Christ.
After this reflection, we will have prayers of penitence and then an opportunity to renew our baptism promises. If you were baptised as an infant, this is a chance to make the promises for yourself, or to remake them for yourself if you have done it before at confirmation, adult baptism or some other time. Of course, if you really don’t think you can renew the promises, you shouldn’t do it.
If you have not been baptised, you obviously cannot renew your promises but I believe you can still make the promises if you seriously mean them. This is referred to by Roman Catholics as the baptism of desire. God looks at the heart, not just at outward actions and appearance.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor