Is. 43:1-9; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
We always read the gospel story of the baptism of Jesus on the Sunday after Epiphany. All four gospels tell this story as a moment when Jesus, at least, had his Epiphany moment: when the voice of God says to him, You are my beloved Son. This is how the public ministry of Jesus begins – with God’s seal of approval even before Jesus has done anything. Yes, he’s been impressing people with his insight and devotion since he was a child (as we read a couple weeks ago), but he has not yet called any disciples, he hasn’t preached the Kingdom, he hasn’t told a parable, he hasn’t healed anyone. Only after perceiving in a moment of revelation, a moment of epiphany, that he is God’s beloved child, does Jesus begin to do any of these things.
This is obviously a major theme in the Scriptures: that God loves us first, and our actions are not done to earn God’s love, but rather flow as a response to coming to believe in the love that God has always had for us. So also with the first reading today. Israel has been in exile for two generations. In the section just before what we read today, Isaiah describes them as follows: “This is a people robbed and plundered, all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons.” (Is. 42:22.)
And it is to a people depicted in that cheerful way that God insists on saying: Do not fear, I have called you by name, you are mine. And, yes you’ve made mistakes that have gotten you in trouble, but I will get you out of this mess. When you pass through waters you will not be overwhelmed because I will be with you, when you pass through fire you will not be harmed because I will protect you. Don’t be afraid, neither of water nor of fire, because you are mine and I love you and nothing you do can change that.
And then John the Baptist came and said: The day of salvation is coming soon. God will act very soon to fulfill all God’s promises. God with be faithful to you, even though you have not always been faithful to God, just as God promised in the days of Isaiah. So come, engage in this public act of repentence. Pass through the waters of the river Jordan, and trust in God’s promise: You are my beloved people, you are mine, if you pass through the waters they will not overwhelm you. And when Messiah comes you will pass through fire too, and God will be with you to keep you safe. If you want to be ready for Messiah, trust God enough to publicly take ownership of your faults, and publicly claim God’s promise of forgiving love and restoring justice.
And so Jesus too comes to be baptized. Which raises a question many people have asked – if Jesus is without sin, why does he need to be baptized? Clearly he has done nothing to repent of. Yet Jesus voluntarily chooses to engage in this communal and public act of repentance: being baptized by John in the Jordan River. If he’s not doing it to receive forgiveness for his own sin, why does he do it?
I think Jesus voluntarily chose to be baptized by John not because he was conscious of sins for which he, Jesus, needed to be forgiven, but rather because Jesus freely chose to take responsibility for human sins, in order to become an agent of healing. God becomes flesh in order to heal humanity from the inside, and so Jesus is baptized in order to stand with us in the midst of the suffering that we human beings have inflicted on one another. And he can do this because of his complete faith that he is God’s beloved Son, that he is filled with the Holy Spirit, and these come together in his baptism by John: God’s declaration of God’s enduring love for Jesus, and Jesus’s voluntary assumption of responsibility for fixing the mess of human sin even though he is to blame for none of it.
It is in this sense, I think, that Jesus “died for our sins.” People often think God can’t love human beings unless he punishes somebody first, and Jesus “died for our sins” because he took the punishment that we deserved. Maybe, but that way of putting it has never made a lot of sense to me. I think it’s more that Jesus was so full of faith that he is God’s beloved, so full of the Spirit of God’s love, so confident that nothing could separate him from God’s love, that he stepped up to take responsibility for all of the messes that you and I and every other human being have made – even knowing that taking all that responsibility would lead to his death, because he knew that God’s life in him was strong enough to handle even that.
This is what Jesus does at his baptism, and we who are baptized in him are invited to follow in his path. And what that looks like is illustrated quite well in the deceptively simple story we read in the second reading today from Acts. It seems that there were some Samaritans who had become believers in Jesus, but somehow they had only been baptized in the name of Jesus and not – as Jesus commanded – in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19). So Peter and (notice!) John are sent to Samaria, where they lay hands on the Samaritans who receive the Holy Spirit.
Now, what’s interesting about this story is that when Jesus was beginning his final trip to Jerusalem, he had to travel through Samaria, and he had hoped to stay overnight in a particular village of Samaritans. Luke tells us that, when the Samaritans heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, they refused to let Jesus and his disciples enter their village. “You are Jews,” they said, “on your way to Jerusalem for the Jewish Passover. We don’t like you Jews, and we know you don’t like us Samaritans, so why don’t you just get lost? We have no room at the inn.” And John and his brother James asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Lk. 9:54.) To go all Sodom and Gomorrah on them, I guess. See, Jesus – these are bad people who don’t like you the way we do, punish them, reward us! Of course, Jesus rebuked John and James, and simply went on to another village.
But now John – the very same disciple who once wanted to rain fire and brimstone on the Samaritans – come from Jerusalem with Peter to visit a village of Samaritans where there are now believers. John, with Peter, is no longer trying to prove to Jesus that he is better than the Samaritans. John no longer wishes to call down God’s punishment on the Samaritans, but to call down the fire of God’s Holy Spirit on them. John, with Peter, lay hands on them – they physically touch them – Samaritans! And when John and Peter stop trying to prove their superiority over the Samaritans, and start taking responsibility for fully including the Samaritans in their fellowship, the Spirit of the living God is unleashed on them. The Spirit of God whom no one can control or tame, the very love of God comes down upon the Samaritans exactly as divine spirit had fallen on John and Peter and the others at Pentecost.
Because God had called and chosen all of them, John and Peter and the Jewish followers of Jesus, and the Samaritan followers of Jesus. And when John, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, has finally learns to trust God enough to take responsibility for the Samaritans, peoples who had been enemies for hundreds of years, who each thought God belonged to them and not to the other, are brought together as fellow beloved children of the one God. That is an epiphany.