January 8, 2023

As I mentioned last Sunday, Epiphany was this past Friday, January 6.  It celebrates the Magi coming to visit the infant Jesus and is the Orthodox Christmas.  Today we jump ahead in the story around 30 years as the adult Jesus comes to hear John the Baptist and is subsequently baptized by him.  There just isn’t much we know about the intervening years. Luke gives us that one little story of Jesus at age 12 coming to Jerusalem at Passover with his parents and staying behind to talk with the Rabbis. Other than that, there is nothing about his childhood in the New Testament. There were some Pseudo-Gospels written in the second century that purported to tell of him performing miracles as a child, but they were so clearly fabulized stories that the early church rejected them from the start.

Tradition says that Joseph died sometime before Jesus reached adulthood and that as the eldest son Jesus had to stay home and help his mother keep the family afloat until around this time. Perhaps he had heard about John’s preaching all the way up in Nazareth, or, as Luke suggests, he was John’s cousin and knew of John long before this. -There is no clear answer on that. Or maybe Jesus came down to Jerusalem for one of the holy days and heard of John’s preaching while there.

In any case, Jesus came to where John was preaching and baptizing down near where the Jordon River empties into the Dead Sea. Though Matthew makes a point, as does Luke, to say that Jesus wasn’t coming as a disciple of John. And the Gospel of John, goes so far as omit John’s Baptism of Jesus. Instead, it has John witness to Jesus as having God‘s spirit in a unique and powerful way. Presumably John’s gospel is countering the idea that that Jesus represented a continuation of the Baptist’s movement as well as the questions raised because John’s baptism focused on repentance and turning from one’s sin.

For the three synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus’ baptism marks a moment of discernment and spiritual experience. It is highlighted by a mystical occurrence where God’s call on his life breaks through to him in a dramatic way. It becomes a ringing affirmation that he is embraced and claimed by God to a greater purpose.  It becomes clear to him in a profound and powerful way that his life has a greater spiritual mission, and he is moved to embrace that calling.

‘There is nothing in Matthew’s description that makes this anything other than a personal spiritual experience. Jesus sees and hears with his soul’s awareness. It is the voice of God which speaks to his heart. No one else sees or hears anything.

It seems clear to me that Jesus’ baptism was an act of personal devotion where a number of things Jesus had been thinking about, perhaps even praying about, came together. It sparked a whole new sense of self.

Most people in the modern church are baptized as infants so it’s not an experience most remember. At best, you have a few pictures or maybe a story or two of about what happened that day -Like, you cried all through the baptism. I have had a few of those crying babies over the years. By and large an infant’s baptism doesn’t get more notice than their first birthday.

Of course, if you grew up in the Baptist church as I did, you might have been baptized as a young person. You either took a baptism class, much like Confirmation in our church, or you simply went forward at the end of the service and talked to the minister. Baptism may have had an emotional component, but I haven’t known anyone who experienced a spiritual awakening or calling in connection with their baptism. Getting dunked under water while the minister said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” may have created some anxiety, and is something you are not likely to forget as a young pre-teen or teen, but it may, or may not, have been spiritually significant for you.

For Jesus, as a 30 year old, his baptism seems to be one of those transformative moments when he felt the confirming sense of God’s call on his life. A sense of duty and purpose that directed the rest of his life.

Complicating it for us moderns is the fact that dramatic religious experience is tainted by the spectrum of psychiatric language and the reality of mental illness.  However much we may believe Jesus heard the voice of God call, or Moses, or Elijah, or any of the saints of the church for that matter, heard God’s call on their life, it still leaves questions in our minds in this modern day.

But in truth there are still ‘God experiences’ that lead people to turn their lives around, or find a sense of calling and direction that gives greater purpose and meaning to their lives. I doubt many of us would say “The Heavens Opened” but God sometimes plants those remarkable seeds of new beginnings that we did not plan or expect.

I think probably all of us here are beyond 30, but you know, God doesn’t stop calling. 30 is not a cut off. The late Christian author and Army psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in his book, “A World Waiting to Be Born” said he believes “God calls each of us, whether we respond or not, sometimes to very specific tasks. It makes no difference, whether our calling is that of homemaker or nuclear physicist, farmer or politician”, adds, “If we are answering that call in our lives then our sense of direction is more compelling, and our satisfaction is more complete.”

Peck also suggests that we “Should not assume that God’s calling is a once and forever thing.  –It may be that. But it may also be that we have a series of callings in our lives.  The calling at 25 may not be the same at 50, or that at 50 the same as that at 75!  An earlier calling may even be seen later as preparation for another later calling.”

The spiritual task of life is to be faithful to our present calling — to have the courage and the fortitude to follow where we hear that whispering leading us.

Our baptism is a sign and seal of that overall call of God, claiming us God’s children and embracing us with God’s Spirit.

This morning as we celebrate Christ’s baptism I would like to invite you to reaffirm your baptism. I will come down and hold the bowl of water and if you want to come forward put your hand in the water and do the form of a cross on your forehead as an act of devotion and asking God to be with you and guide you in this year ahead.

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