The Baptism of Christ
Sunday, January 10, 2010
St Alban’s Episcopal Church
The Rev. Deborah Magdalene, OSH
Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
We begin the season of Epiphany today with the Baptism of Christ. For the
first Christians, it was Jesus’ baptism that introduced this extraordinary man
and his ministry. During Epiphany we focus on the miraculous “showings” of
God, through his son Jesus. These showings began this last Wednesday on the
Feast of the Epiphany.
The Christmas season ends with the arrival of the three kings, travelling from
the land of the Gentiles. Their gifts to the Christ Child represent the coming
together of all nations under Christ.
The star they follow is the star of the Epiphany – the miraculous light of God,
breaking through our dark doldrums and routines to show us a much grander
and more glorious world than we could ever imagine on our own.
Epiphany shouts: “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” Throughout this
season we are asked to pay attention to the epiphanies of God’s inspiration
and creativity all around us – in our personal lives and in our shared sacred
stories. Christ continues to shine his extraordinary light on our ordinary
existence, transforming us all into little lanterns of God’s light.
Christ comes down to the Jordan River to be baptized, and emerges glowing
with the light of God. The most important thing to remember about his
baptism is that it was God’s action through his Christ, and toward us.
Luke is unique among the gospel writers in claiming that Jesus was baptized,
not by John the Baptist, but by God. If you look carefully at our Gospel for
today you will see that John’s name is not mentioned after Jesus enters the
scene. The Baptist, for Luke, is the last of the Old Testament prophets,
standing at the precipice of the old age and pointing across the divide to the
One who brings in the new age.
The words, “After Jesus had been baptized...” omits John’s name on purpose.
The phrase is meant to downplay the actions of the Baptist, and emphasizes
that it is God who baptizes his son, as it is God who baptizes us. God affirms
his presence at Christ’s baptism through another epiphany – the Holy Spirit,
sent from God, descending as a dove upon Jesus, followed by God’s voice from
heaven, proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well
This epiphany, or showing of God, is the first example of the Trinity revealing
itself to the community. The audible voice of God, the visible body of the dove,
and the presence of Christ, emerging naked out of the waters of the Jordan are
a shocking sign of the emergence of a new creation. Our own baptisms are
meant to shock us, if not by the temperature of the water then by the tangible
presence of the Holy at every baptism.
The mention of water, Spirit, and the voice of God also recall the story in
Genesis, when all three are mentioned as part of God’s activity in Creation.
Our baptisms are intended to make each of us a brand new creation taking our
first breath after emerging out of the waters. God tells the story of the divine
love that created the universe and continually creates history as each
individual is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the
It is through the waters of baptism that God calls to mind the stories from
Genesis: the creation of the world, where God’s Spirit hovered over the watery
mass of chaos and divided the waters into seas, rivers, polar ice caps and
streams by creating the magnificent masses of land.
The waters of Baptism remind us also of the story of Noah, when the torrential
floods punished the sinful as they redeemed the faithful few who floated in a
homemade ark. It is the dove that brought the good news of approaching land
to Noah....the same dove of the Holy Spirit that anointed Christ. That this dove
appears again at the baptism is no coincidence.
The land Noah and his family discovered rose out of the very water that
caused so much death. God made a new covenant with the people – never
again to destroy the world with the flood of many waters. The water that
brought death to God’s creation is the same water that brought Noah’s family
to the redemption of a new life, sealed with a promise and marked by a
It is this same death and new life that we are called to in our baptism. We
symbolically sink into the waters of death, renouncing our old way of life as
we renounce Satan. We emerge from the waters, joyously alive – a brand new
creation, as God makes a new covenant with us.
The baptism itself is the covenant, initiated by God. The water is the sign that
reminds us of our emergence into a new life. Like a newborn, bursting naked
out of the watery amniotic fluid, we are vulnerable, innocent and teachable.
We emerge from an old world into a new, Christ-centered world where stars
lead our way, and ancient sacred stories build our path.
The earliest Christians looked back to Isaiah and recognized that his
prophesies had come true with Jesus – the beloved servant of God. When
Isaiah wrote the words from our first lesson, he was anticipating the
restoration of Israel after their Babylonian captivity, which happened in the
sixth century before Christ.
Christians believed that what was written by the prophets not only predicted
the restoration of Israel from Babylonian exile but also clearly pointed to the
restoration of Israel through the coming of the Messiah. The first Christians
were Jewish, and were so immersed in scripture that most of them had the
first five books of the Bible memorized, as well as the Psalms, and much of the
This immersion in Scripture allowed them to see that God’s mighty acts in
history followed a consistent pattern, and that God is true to himself and his
The pattern God consistently follows isn’t as easy for us to see today. This is
why we need to remind ourselves of God’s covenant with us through our
sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism.
That is why our current version of the Book of Common Prayer places
Baptism front and center and gives a place of honor to the ancient Vigil of
Easter where we tell the ancient stories of our faith and renew our baptismal
vows at the font full of Holy Water before we receive the Easter Eucharist at
the first light of dawn.
Look at the water imagery in the Isaiah reading in relation to baptism. “Now
thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you O Israel. Do
not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”
The sponsors or parents of the soon-to-be-baptized Christian must say his or
her name before presenting them to the priest. This first name is known as
our Christian name, so that God and the Christian community can call us by
name. The names of the Trinity are also called out as the new Christian
receives the branding of the cross, marked with Holy Oil, as Christ’s own
forever. The rainbow was Noah’s sign, and the cross is ours.
Before we are doused with or submerged into the water we can imagine God
using Isaiah’s words, “When you pass through these waters I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you...For I am the Lord your
God and your Savior.”
The ancients associated death with any body of water. Baptism likewise
reminds us that we die in the baptismal water, in imitation of Christ dying for
us. We emerge from the waters of death as newly resurrected children of
Jesus warns his disciples in Mark’s gospel, “The cup that I drink you will drink;
and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Jesus
refers to his approaching death as his baptism. And invites us to follow him
“Do not fear [the water of death] for I am with you; I will bring your offspring
from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give
them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;’ bring my sons from far way and
my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
We are a new creation after our baptism. We are known as Christians, and are
identified through our love.
The ancient baptismal rite was a lengthy process. All who sought admission
to the Church had to be carefully scrutinized and examined. Christians were
under persecution at the time, and they had to be certain that no spies
infiltrated their ranks. To be baptized was to be called to a life of grateful,
obedient service to God.
During the Eucharist service itself, the non-baptized were allowed to stay only
until the sermon was finished. The Eucharist itself was celebrated just for the
Once you were selected as a baptismal candidate you began a three-year
course of instruction known as the Catechism. The final phase of this
instruction occurred during Lent, and culminated in the early dawn during the
Easter Vigil, where the entire group was baptized by full immersion and then
clothed in white garments and, in some cases, given a lit candle.
The newly baptized then processed into the church and received the laying on
of hands by the bishop. He then poured oil on their heads and made the sign
of the cross on their foreheads with his thumb. He blew air in their faces to
represent the wind of the Holy Spirit. They then received the kiss of peace
from the bishop and the entire congregation.
In this way the new Christians were welcomed to the table of the Lord where
they were allowed to receive communion for the first time.
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John pray for the
coming of the Holy Spirit among the Samaritans. This group of Jews was
particularly hated by the Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. Saved and redeemed by
their baptism into the body of Christ, they still lacked the vibrant sense of
The laying of hands is what brings the Holy Spirit among them. In the
baptismal rite, it is the priest’s hands touching the head of the baptized, that
signifies the same holy touch of the first apostles upon the heads of the brand
John the Baptist is clear that he baptizes with water, but the one who is to
come will baptize with the fire of the Holy Spirit. The first Christians
understood that our baptism makes us Christ’s own forever, but it is only
through prayer that can we receive the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is in the act of praying when the Spirit descends upon him. During the
ancient baptismal ceremony, the non-baptized were allowed to listen to the
readings and the sermon. But it was only after the three-year preparatory
course of study, followed by their Easter baptism, that they were finally
allowed to pray with the congregation.
Those early Christians took the story of Jesus’ baptism literally. He emerged
from the waters of his baptism and immediately began to pray. The early
Christians reserved the right to pray with fellow Christians only after the
lengthy baptismal process was over. Because it took so long, many died
before they were actually baptized. But they were considered saved and were
Our modern service of baptism includes prayer before, during, and after the
baptism – assuring all of us of the continual presence of the entire Trinity
during our Eucharist service.
I invite you this morning to pay attention to the water in our service. Douse
yourselves with water from the baptismal font, and dip you hand into the
water at both entrances to this church.
Watch the water being poured into the wine at the preparation of the
Eucharist. This represents the water of our creation, our baptism, and the
water of Jesus’ first miracle that he turned miraculously into wine. The water
that flowed from his side at his death becomes the mixture of water and wine
that we drink.
We gather together this morning to remember Christ’s baptism as a sign for us
to follow. May we pay attention to all of God’s signs, sent to us, because of
God’s abiding and eternal love.