holy cross sermon for the first sunday after the epiphany – the baptism of our lord, january 11, 2015

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This past week, on Tuesday, we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany. The primary mystery that we commemorate on Epiphany, is the arrival of the magi – the “three kings” – at Bethlehem, to worship the newborn Jesus. The word “epiphany” comes from Greek, and it means basically a “manifestation.” And the feast is called “epiphany” because Jesus the Messiah is “manifested” to the Magi – who were most likely Persians, and therefore not Jews, and therefore the manifestation of the Messiah to them constituted a fulfillment of what God had promised through his messengers, the prophets. As for example when Isaiah says:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49.6)

Here we should remind ourselves of the whole arc of the history of salvation: How mankind had sinned in the beginning, becoming estranged from the God who created him in love. How God found Abraham, who trusted in God, and promised to give to Abraham an inheritance – a land and a family, indeed a NATION. How that inheritance became Israel, and how to Israel God gave the law and the prophets. How through the law and the prophets God had foretold the coming of an anointed servant who would bring salvation and deliverance. And how all along God had said that his anointed servant would come to deliver not just the posterity of Abraham, but all the peoples of the world – all nations.

“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

You can see the inherent poetry of the mystery of the Epiphany: the magi, representatives of the nations, are led by a star, a light form heaven, to the baby who is the true Light, the Light to the nations and the whole world’s salvation. As the 5th century office hymn put it:

Lo, Sages from the east are gone
To where the star hath newly shone;
And on by light to Light they press,
And by their gifts their God confess.

Today, on the Sunday within the octave of the Epiphany, that is to say on the Sunday that falls within the seven days following the Epiphany, we always commemorate the Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan river by John the Baptist. And indeed from ancient times the Baptism of Jesus was another facet of the mystery of the Epiphany – because Jesus’ baptism is likewise a public “manifestation” of him as God’s anointed one. As today’s Gospel says: “And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased,’” (Mark 1.10-11).

Very little is known about Jesus’ life from his birth until his baptism. But his baptism inaugurates his public ministry, and hence constitutes a kind of public debut, wherein God the Father presents Jesus to the world as the anointed deliverer foretold by the prophets.

But there is more to Jesus’ baptism. As the lectionary’s choice of the opening verses of Genesis would imply, the Baptism of Jesus evokes the narrative of creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light,” (Genesis 1.1ff).

We should notice that when Genesis opens, there is already something there. We don’t know much about it, but that it was deep; it was dark; it was watery; and it was “void.” A more literal translation of the original Hebrew might make the point a little clearer: “In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth. And the earth became a vacant chaos, and there was darkness over the surfaces of the abyss.”

God does something about the darkness immediately. “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” And then he does something about the watery abyss: he sets boundaries to it and brings forth the dry land. And then he does something about the vacant chaos: he creates living things that swarm and fly and creep, and sets everything in order, and lastly he creates man and puts him in charge of the whole show. But we know the rest of the story. The enterprise is perverted, with man’s complicity, almost immediately.

I have spoken before about how ancient peoples saw the earth’s waters as a vast and menacing power. The waters could be useful to drink, to irrigate crops, and to navigate; but entire cities, or even civilizations, could also be destroyed by floods of water; and the seas could only be navigated with great skill and at great risk. Biblical scholars discern echoes of these realities in the creation story of Genesis. And we might note that the Bible implies that these primordial forces of evil and chaos were not destroyed by God after the creation, but were rather constrained – as when Job describes God as the one who “shut in the sea with doors… and prescribed bounds for it… and said ‘thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed,’” (Job 38, passim). But the primordial chaos is still there, at the doorsteps of the world, and according to the Bible, it is yet the abode of demons – Isaiah mentions “Leviathan, the twisting serpent… that is in the sea,” (Isaiah 27.1), and the Psalmist speaks of “Rahab of the deep” (Psalm 89.10).

The Hebrews were not alone here. Most ancient peoples associated the seas with demons and dragons. The Japanese, for example, had Watasumi. The Babylonians had Tiamat. The Chinese had four “dragon kings” dwelling respectively in each of the four bodies of water surrounding China (the South China Sea, East China Sea, Quinghai Lake, and Lake Baikal), etc. And the European tradition about dragons, which we have inherited and with which we are most familiar, likewise reflects this seemingly universal intuition: European dragons usually live in caves – again places characterized by deep, wet darkness.

The earth’s waters were seen, universally, by ancient peoples as emblematic of a destructive force within and on the periphery of the inhabited world. And it isn’t just mythical. I think we saw it breaking out just this past week, in the dark and destructive ideology lurking in the 19th arrondissement, on the outskirts of Paris. And while our Scriptures bear witness to God’s having constrained that force, having confined it indeed to the periphery of the inhabited world, the Old Testament also looks forward to a time when God will come into the world and fight and defeat the destructive powers in the world’s deep, watery darkness. Psalm 74, for example, speaks of God “dividing the sea by his might, and breaking the heads of the dragons upon the waters.”

Pope Benedict, in the first volume of his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” sees in the Baptism of Jesus a kind of sacramental fulfillment of such prophecies. And he notes that Jesus himself saw his own baptism as a prefiguring of his cross, which he referred to as a kind of baptism (Mark 10.38-39) – albeit a baptism of blood.

We are meant to see in all of this is that on the cross Jesus fights and conquers the ancient dominion of vacancy and chaos, the dark abyss that we glimpse in the opening sentences of the Bible, which God began to deal with through his very act of creating the world. The cross – and more precisely the cross and RESURRECTION of Jesus – are thus in a fundamental sense the completion, or the final chapter, of the narrative of God’s creation. In other words what we read about in Genesis chapter 1, is finally finished on Easter morning – which, not coincidentally, is recorded in the Gospels as the first day of the week (cf. Luke 24.1), or seen from another angle, the 8th day of the week – the day after the seventh day of the week, the day after the one on which God rested from his creative labor in the beginning – which is as far as Genesis takes us.

So what does this mean for us? We know that we are baptized “into” Jesus death and resurrection (cf. Romans 6.3). We are baptized therefore into the completion of creation, into God’s victory over the dragons and their dominion in the watery abyss of primordial vacancy and chaos. And this victorious battle, which is nothing other than the cross and resurrection of Jesus, must be played out in our lives. Our baptism means that we too must fight and conquer under the banner of Jesus and in his Name. And we do this by looking to him and emulating him, by seeking a correspondence between his will and our own – that is, by making choices that are in accordance with his teaching and the form of life that he reveals. The contours of this enterprise are unique to each of us, determined by each of our particular life circumstances. But in virtue of our baptism each of us is called, in every circumstance, to glorify God with our lives (1 Cor. 6.19-20).

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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