Sermon: Epiphany 1B (The Baptism of Our Lord)
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I originally returned to church because I was lonely.
Many of you know that I wandered away from faith and from church around the age of 19. I tell a host of stories which all end with the sentence: “And that began my long, slow march back to faith.” But the truth of the matter is, there was never one moment that began my journey back to God and the church. There were many moments, all of which added up together into a willingness to return. But the actual thing that drove me back into a church building was that I was lonely.
I was a stay-at-home mom. My husband worked long hours. On an average day, I hung out with my two very small children. I needed someone to talk to besides them. I needed adult interaction. And I figured that church would give me that. Besides which, my husband and I had decided that we wanted to raise our kids within a church community. So eventually, I walked into Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan, IL, and then later into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mishawaka.
Perhaps loneliness wasn’t the most godly or holy reason to go to church. But it got me in the door. And then God really got to work—on me and on my life. Even before that, God was working in ways that I didn’t see, didn’t suspect, and certainly wouldn’t have understood.
I suspect I still don’t. Actually, I more than suspect. I know that I don’t fully see, or fully suspect, or fully understand all that God is up to—in my life, in the life of this congregation, in the life of the Church, in the world.
Just as all of the people gathered around John the Baptist the day that Jesus was baptized had no idea of the magnificence of what God was doing in their very midst.
Today’s gospel begins by telling us that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” That’s a lot of people going into the wilderness to see and experience a man.
I wonder why they went.
Nearly every scholar that I read makes the claim that all those people were there with John the Baptist because he was preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and they recognized within themselves and within the Jewish community a need for that. And that makes sense—sort of. But here’s the thing. I’ve been hanging out in churches for just long enough to realize that not everyone is there for the reasons that we might think. So I suspect that some of the people who flocked to John the Baptist were there to repent and be forgiven of their sins. But not all.
What about the others?
This is just speculation, of course, but I suspect that some went to John the Baptist because they were discontent with the Judaism of Herod and Caiaphas, the Judaism of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, of the scribes and the high priests, and they went in hopes of finding something better.
I suspect that some went to John the Baptist because they heard that the prophet Elijah had returned, and who wouldn’t want to see and hear Elijah?
I suspect that some went because they had heard about this strange thing happening—a man clothed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey was ranting about sin in the middle of the wilderness. And they were curious. Or in need of entertainment. They went to see the show.
I suspect that some went because someone pressured them into going.
I know that some went so that they expose the charlatan, the fraud, that was drawing all these crowds.
And maybe, just maybe, some went because they were lonely. Outcast. Alone. And hanging out in the wilderness with the baptizer made them feel a little less lonely, like they were a part of something.
I suspect that not everyone who showed up in the wilderness went for the best of reasons.
But there they all were, whatever their reasons, and Jesus showed up. Emmanuel. God with us. But most of them didn’t know that. He was just another guy.
And when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended and a voice came from heaven.
This is mind-blowing stuff. It’s even more mind-blowing if we understand what Mark meant when he said that the heavens were torn apart, or opened. In Scripture, “heaven” often means God’s dimension behind ordinary reality. Somehow, we have gotten this picture of heaven being in the sky somewhere, but we know that can’t be true. “Heaven,” biblically understood, exists just beyond or behind earthly reality. So when the heavens were torn apart or opened, it’s as though an invisible curtain that we can’t see but is right in front of us was suddenly pulled back, and a different reality, a divine reality, a holy reality, was revealed. And in that moment, heaven and earth were joined. Just as God and humanity are one in Jesus.
Can you see it? Can you close your eyes and see the curtain that divides heaven and earth, God and humanity, pulled back? Can you sense the Spirit entering our realm? Can you hear God’s voice around you?
If you can, then you have more than any of those people at the Jordan that day, with the exception of Jesus.
‘Cause here’s the thing. Scripture is clear. Just as Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart. Not they. Not them. He. The Gospel of Matthew uses the same pronouns. Luke is vague. The Gospel of John has John the Baptist testify that he saw the Spirit of God come down upon Jesus. It would seem that this was a sight, an experience, a revelation not meant for everyone. All those people, gathered at the Jordan, for all their various reasons, and they had no idea what God was doing in their midst. They had no idea what was really going on. They couldn’t see or feel or hear the extraordinary, wonderful, grace-filled, holy thing that God was doing.
My friends, I don’t know what brought you here today. I don’t know what brings you to church at all. It might be God. It might be a desire for the holy. Or it might be guilt. It might be pressure from someone else. It might be curiosity. It might be hope. It might be loneliness. It might be any number of things. And it might be different things on different days.
But here’s what I know.
I know that when I get done talking, and I stand at that altar and we pray together, the Spirit will descend and bread and wine will become Jesus, and in that moment the curtain that divides heaven and earth will be pulled back a little. When we sing, we will sing in the company of angels and archangels and the whole communion of saints. When we consume the Eucharist, the divide between human and divine will become a little thinner. Again. When we leave here, we will leave as the Body of Christ here on earth.
But much of the time, it doesn’t look like anything spectacular, does it? It looks like a kooky woman wearing funny clothes doing the same thing week after week, with a bunch of people watching and participating. Standing and kneeling and standing again, doing liturgical calisthenics. Saying the right words at the prescribed times. And when we leave, we leave to be ourselves, living our normal lives and doing normal things. Or so it seems.
That’s where faith comes in.
A good deal of Christian faith is a matter of learning to live by and in this different reality—this reality in which the curtain is drawn back and heaven and earth are one—even when we can’t see it. It’s learning that God is with us, even when we cannot sense him. It’s learning that the Spirit has descended and God’s voice speaks within us and around us and through us—even when life feels very mundane. Yes, there are times when some of us see the curtain drawn back, and we can begin to sense what God is really doing, what is really going on. But most of the time, we walk by faith, not by sight.
Those people at the Jordan River had no idea what was going on in their midst—what God was up to.
The first time I walked into Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan, IL, I had no idea what God was doing, what God would do.
I suspect that most days, when I walk into this church, I do so with very little understanding of what God has in store for us, and how we fit into God’s plan, God’s narrative. And neither do you.
But the story of Jesus’ baptism assures us that God is at work, in extraordinary and miraculous and grace-filled ways that would take our breath away if we only knew.
And it invites us to actively look for it—to discover in our own lives the normally hidden heavenly dimension of God’s world. At work in us.
My friends, two weeks from now, we’re going to gather together for our Annual Meeting. And if we’re lucky, it will feel very mundane. We’ll talk about the roof and how to pay for it. We’ll talk about our upcoming anniversary celebration. We’ll vote for wardens and vestry members and convention delegates. We’ll hear reports—numbers and financials and such. And it may be difficult to see how God is at work in all of that business.
But God is. Whatever brings you to that Annual Meeting—and you ARE being called to Annual Meeting—whatever brings you to church, whatever you feel or don’t feel or sense or don’t sense or understand or don’t understand, God is at work. Doing marvelous things.
Won’t it be glorious when it’s all revealed?
Isn’t it glorious to be a part of it? Even if much of the time, we walk by faith, not by sight.