Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Last week was difficult. The shootings in Paris shocked the world but also, despite the shock, they felt, in a way, inevitable, and thus ushered in a deeper despair, feeding our fears and our dread that the world is becoming a more hostile place. Closer to home, Heather Cook, the bishop suffragan of Maryland, was charged criminally in the collision that killed Thomas Palermo, a cyclist, husband, and father. Bishop Cook faces charges of manslaughter, hit-and-run, DUI, and texting, and the Church is beginning its own disciplinary procedures to remove her from office. Both of these stories provoke a lot of feelings, hope not among them. Together they are more than I can process. None of us wants to live in a desert of violence, least of all a world of senseless, wanton violence that strikes directly at the few institutions that still hold our affection or esteem.
One very human reaction is to long for better times, to seek solace in the past. But despite the bloody headlines, statistics show that violent crime has been steadily dropping for decades in this country. Even if we could go back, it wouldn’t help. The world has been a violent, unjust, broken place all along. As Douglas Adams put it, “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” And yet, even though we know the mayhem that will unfold, the story of Creation still inspires our imagination and gives us hope, hope for a world closer to God and to God’s will for the world.
The story begins with simplicity, with God, and with water. Spirit, motion, and voice bring order to chaos, and set time in motion. Motion that would lead through the ages, through beauty and upheaval, hope and fear, inspiration and desolation, lead to Jesus, who had always been the Son of God, even before the Creation, but who only began his public ministry in the moment of his baptism, by John, in the Jordan, the moment of today’s story from Mark’s Gospel.
The moment of Jesus’s baptism connects to the beginning and the end of the material world we know. The voice, the spirit, and of course, the water return in the desert, that a new thing might begin. The new thing will complete the forward motion of time in the fulfillment of God’s work, the restoration of the full beauty and glory of Creation. The waters of Creation will flow through the world, under the loving guidance of the Holy Spirit, and in this way, anything is possible, anything can be made new.
Anything, including us. God loves the world, but God especially loves us, who are in the image of God, who, despite our sins, God thought worthy of Jesus’s incarnation, his humbling and emptying, his suffering and death. God loves us so much that God went through all that just to draw us closer to God. God uses those extreme measures to draw us closer, and God uses water. Of all things, God requires water to enact God’s will for us, our reconciliation, forgiveness, adoption, and commissioning.
God uses the waters of baptism to begin our formation by the Holy Spirit, to initiate a relationship with us. Baptism is not an expression of our own feelings and aspirations, but a means for us to receive God’s grace and an expression of God’s love of us and of all creation from the very beginning. So, when we submit to baptism, and when we promise to support others in the Christian life, what are we signing on for?
This renewal and sustenance are not just for our benefit, but also to continue God’s work of creation and redemption, through us. Through our baptism, God calls us to prayer, service, and proclamation. Baptism connects us to Christ and his church, makes us God’s people, and confers on us the mission to live no longer for ourselves alone, but also for Christ, for the church, and for the world, especially for the ones Christ loved so much, the poor, the sick, children, the marginalized and the victimized.
When tragedy strikes, our first impulse is to stare into the darkness, to scrutinize the situation and the people involved. While that is very human and sometimes necessary, it won’t get us very far. In the darkness, there just isn’t much to see. Scrutinizing other people won’t show us who God is — that only works when the other person is Jesus, and the only tragedy he ever provoked was his own crucifixion. Better to look at God, for the graces God has given in creation and in Jesus, and will give in Christ’s future eternal reign, and is giving through every soul that is open to his love, his transformation. God’s grace flows into the world through the floodgates of souls. God is the source of the water, so it is not scarce, but God allows us to open the gates as wide as we like, or not. Open the gate you can open and encourage others to do likewise, that the river might grow broader and deeper, until the desert of the world becomes an ocean of grace.