a sermon, based on Matthew 3.13-17, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, January 8, 2017
Of this life, it hath been said that there are two significant moments from which all else comes. Without the first, one’s birth, the inauguration of life in this world, there is nothing else. Without the second, what I will term one’s rebirth, the revelation or awareness of who one is and why one was born, nothing else matters.
So, for Jesus. It is no accident that the church first celebrates his birth at Christmas and follows immediately with the season of Epiphany, the principal proclamation being who Jesus is and why he was born. Epiphany declares that Jesus’ life and Messianic ministry are unconditional and universal. For all people. To the whole world.
So, for the church, Epiphany is a prime season to celebrate baptism. Yes, the initiatory rite of welcome into the life of the community of the followers of Jesus, yet it is more! Through baptism, we ritually, symbolically point to this truth of our lives. We are to be like Jesus and to do as Jesus for all people, to the whole world. We remind ourselves of this reality, our reality every time we ask, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant, will we “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves and will we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being”?
To accentuate this point about the unconditionality and universality of Jesus’ life and ministry and our share in it, today we read Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus’ baptism that recounts a conversation no other evangelist – Mark, Luke, or John – recalls.
John the baptizer proclaimed that God’s Messiah was coming, the preparation for which was a baptism of repentance; washing in water as a sign of one’s cleansing and choosing to forsake selfish self-interest for the sake of God’s will. Jesus is God’s Messiah. Yet he, who needs no repentance, submits to baptism. Why? John, surprised, shocked by the irony, the nonsense of it, would refuse. But Jesus says, “Just do it, John! It’s about righteousness!”
Righteousness. Not merely a moral quality of virtue, even rightness, but rather that state of being in line, in league with God’s purposes for humankind. In other words, Jesus submitted to a baptism that he didn’t need to signify his decision to share in the truth – the “who” and the “why” – of human life.
That truth is about righteousness. About being aligned with God’s will. About whether you and I dare decide daily to submit to the strength of the Holy Spirit to be and do as Jesus is and does.
Our earthly nativity, being born in flesh in this world happens once for each of us. Our epiphany, our revelation of who we are and why we are born is a repeatable historical event. As long as life lasts, there are epiphanies, revealing to us, clarifying for us, deepening our awareness of why we were born.
My sense of why I was born, which I began to appreciate more fully and understand more deeply a bit more than ten years ago (for I am a slow learner!), is grounded in my interpretation of Jesus’ gospel of love and justice. I was born to do, to be love and justice for all people, always, and when I fail, trusting in the ever-present strength of the Holy Spirit to strive to love justly and just love again.
That is righteousness for me. What is righteousness for you? Why have you been born?
Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)
Illustration: The Baptism of Jesus (Baptême de Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum
 The Book of Common Prayer, page 305 (my paraphrase and emphases)