Isaiah 42:1-9 ,Psalm 29, Matthew 3: 13-17

We have been worrying a lot about water these days in the middle of winter, especially the water that has been falling from the sky in the form of rain and freezing rain, coating branches and sidewalks making it an icy and dangerous terrain for people on foot and vehicles on the roads. On the other side of the world however, in Australia they are dealing with the devastation caused by lack of water, wrecking havoc through raging fires destroying plants and animals, homes and humans. Here in Canada, in the Ukraine and for many families in Iran, we are seeing the water of tears as so many people mourn the tragic loss of loved ones in the airplane explosion outside of Tehran and as we all grapple with the senseless devastation of human life as a potential war began to escalate yet again in the Middle East. Now that my son-in-law Micah is headed to Israel for 2 weeks for a course, the worry about being in the wrong place at the wrong time is on our family’s mind.

Many people are grappling with real loss, fear and anxiety these days and so we turn to our scriptures today to find there some comfort, some way to making meaning of the evils, both human and natural that are part of our existence. Our text today from Matthew’s gospel is a lays a good foundation to give us courage and strength, for it takes us to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry through his baptism and points us to our own baptisms, and reminds us of the centrality of this sacrament in our protestant church.

The powerful words from the prophet Isaiah which we also heard read through Advent and Christmas reminds us of the prophecy that was made to Israel that a leader would emerge from the Hebrew people that would show what true leadership would look like and whose teaching would help to establish God’s justice throughout the earth. I want to read to you the words of promise given by Isaiah to the people of Israel because they help to focus our own minds and spirits on what God’s unfolding purpose is for our earth:

Isaiah 42: 5-9

It is good to keep these words in mind as we observe Jesus coming to John in order to be baptized, to be plunged by John into the Jordan River to join in this significant ritual of cleansing and renewal, confession and forgiveness. Matthew’s community is unique in being somewhat troubled by why Jesus came to John for baptism if he were known to be without sin. They also seemed troubled about the power dynamic, that if Jesus were superior to John, why would he turn to John for this ritual.

We need to remember that John the baptizer had his own following and people who saw him as the new Elijah, perhaps the prophet that had returned from the dead. We know that there was some debate amongst the followers of John and of Jesus as to who was the greater prophet. But in this action of joining John in the wilderness, the community of people who were living on the margins of society, Jesus is showing a couple of things by his actions – 1)that he is not interested in playing this game of one-upmanship or the egotism of power struggles; 2) he demonstrates that he wants to be in solidarity with John’s people, with the poor and those who are seen as outcasts and marginalized. We will hear this theme throughout all of the gospels. In receiving baptism in this way, Jesus was embodying a behaviour he would later command his followers to do as they took up his cross to follow him.

Jesus overcomes John’s own resistance to baptizing Jesus by retorting

“let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (this is one of those biblical words that also means ‘justice’). Jesus knew that his baptism was not all about him, but it was about what God was doing in his life and through him, the world.

Each of the synoptic gospels have their own way for describing Jesus’ baptism and this is the way Matthew describes what happened: “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God, descending like a dove, and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Mt 3: 16,17 This is God’s entrance into his life, speaking not only to Jesus but to the world that “this” is my Son, naming him as Beloved and speaking out of a heart of joy and pleasure. If you imagine the scene itself, there are no choirs of angels, no fireworks, no hyped up news releases, but a simple soaking in the river, a gentle gesture of love – a dove alighting, a spoken word speaking Jesus’ name as loved and affirmed.  The Divine love is cool like the waters of grace. And remember that this act of baptism continues to be lifted up as one of the two sacraments in our church, the way in which God’s grace and unconditional love is communicated and received.

So what do you understand to be the meaning of baptism in general and what difference does it make in your life personally? For although it is a corporate public ceremony, especially as we celebrate it in the United Church, it is also deeply personal.  For many it is a cleansing of sins, for others it is an entry rite into membership in the community of faith, and for others still of the faith it is a dying to sin and rising in faith and righteousness. This teaching comes from our Methodist tradition which is one of the founding churches in the United Church who was influenced by the teachings of John Wesley:

“Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three: That of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third, religion itself.” John Wesley. At baptism, the heavens were opened. This is the entry. This idea of repentance being the porch of God’s Kingdom could be a helpful one – it is the first step toward a relationship with God. Stepping through that door is the coming of faith and living into holiness which is also known as sanctification. Baptism can be seen as the transition point between repentance and holiness.

Here is the way we have described the meaning of baptism in our own church through the Song of Faith which I really commend for your own reading and reflection for it’s beauty and relevance to our lives. This is how baptism is described:

In grateful response to God’s abundant love,

   we bear in mind our integral connection

   to the earth and one another;

we participate in God’s work of healing and mending creation.

To point to the presence of the holy in the world,

   the church receives, consecrates, and shares

   visible signs of the grace of God.

In company with the churches

   of the Reformed and Methodist traditions,

we celebrate two sacraments as gifts of Christ:

baptism and holy communion.

In these sacraments the ordinary things of life

—water, bread, wine—

point beyond themselves to God and God’s love,

   teaching us to be alert to the sacred in the midst of life.

And here is how we would describe why infant baptism is acceptable in our tradition:

Before conscious thought or action on our part,

   we are born into the brokenness(or sin) of this world.

Before conscious thought or action on our part,

   we are surrounded by God’s redeeming love.

Baptism by water in the name of the Holy Trinity

   is the means by which we are received, at any age,

   into the covenanted community of the church.

   It is the ritual that signifies our rebirth in faith

   and cleansing by the power of God.

Baptism signifies the nurturing, sustaining,

   and transforming power of God’s love

   and our grateful response to that grace.

So there are different ways of understanding the role and meaning of baptism which I feel touches us in different ways throughout our lives. When we are young, or raising a family, or new to a community, the ritual of baptism is a way to feel we belong to a community of faith, to a community. If we have been through a dark time in our life where we have acted in ways which we realize have been hurtful or not reflecting our true character as God intends for us, then we can confess our sin and receive forgiveness through the ritual of baptism, or we can remember that this gift of God’s forgiveness is embedded in the baptism we once received.

There may be times in our lives when we feel insecure, lacking in confidence, down on ourselves, and so at those times we need to hear the voice of God saying “you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased”, to remember that we carry those words of love in our spirits from the moment that they were spoken over us at our baptism; or perhaps you have not been baptized at all and would find new strength and purpose in receiving baptism.

I have met some people who have been baptized several times, by sprinkling on their foreheads as infants to full immersion, wading into a river or being plunged into a swimming pool or church’s baptistry. The method of baptism does not really matter as it is the meaning behind the water, the words spoken, and the community of love that is gathered, the promises of God that are implanted into your soul and body. I know that in various contemporary spiritual practices that come out of yoga in particular, there is the invitation to set your intention for the coming year, or for that day or for your practice. In many ways, our baptisms set up God’s intentions for our lives as well as the promise that God will provide the way in which we can live up to those intentions. What underlies all of this though is the loving presence of God that will uphold us throughout our lives.

It is so important to hold onto those promises that God is with us that are implanted within us when we are named as Christ’s own, especially for those times when we are tempted to sin, for when we find ourselves facing into death and despair. So whether you are accompanying someone who is facing their own mortality, or whether you are someone who struggles with the darkest  thoughts of taking your own life, remembering that our baptism in the name of Christ who died and rose again, can give us the courage and peace to know that through our baptism we also have already died and been born anew into Christ who takes us directly into the heart of God whose love never dies. These are the promises that can help us to believe in the power of prayer as we turn to God our creator and sustainer when we are walking into those places of darkness.

And so today, you are invited to remember your baptism and the grace that is poured out for you, symbolized by this water, to sustain your life and your hope.  Or if you wish to receive a special blessing from this font of water as we sing “Come O Fount of Every Blessing” you may also do so.

Epiphany Blessing         

May the path

that Christ walks

to bring justice

upon the earth,

to bring light

to those who sit

in darkness,

to bring out those

who live in bondage,

to bring new things

to all creation:

may this path

run through our life.

May we be

the road Christ takes.

~ written by Jan L. Richardson,