Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17,Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
A Sermon preached by the Reverend Dr. Frank Sawyer
St. Augustine’s Church, Augusta, GA
John the Baptist told his followers, “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John the Baptist truly prepares the way of the Lord. In his life we see the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. John comes like an Old Testament prophet – out of the Wilderness like Elijah – surviving on grasshoppers and wild honey – he wears camel hair and has a wild beard – and he shouts that doom will come to those who do not listen. He is a classic prophet – yet he is to be the last in a line of great prophets because the Messiah has arrived. A new age is dawning. And John ushers in this new age by baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River.
This is what we are celebrating today, the Baptism of Our Lord and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus shows us the way by his baptism. We all need to be born into a new life, baptized by the Holy Spirit to live a life full of the burning fire of faith. With the Baptism of Jesus a new Kingdom of God is proclaimed. The Light of the World is more fully revealed, the light first revealed to the world in the epiphany to the wise men after Jesus was born. Now, a new type of disciple and prophet will emerge because the Word has been made flesh. Those who see the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ will preach a new Gospel of love and salvation. And, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel According to Matthew, even the least of the disciples of this new kingdom will be greater than John – greater than the greatest of the prophets.
With John the Baptist we see the God we know in the Old Testament, the God of law and judgment, transformed by the life of Jesus into the God we know in the New Testament, the God that we are finally ready to understand, the God of love and mercy. All of us here today have the opportunity to know God as loving and merciful because the Apostles witnessed the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and went forth on the Day of Pentecost burning with the power of the Holy Spirit to share the Gospel of Christ to the World.
It is John the Baptist who ushers in this new era in human history. The life of John the Baptist is joined with the life of Jesus from the beginning. John’s role in proclaiming the coming of a new kingdom has been written in heaven. Like his cousin Jesus, John’s birth is announced. Zechariah, a priest, and his wife Elizabeth are old and do not expect to have any children. But, one day Zechariah is taking his turn offering the prayers at the altar of incense in the Temple when the Archangel Gabriel appears to him. The angel proclaims that Elizabeth will bear a son and that they are to name him John.
Zechariah falls to the ground but remains skeptical. Even though this is a New Testament story, the Old Covenant is still in effect, so Zechariah is punished by God in the Old Testament way – he will not be able to speak until his son is born and named. The Old Covenant promised no eternal life with God. People were rewarded for their faithfulness and punished for their sins in this life, and death was the end. The place of the dead described in the Old Testament, Sheol, was definitely not heaven. Some of the prophets, like Daniel, offered the hope of eternal life, foreshadowing the coming of Christ. But, as the Gospel according to John proclaims, it is not until God enters the world in Jesus that we are given the power to become children of God, to know God through the Son, and to enter into God’s everlasting glory through his light. Emmanuel has come – “God is with us.”
Now, when John is born Zechariah writes on a tablet, “His name is John”, at which point his voice returns and he praises God in a song called the Benedictus. In this prayer he says to John,
“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, To give people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sins.”
After Mary is visited by Gabriel and Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary goes to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for three months. When Mary arrives John greets Jesus by jumping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. The lives of Jesus and John are connected from the beginning and both will live and die for the truth. But first their lives take different paths. John grows up in Judaea. Jesus grows up far to the north in Nazareth, likely learning his father’s trade as a carpenter.
John would have been eligible to follow his father into the priesthood. To be a priest you had to be descended from priests. All priests traced their lineage to the first High Priest, Aaron, the brother of Moses. But John did not enter the Temple as a priest. No, like Jesus, he was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, where he spent time with God like the prophets of old. His time in the desert sealed his call and his mission as the Prophet of the Most High.
John bursts back into civilization with a blunt message to God’s people – Repent your sins for the Kingdom of God is at hand. John’s preaching is direct and powerful – it strikes fear into the hearts of many who hear him. They could have just rejected John and his message, but they come to confess and be baptized. Even some Pharisees come down to the Jordan seeking forgiveness. This is important - if we confess that Christ is our savior, the next step is to acknowledge that we have sinned, to accept responsibility for our actions and seek God’s forgiveness and God’s help, so that we can commit ourselves to live the life that Jesus is calling us to live.
And like those who listened to John the Baptist 2000 years ago, if we listen to him today we are reminded of what Jesus Christ has done for us. The Light of the world is with us – we don’t have to live by all of the old and complicated laws of the Torah – if you want to see how tough and complex they were, just flip through the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and be thankful. All these laws have been fulfilled by Christ in the Great Commandment, that we love God and love our neighbors as ourselves – on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
John the Baptist is the pivotal bridge between the Old and the New Testament. He proclaims the coming of Christ, a new way of living and knowing God. When John attacks the Pharisees and Sadduccees, he calls them a “brood of vipers.” John is saying that their rigid practice of the Law first given by God through Moses has become empty of the light and life of God. The law has become more about judging others than loving them. Jesus Christ proclaims that love is the new Law. Jesus will make this clear by healing on the Sabbath and forgiving sins, breaking the laws of God in the eyes of the Pharisees. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan the hero of faith will not be the priest or the Levite who pass by the man lying by the side of the road but the Samaritan who stops and shows love and mercy, the same man whom the priest and the Levite would have called a sinner for not keeping the Law right way. We need to be Good Samaritans.
Now, after he baptizes Jesus, John continues to preach his message and to speak the truth about what he sees. His honesty finally gets him thrown into prison by King Herod. In prison John realizes that he has proclaimed that his cousin Jesus is the Messiah, and he has a flicker of doubt. But what momentous decision is not made without some doubt? In faith there is always some doubt. So he sends a messenger to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus answers John’s disciples, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.”
The news comes to John that the Messiah has come – and where is the Messiah to be found – caring for those in need and opening the Kingdom of Heaven to all people – all of the Law and the Prophets have been fulfilled through the love of God in Christ. John meets his death with the certainty that he did what he came to do – he proclaimed the Savior, and he saw the first light of a new Kingdom of God.
We all need to hear the voice of John the Baptist. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all need to repent. We cannot receive the Kingdom of God unless we are able to admit that we have stumbled, that we have sinned, and that we have not lived up to our potential as children of God. God knows our weaknesses and God knows our potential. Today we are called back to the Jordan River to confess our failings and to open our hearts to God’s forgiveness and grace. We are called to take an honest look at our lives and ask ourselves, are we prepared to meet Jesus Christ? Are we prepared to confess him as our Lord and Savior? Are we prepared to live the life that Christ is calling us to live? If our answer is “yes” we must put our faith into action.
The life, death, and resurrection of Christ fulfilled John’s prophecy. John the Baptist proclaimed and witnessed the end of the Old Covenant of the Law and the beginning of the New Covenant of God’s love in Christ. Today we should approach this altar with the knowledge that no matter how far we have strayed from the love of God, Jesus calls us back with open arms of love, and shares with us his Body and Blood, the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. We become one with God and one with each other in this Eucharist. John proclaimed Christ so that we might know Christ and share in his kingdom in this life and the life to come. John testified to that light, the true light that enlightens the world. May we behold the Light of Christ as we celebrate his Baptism today, and may we share his Light with the world.