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Homily by Dr. Miriam Pepper

Epiphany 1, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
January 13, 2013

Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:1-3, 7-22 (15-17, 21-22)

Last week, Clive Pearson preached and gave us an introduction to and overview of the lectionary Year of Luke. He substituted the set lectionary passage from Matthew’s gospel, with a passage from the gospel of Luke to familiarize us with this gospel and to invite us to reflect on the pearls of wisdom that it offers for the year ahead.

Inspired by Clive, I have also fiddled with the lectionary. Today’s set reading is actually from Luke (unlike last week) and I haven’t substituted the passage, but what I have done is to extend the reading.

But before I get to this I want to begin with the parts of what we have just heard that are on the lectionary.

The lectionary reading starts by John rejecting people’s identification of him with the Messiah, instead pointing towards the Christ who is yet to come. Then, if we were just sticking to the lectionary, comes the account of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan. There is much to unpack in the few short sentences about this baptism. The baptism occurs together with other baptisms and Jesus is depicted as praying, as close to God. And then Luke paints a wonderful Trinitarian picture – the voice from on high, the Holy Spirit descending from the sky in the physical form of a dove, and Jesus the Anointed One, the Beloved Son, the Messiah.

We are currently in the season of Epiphany, where Christ is revealed to the world. Today, we see the revealing of Jesus at his baptism as the Beloved Son, who has been given the Spirit and on whom God’s favour rests. But why so revealed and for what purpose? And what does this mean for our own baptisms?

I have taken the liberty of extended our reading today to give us some more context as we look further into these questions. Clive told us that Luke is deliberate in locating his gospel narrative in the historical setting of the day, so I have started from the beginning of the chapter, which tells us who were the rulers at that time, including Herod Antipas who is the ruler of Galilee. The passage then proceeds with what sort of baptism John the Baptist proclaims and performs, before we get to John’s pointing towards the true Messiah.

The lectionary in isolation would then have us think that Jesus is baptized by John. But, there are two important verses in between. If we read the passage chronologically, John cannot even be present at Jesus’ baptism let alone perform it, unlike in the parallel accounts in Mark and Matthew. In Luke’s gospel John has been imprisoned by Herod for his rebuke of Herod’s behaviour. Perhaps we aren’t meant to read this chronologically, and the comment about what happened to John is an aside from the main action at Jesus’s baptism – regardless of who it was who presided. But suffice to say that, the kind of baptism that John performed and lived in his own life landed him into trouble.

John’s proclamation of baptism continues in the line of the Old Testament prophets. The word “baptism” comes from the Greek word “baptizio” which means to dip into water, but baptism is not just about ritualistic cleansing. It is a seal of repentance – a turn towards God that is about a change of heart, mind and behaviour, and of forgiveness. We see this concept of baptism in John’s instructions to the crowds, tax collectors and soldiers who come for baptism. Part of this section of the passage was actually on the lectionary several weeks ago, for the third Sunday of Advent. Those of you who were here back then may recall Andrew preaching about how John directed the newly baptized people towards the practice of “everyday morality” in the routine circumstances of their every lives. This in turn was something for us to be encouraged by as we encounter all the large and small, significant and insignificant moments of our own lives today.

But of course John gets into trouble when he tells Herod what everyday morality means for the routine circumstances of Herod’s everyday life.

Last week Clive emphasized that Luke has a strong preoccupation with themes of inclusion, justice and hospitality. John’s preachings and actions, then, give us an early glimpse of these themes. This is where I think it’s important that we read the whole passage and not sideline John too quickly in this story of Jesus’ baptism. John’s heralding of the coming of Jesus is not just about John saying that one who is mightier and more worthy and who baptizes differently is coming, it is about how John lives in that anticipation. In various ways, John’s life and purpose are a foreshadowing of the life and purpose of Jesus, including ultimately their deaths at the hands of others.

And so I ask again: Today, we see the revealing of Jesus at his baptism as the Beloved Son, who has been given the Spirit and on whom God’s favour rests. But why so revealed and for what purpose? And what does this mean for our own baptisms?

The significance of Jesus’ baptism and the meaning of our own is something that we will explore throughout the year and I don’t want to give glib answers. In two weeks our gospel lectionary passage is one of my favourites. It sends shivers down my spine whenever I read it or hear it because of its audacity and its implications. In it, Jesus quotes from Hebrew scripture saying that God’s Spirit is upon him to bring Good News to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and sight for the blind – a scripture that he says is fulfilled in him. It’s a ministry that ultimately leads him to the cross.

The Uniting Church says that baptism is Christ’s gift to us. It plunges us into the faith of Jesus Christ, and signifies our incorporation into his life, death and resurrection and into his body the Church. Part of the explanation of baptism from the Uniting Church baptismal service reads as follows:

By water and the Spirit we are claimed as God’s own
and set free from the power of sin and death.
Thus, claimed by God
we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit
that we may live as witnesses to Jesus Christ,
share his ministry in the world and grow to maturity,
awaiting with hope the day of our Lord Jesus.

Today we have here some symbols of baptism – water, Spirit (birds, flames). Whether or not you’ve been baptized personally, I invite you to think about what it means to you to be given the gift of the Spirit. And then you might like to share something of your thoughts about that today.

Dr. Miriam Pepper