Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Every year, on the week after Epiphany, the liturgical calendar focuses on the Baptism of Jesus. It is one of the few events in Jesus’ life and ministry that is recorded in all four of the gospels, and in all of the gospels, it seems to be the event that kind of starts things off. Jesus is about thirty years old when he comes to be baptized. And before his baptism, we don’t get much insight into what he’s been doing. Other than his birth, we see him when he is presented at forty days old in the traditional ritual of purification, and then again when he is twelve, when he visits the temple with his family. But aside from those instances, the first we see of Jesus is when he is thirty, and he comes to John the Baptist to be baptized.
We talked during the season of Advent a bit about John and baptism. Remember, baptisms were not a new thing – water rituals that signified cleansing and beginning and renewal were already part of Jewish culture. What John does is tie it to his specific message. Remember, John has told the people to bear good fruit in their lives, advising them how to live by preparing room in their hearts and lives, readying themselves for the work that God is about to do. As a sign of their decision to live in a new way, John baptizes them.
The people start to wonder if John is the Messiah, but he points them in a different direction. John speaks of one who is to come after him. He says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And then, Luke tells us in a couple of short but important sentences that Jesus has also been baptized. He writes, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
I read an essay this week by theologian and preacher Karoline Lewis who drew my attention to one phrase that we find repeated in the baptism accounts. Luke says that when Jesus was baptized, and praying, the “heaven was opened.” In fact, in Mark’s account, it says that the heavens were “torn open.” It is a very deliberate act. In Jesus’ days, people understood that the earth was separated from heaven by a dome in the sky – as described in the creation story in Genesis. The dome in the sky is the line of division between heaven and earth. And for the gospel writers, in the act of Jesus’ baptism, that division is broken in a clear way as Jesus receives a sign of the Holy Spirit and words of affirmation from God – “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. Lewis writes that the significance of Jesus’ baptism is this: “that which separates us from God is no longer … God is no longer behind the firmament, up in the clouds, at a distance, but here among us.” (1) Jesus’ baptism is the demonstration to the world of what God is willing to do to be close to us – cross boundaries, break down walls, step across dividing lines, tear open the heavens to get closer to us.
I was reading about the meaning Epiphany, not just to share in worship with you last week, but also to share out in Rochester where Epiphany was the topic of one of our weekly faith chats, where we discuss almost anything that comes to mind and try to look at topics in light of our faith. So I learned a bit more about the history of how and when and why Epiphany has been celebrated in the church than we had time for during worship last week. And I was surprised to discover that in the early church, Epiphany focused not only on the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, but also on the Baptism of Jesus. In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, this is still today the focus of Epiphany – Jesus’ baptism. Instead of focusing God-in-the-flesh, the incarnation of God in Jesus’ birth, Epiphany in these traditions focuses on Jesus’ baptism as the light-bulb moment of God’s desire to be with us in the flesh. And when you think about God opening the heavens in order to set start to Jesus’ ministry with these signs of affirmation, it is an Epiphany moment. How much does God want to be in relationship with us? Enough to break down and break through anything that is in place that might separate us from God.
Do we have any Harry Potter fans here? I’ve been thinking about one of the first chapters in the first book in the series. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry, just before his 11th birthday, receives an invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Well, sort of. In the world of Harry Potter, mail comes through Owl Post. Owls deliver letter and messages and news. But Harry's aunt and uncle, his guardians, are Muggles - non magical people. And they don't want Harry to have anything to do with the world of magic. So when a letter comes for Harry, delivered by an owl, his aunt and uncle refuse to give it to him. But, somehow, it is known that Harry hasn't received his letter, his invitation to attend Hogwarts. So another owl is sent. And when his family withholds that one from him, another is sent, and another, until owls are coming in through the doors and windows and chimney and every which way. Finally, after Harry's family flees home just to avoid letting Harry receive his invitation, his letter is hand-delivered to him on a secluded island by the Hogwarts game-keeper and half-giant Hagrid. Clearly, for the magical community, it is of utmost importance that Harry receives his invitation. They will do absolutely anything to make sure that Harry is invited to attend school at Hogwarts.
I couldn’t help but think of that scene as I was thinking about Jesus’ baptism, and the message God sends to us in this act. Jesus’ baptism is an invitation to us – an invitation that God extends to us over and over to be in relationship with God. To journey with God. To build a life with God at the center. And God will send us invitation after invitation to make sure we know that God wants us – even to the point of opening the heavens to give us the message. That’s how important it is to God that we know that we are invited.
Over the next several weeks, we’re going to be thinking about what it means to be an invitational people. That’s one of our key words that we’re focusing our ministry on here at Apple Valley. Our key verse for invitational, from the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus is “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” It speaks, again, of God’s determination to find ways to invite us into relationship. Now, over these next weeks, I want us to think about who we invite, how we invite, exactly what it is we’re inviting folks to be part of. But before we move there, we remember that our invitational nature is grounded in God’s invitation to us. And I want us to remember how God invites us, how deeply God wants to connect with us, so that we might embody that as we learn to be invitational in relating to others.
So, today, we remember. We remember Jesus’ baptism. And we give thanks for the invitation that God offers to us – celebrated in our own baptisms, and renewed today, and again and again. There is no boundary, no border, no dividing line, no wall, no obstacle that will keep God from seeking us out. God opens the very heavens to reach us. We’re invited. Remember, and be thankful. Amen.