St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Epiphany 1 2013 Sermon
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Corby Varness

Who baptized Jesus?  Well, that is easy: John the Baptist, right?  Yep, that is the answer if you are reading the Gospel according to Mark or Matthew.  But, look at your lectionaries.  See the numbers?  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. Verses 18, 19 and 20 are missing.  Let’s do a little bible study and see what we can learn by looking at the whole story including the missing verses.
 
Our gospel starts off with people thinking that John must be the Messiah.  He was a big deal in his time.  We know that Jesus thought VERY highly of him: (from Matthew 11:11): “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”
 
John was so famous that Josephus, a first century Jewish historian writes much more about John the Baptist than about Jesus.  
 
John may have been a member of a first century Jewish sect called the Essenes who practiced abstinence, voluntary poverty and this new idea of baptism as a way to get right with God.  It is from this group that we get the Dead Sea Scrolls so we know quite a bit about their teachings.
 
So, John was down by the river Jordan attracting big crowds by offering an alternative to worship at the Temple.  He was a prophet who foretold the coming of someone much greater than he who would baptize not just with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.  John told the people; this fire, the Holy Spirit within you will change you from the inside out.  The one who is coming will clean house - make a clean sweep of your lives.  He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.
 
Now here is the part that is left out of today’s readings:
John’s words gave strength to the people, this Good News that he preached.  But Herod, the ruler, was stung by John’s rebuke about his relationship with Herodias.  (John had publicly complained about Herod marrying his own sister in law.)  Herod reacted by putting John in jail.
           
Got that?  John the Baptist is in jail.
 
Our reading continues:
After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized.  As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him.  And along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”
 
So, if John the Baptist is in prison, I ask again: Who baptized Jesus?
 
Remember that John is part of the Essenes; a group of people who are all practicing this rite of washing with water as a means of clearing away sins.  Perhaps someone else in this group baptized Jesus.  Or, perhaps Jesus is baptized by the Holy Spirit.  Apparently, to Luke, the important thing is the coming of the Holy Spirit and the voice from Heaven.  Jesus was chosen and marked by the Holy Spirit at his baptism as God’s beloved.  We are chosen and marked at our baptisms as God’s beloved.
 
By reading this entire gospel, including the parts our lectionary leaves out, we see that perhaps the message Luke gives us is that who performs the baptism is not as important as the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Does it matter to God if one is baptized by immersion in a river with a Baptist preacher or with drops of water by a Roman Catholic priest?  Does God care how old we are when we are baptized?  Does God care exactly how much water is involved at baptism?  No.  The presence of the Holy Spirit is what matters.  God is present with us at our baptisms through the Holy Spirit.
 
Both Jesus and John the Baptist offered alternatives to worship at the Temple for the people of their time.   We also offer a new way to worship here at St. Mark’s.  The way we do church here is called Total Common Ministry.  Another way to refer to it is Ministry of the Baptized.   It is a way of living out our Baptismal Covenant in community.  We believe that as baptized Christians, each of us has a right and a responsibility to ministry.  We believe that within our communities, we have all of the gifts we need to be church.
 
We are called every time we renew our baptismal vows, as we did last week, “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
 
In John’s time, when Jews wanted their sins pardoned, they had to go to the temple and spend some money.  The temple staff would intervene with God for them, through animal sacrifice.  John taught a simpler way: people could come down to the river to be baptized, change the way they live and be right with God.  No money changed hands.
 
No one is paid at our church.  We do pass the plate and we are able to have a generous outreach to our community because of that.  We also teach that our priests and deacons can be called up from our midst and trained amongst us.  These unpaid servants are not solely responsible for the church.  Rather than a community gathered around a minister, we are a ministering community.  I loved this quote from Bishop Wesley Frensdorff that describes this way of doing church as “members, not dependent on professionals, (who) know what’s what and who’s who in the Bible, and all sheep share in the shepherding.”   We are all shepherds.  He also describes communities like ours as “open, caring households of faith where all find embrace, acceptance and affirmation.”
 
Who baptized Jesus?  Perhaps what we can take from Luke today is that what matters most about the sacrament of baptism is the active presence of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is present in our lives and in our church today as we live out our baptisms in our daily lives.  In our final hymn today we ask God to take our lives, take our moments and our days and let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Our baptism, whenever it takes place, however it occurs, brings us closer to the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit then guides us throughout our lives to bring us closer to God.           
 
Here is a story about a different kind of baptism:
An old guy stumbles along a baptismal service on Sunday afternoon down by the river. He proceeds to walk down into the water and stand next to the Preacher.  The minister turns and notices the old guy and says, "Mister, Are you ready to find Jesus?" The old guy looks back and says, "Yes, Preacher. I sure am."  The minister then dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up. "Have you found Jesus?" the preacher asked.  "No, I didn't!" said the old fellow.  The preacher then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up and says, "Now, brother, have you found Jesus?"  "No, I did not Reverend."  The preacher in disgust holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time brings him out of the water and says in a harsh tone, "My God, have you found Jesus yet?"  The old guy wipes his eyes and says to the preacher..."Are you sure this is where he fell in?"



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