Epiphany 1 – Year C
St. James’s Episcopal Church
January 13, 2013
There is an old story about a very wealthy businessman, known for his extravagance, who hosted an elaborate summer party. Part of his decorations and part of the uniqueness of his party was that he had filled his Olympic size swimming pool with all kinds of sea life including some rather large barracuda and eight huge sharks.
After dinner had been served and everyone was standing around looking at the assortment of sea life in the pool, the businessman announced to that he would challenge any of his guests to swim across the pool. He said he would give $1,000.00 to anyone who would dive in and swim from one side to the other.
No sooner had he made this dare than there was a splash and a guest, fully clothed in his tuxedo, swam rapidly over the top of three sharks, across the pool, and climbed out on the other side. The wealthy host was amazed and he turned to his soaking wet guest and said: “Congratulations, that was fantastic, come in the house and I will get you your $1,000.00 prize.” With a growl and a scowl the swimmer said: “Right now I could care less about the prize. All I want is the name of the jerk who pushed me in.”
Too often many Christians think of baptism as nothing more than a sweet ritual that involves sprinkling warm water on the heads of beautiful babies. It is something we do to welcome a new soul into the church, a new member into the body of Christ. It is a joyful event with baptismal gowns, flowers, and lots of family photographs. And while all that is quite true – I think we forget that like that swimming pool the waters of baptism can indeed be a very dangerous place, filled with dangerous life implications.
On this first Sunday after the Epiphany, we remember and celebrate Jesus’ baptism. It is a major turning point in our Lord’s life and it is recorded in all four gospels. Did you know that Jesus was probably thirty years old before he was baptized? That is late in a man’s life especially when life expectancy in those days was not much beyond forty. Before his baptism, we can assume that Jesus followed in his father’s footsteps and made his living as a carpenter in Nazareth, a little backwater town far from the center of power in Jerusalem. The fact is that Jesus could have spent the rest of his days in Nazareth living out a comfortable life as a respectable craftsman. But he sensed that God was calling him to something more, he knew he had an important role to play in God’s plan, and so he came to John and asked to be baptized. His immersion in the waters of baptism marks the beginning of his ministry. He hears God’s voice calling him the Beloved Son and he knows he must spend the rest of his life doing God’s will – proclaiming and teaching about the coming of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus’ baptism sets everything in motion – his gathering of disciples, his travels, his teaching and preaching, his healings and miracles, his confrontation with the corrupt religious powers. Ultimately it gets him arrested, beaten and nailed to a cross. I think it is fair to say that Jesus’ baptism was anything but a harmless, cute ritual.
I heard a wonderful story the other day about a family who had their baby girl baptized one summer at their local Episcopal Church. It was a lovely service and afterward the family hosted a luncheon in their back yard for family and friends. They had a grand cookout with all the kids playing games in the yard and the adults eating on paper plates sitting on folding chairs. The baby girl, being only four months old, was left to nap in her stroller. That night as her mother put the little girl to bed she noticed that the child was sunburned from being outside. But she was only burned in one spot – right in the middle of her forehead was a crimson cross. It seems that the mark made by the priest when he anointed her with the oil of chrism, had acted like a sort of anti-sunscreen. For the next ten days wherever they went the parents had to explain the cross to neighbors, friends, the grocery store clerk, even the pediatrician. For those ten days she was literally marked as Christ’s own forever.
Today as we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, ask yourself this question – could anyone tell that you are a baptized Christian just by watching your day-to-day behavior? Given that few of us have crosses burned into our heads, is there any way another person could tell by the way you live your life that you have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection? Jesus’ baptism held life-altering implications – does ours?
Friday afternoon I had the sad honor of burying my cousin. He died of a massive heart attack. He was only fifty years old, just a few months older than I am. We grew up together. We were both baptized Randolph (he was Randolph Tyler and I was Randolph Marshall), the family called us big Randy and little Randy. As I stood there in Hollywood Cemetery leading his service, I couldn’t help but feel a little self-referential as I read our shared name over and over again. In a strange way it was like taking part in my own funeral. I began to wonder, when the Burial rite is read for me; will I have lived up to my calling? Will I have borne the mark of my own baptism in ways that make a difference? Do I and will I live what I profess?
An ancient Chinese proverb advises: “If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.” Standing on the threshold of a new year may be the best time for us to examine our souls and sift our values. Is it possible that the strongest purpose of our lives is still unrecognized, still unclaimed? We all live life much too superficially when the truth is that none of us are here by chance. We have a purpose, a calling beyond the self, a unique responsibility to decide and to act. We are the baptized, the hands and feet of Christ in a hurting and broken world. We have been marked as Christ’s own forever. But when forever comes will we have claimed our identity?