Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.
Back in the days before I had to be up before the sun on Sunday mornings, I was a devotee of Saturday Night Live. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, SNL (as it’s known to fans) is a sketch comedy show on NBC that has aired since 1975. Every week, the show’s writers create topical sketches about news events and popular culture. Since the show is live and since the writers only have a week to put it together, not every sketch is comedy gold. One of the most consistently funny recurring sketches, however, is a send-up of the previous week’s news stories called Weekend Update. The sketch includes witty and incisive commentary from the anchors and will often feature cast members portraying ridiculous characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna, Father Guido Sarducci, Opera Man, and “Girl you wish you hadn’t started a conversation with at a party.” So it was a surprise when Weekend Update anchor Tina Fey introduced cast member Will Ferrell as “State Department attaché for the US Ambassador to China, Jacob Silj.” Was SNL going a different direction and trying to be a little less ridiculous? As it turns out, no they weren’t. Ferrell’s character began by saying, “OUR RELATIONS WITH CHINA HAVE LONG BEEN SHAPED BY A TUG OF WAR BETWEEN ECONOMIC INTERESTS AND POLITICAL IDEOLOGY” in an unwavering monotone. When Tina Fey incredulously asked Ferrell what was wrong with his voice, he bristled and told her “I HAVE A VOICE RELATED MEDICAL CONDITION. I SUFFER FROM VOICE IMMODULATION.” The sketch went on predictably from there, concluding with Ferrell’s character recalling how he suffered during his years as a high school student: “IMAGINE BEING AT A HIGH SCHOOL DANCE, SINGING ALONG WITH EVERYONE ELSE: ‘AND A LITTLE BIT SOFTER NOW. AND A LITTLE BIT SOFTER NOW.’” This silly sketch is amusing for obvious reasons: people don’t typically talk that way. Voice Immodulation is a joke precisely because we can modulate our voices. We are capable of varying the pitch and timbre of our voices depending on what we are trying to communicate. Our voice is one of the clearest ways that we make our intentions known, one of the most powerful things we have to communicate meaning.
In our gospel reading for today we return to the banks of the Jordan River to encounter John the Baptist once again and to hear the voice of the Lord. Just a few weeks ago, we heard the baptizer predict that one more powerful than he was coming into the world to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Today, Jesus fulfills that prediction, but what’s interesting is how matter-of-fact the baptism of Jesus is in Luke’s gospel. In other accounts of Jesus’ baptism, John makes a big deal about the fact that Jesus is the one he’s been talking about. In Matthew’s gospel, John initially refuses to baptize Jesus, saying that he isn’t worthy to do so. In John’s gospel, the baptizer proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God” as soon as Jesus appears. Even in Mark, which is typically the most understated of the gospel accounts, the narrator makes a particular point to announce when Jesus arrives on the scene. But in Luke’s gospel, the baptism of Jesus is something of an afterthought: “All the people had been baptized, oh yeah and Jesus had also been baptized with them.” This is surprising coming from Luke. Remember it’s in Luke’s gospel that we hear that John and Jesus are cousins and that John leaped for joy in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when she encountered Mary. You would think that Luke would want to highlight first time that John and Jesus meet outside of the womb. Luke, however, seems more interested in what happens after Jesus is baptized. He tells us that the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove and a voice comes from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Luke is more interested in God’s action than he is in John’s interaction with Jesus in this scene. Luke wants us to hear not what John has to say about his cousin, but what God himself has to say about Jesus.
This leads us to ask: how is God’s voice supposed to sound in this passage? For as long as I can remember, I thought that the voice from heaven was a voice of fatherly affirmation: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When we read it like this, it’s a message exclusively for Jesus; it’s a promise that God approves of what Jesus has done in his life thus far and supports the mission upon which he is about to embark. But if this is the case, why would Luke be so deliberate about calling our attention to it? If the message is primarily for Jesus, then the only reason to make the affirmation public is to cause us to be impressed (I guess). But what if we are meant to stand on the banks of the Jordan and hear God’s voice in a different way? Perhaps the voice of the Lord that we hear in this passage is not a voice of mere fatherly affirmation, but is instead the voice of the Lord that the psalmist describes in Psalm 29, a powerful voice of splendor that breaks the cedar trees, that splits the flames of fire, that shakes the wilderness, and makes the oak trees writhe. The affirmation that Jesus is God’s beloved Son is not supposed to impress us or make Jesus feel good, the affirmation that Jesus is the beloved Son of God is supposed to be a world changing proclamation that breaks the cedar trees and shakes the wilderness. It is an affirmation that God is transforming the world through this Jesus of Nazareth.
Last week we celebrated the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ. Epiphany, of course, is the day that we remember the magi who came to visit the Christ child. It’s the day that we decorate our altar with wise men and stars. It’s the day that children in Latin America and elsewhere lay out their shoes to be filled with presents. And yes, it’s the day that we remind ourselves hopefully that wise men still seek Jesus. In a broader sense, however, this season of Epiphany is about how our lives have changed because of what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. It is about how our lives have been transformed by the voice from heaven proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the beloved Son of God.
We’ve all been told that the definition of Epiphany is literally “manifestation.” This is true; that wonderful hymn we sang last week is in many ways the quintessential Epiphany hymn, far more than We Three Kings: “Manifest in making whole palsied limbs and fainting soul; manifest in valiant fight, quelling all the devil’s might.” At the same time, I think it’s important to know that Epiphany comes from the Greek words for “shine upon.” Part of what we are celebrating during Epiphany is the fact that the light of Christ has shone upon us, that God has enlightened our very being through Jesus Christ. Epiphany is not just about having something revealed to us, not just about having something manifested to us, not just about what God has affirmed to Jesus; it’s about the fact that God is transforming us in a radically new way. Epiphany challenges the status quo and encourages us to a new way of being.
This is why the Song of Simeon is so appropriate for the season of Epiphany. Mary and Joseph had just presented Jesus in the Temple, and Simeon, a righteous and devout prophet “looking for the consolation of Israel” takes up Jesus in his arms and prays, “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior whom you have prepared for all the world to see.” In other words, God has made God’s salvation manifest in Jesus Christ. But Simeon doesn’t stop there; he proclaims that Jesus is “a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of God’s people Israel.” It’s not just about the fact that Jesus is the light, it’s about the fact that the light shines on each and every one of us. Epiphany is about the fact that we are called to transcend our normal way of doing things, to examine critically the way we look at the world, as we strive to reflect that transformative light that enlightens the nations. And we can do that in a variety of ways. We reflect the light that enlighten the nations by participating in corporate worship; at it’s best, our common life is a reflection of the love that exists at the center of God’s being. We bear witness to the voice of the Lord when we advocate for those in desperate situations. By working on behalf of those who cannot support themselves, we can help give voice to the voiceless. And we can proclaim that Jesus is God’s beloved Son by making sure everyone knows that someone loves them, whether it is reaching out to a stranger in need or offering a friend a shoulder to cry on. In all we do, we are called to reflect the light that enlightens the nations, we are called to bear witness to the voice of the Lord that splits the flames of fire, we are called in everything that we do to affirm that Jesus is God’s beloved Son and that through him God is renewing the world.