God still transforms, still calls us

God still transforms, still calls us

This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the First Sunday after the Epiphany, the Baptism of our Lord, January 10, 2021.


January 10, 2020
Diocese of FW
Baptism of our Lord, Mark 1:4-11

This week we observed the last few days of Christmas, then welcomed in the season after the Epiphany. Epiphany is the day we remember the coming of Magi following the star to visit the Christ child. The word Epiphany means to manifest or to show. In the arrival of the Magi, bringing their precious gifts, salvation was manifest to the Gentiles…salvation was made available for all people.

The earliest observances of Epiphany included three biblical events in which God was made manifest to people of the earth. The magi who followed the star to Bethlehem, Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, and Jesus’ first reported miracle at the wedding in Cana. Last week we talked about the magi and what that manifestation meant, and today we’re going to talk about Jesus’ baptism. The wedding at Cana will just have to wait until next year’s lectionary cycle.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism is pretty short. This is how it is with much of Mark’s Gospel – only the most important details are included. We don’t hear about John and Jesus’ relationship and why the former is unfit to baptize the latter. It’s brief – and yet three remarkable actions occur in these short 7 verses.

  1. The heavens are torn apart – the veil between God and God’s people is ripped open. God, the author of creation, has heard the people’s prayers and joined the drama in a way that alters all of creation.
  2. God’s Spirit descends like a dove. Remember that at the end of the flood narrative a dove brings Noah a twig of new life. Now the dove descends on Jesus, bringing the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the temple of God’s Holy Spirit, the place where others will encounter God.
  3. God speaks and tells the people how precious a gift they have in Jesus. “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well ” Jesus means everything to God. Just as God gives everything to Jesus, Jesus in turn gives everything to God’s people.

The people of God shared a relationship with God before Jesus’ birth. The Israelites had covenantal relationship with God with its own set of promises and laws and codes. In this covenant, God promised the Israelites that they would be the chosen people to bring all the nations of the world into relationship with God. In return, God required the Israelites to be faithful.

Jesus brings with him a new covenant with a new commandment to love God and love one another, and he brings a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ himself. This new covenant is made available to everyone. And when we are ready to join the family, we receive the sacrament of baptism.

The Catechism of our Faith in the back of our Book of Common Prayer defines Holy Baptism as the sacrament by which God adopts us as God’s own children. It’s when an individual makes a commitment to join the Christian family, and the church commits to welcoming that person into the family.

Baptism is one of two primary sacraments in the Episcopal Church – sacrament meaning an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. At some point during the pandemic I read Michael Curry’s definition of sacraments as “actions that give new meaning to things.” They are communal actions that depend on gathering together with physical things – bread and wine, water and oil.

Baptism and Holy Eucharist are the major sacraments of our faith, and yet we experience them so infrequently right now. It’s incredibly difficult and somewhat theologically ambiguous celebrating these sacraments over online worship. Of course, we’ve made adjustments. Once a month priests bless communion wafers in advance so that you may consume the Body of Christ while gazing at a screen.

God is certainly present with us in online church, but it is different than breaking bread together in our physical buildings, receiving the elements from the very hands who previously absolved us from our sins and will shortly bless us for the work awaiting us outside the church walls.

But what about baptism? While we’ve figured out online communion, baptism is trickier. I can’t help but wonder about the significance of our baptism and Jesus’ baptism, when so many of them are put on hold right now. Or when baptisms do occur, they take place in small, private gatherings with little physical interaction from the priest or pledges of support from the entire congregation. How do we engage with our identity as baptized children of God when we aren’t reaffirming our baptismal promises or welcoming in new members of the family in this way?

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord and while Jesus’ baptism seems very similar to ours, it’s quite different. God doesn’t adopt Jesus as a child in the Jordan River, however, it is the setting in which the revelation of Jesus as God’s child is made known. The water in the Jordan River is the setting – it’s not end all, be all.

Our reading from Acts today takes this idea a step farther, reminding us that baptism is not just about the water. Of course water is a key part of the ritual, but Acts tells us that water alone is not sufficient for the transformation God desires. We also need the Holy Spirit…the Spirit is what transforms, not the water. The Spirit is who creates this change within us.

And the Spirit that Christ receives in his baptism in the Jordan River, is the same Holy Spirit that we receive when we are baptized. And like Christ, in receiving the Holy Spirit, we receive power from God to act as God’s agents in this world. To bring love, justice and peace everywhere we go.

We are not baptizing as often as we typically do. And when we do, it looks different. It feels different. It sounds different–children no longer gather around the font for front row glimpses of spiritual changes within the newly baptized. Priests aren’t holding infants in long white, heirloom gowns. Thankfully, baptism isn’t just about the water. Baptism is about being transformed by the Holy Spirit and adopted as God’s own children. And I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit still carries out her work even when we aren’t baptizing with the frequency we once did.

God still transforms us. God still calls us. God still breaks through into our world, calling out, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”

As we reaffirm the vows we made at our baptism or were made on our behalf, respond with intention. How might God transform you this year? We can’t do it on our own. We can’t do it with a font of water. But we can do it with the help of the Holy Spirit.