Matthew 3.13-17

Mark 10.35-40

Immersion Experience

First Sunday of Epiphany

One of the most memorable musical experiences I’ve enjoyed in my fifty-plus years of violin playing was an event called “Onstage at Symphony.”  About six years ago the educational arm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra began sponsoring an event open to amateur musicians that was basically an opportunity to play in a concert at Symphony Hall.  The musicians were selected by lottery, and I was fortunate to have been chosen for three different concerts, which were rehearsed and conducted by BSO Associate Conductor Thomas Wilkins.  We received the music about a month in advance so we could work on it individually, and then the week before the performance we had a Tuesday night rehearsal, a Friday night rehearsal, a Saturday morning dress rehearsal and then that same Saturday afternoon, the performance.  It was so cool to perform in Symphony Hall. The concert was free, which meant you could invite as many family and friends as you like – I had a small cheering section in the left balcony.  It was a memorable experience for any number of reasons, but I think the best part was just sitting there onstage at Symphony Hall, with its incredible acoustics, both making and being surrounded by such wonderful music.  From my spot in the violin section, it was like waves of music were just washing over me from all directions:  violins around me, celli and violi in front of me, winds and brass and percussion behind me, and the genius of Beethoven, Delius, Franck, Borodin and a handful of others coursing through my fingers, ears, mind and soul.  I was literally immersed in some of the best music the world has to offer.  It was a terrific experience - and I even got a T shirt!

Matthew doesn’t tell us whether Jesus got a T shirt from his own immersion experience in the Jordan River.  In fact, there is quite a lot Matthew doesn’t tell us about Jesus’ baptism.  To his credit, he does tell us more in these brief five verses than Mark does; Mark’s story of Jesus’ baptism is only three verses long.  But even Matthew’s five verses leave us with more questions than answers.  When I read the story again this week, I decided to write down some of the questions that came to my mind and wound up with a whole list of them.  Here are just a few:

  • If John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, what sin or sins did Jesus need to have forgiven?
  • The next question isn’t original; John asked Jesus this one himself: shouldn’t John have been baptized by Jesus instead of the other way around?
  • The words, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased” are part of an ancient Hebrew adoption litany; was Jesus the Son of God by birth or by adoption?
  • If John baptized Jesus by immersion, why do we baptize with just a drop or two of water when we have that great big wonderful pond out in our back yard? (And yes, I know that’s what you Baptists used to do way back when…)
  • Speaking of which, when do I get to baptize someone around here?
  • Again, if baptism is for the forgiveness of sin, why do we baptize babies? What did they ever do to anybody?
  • What did being baptized mean to Jesus? What did it mean to John? What does it mean to us?
  • (And, just in case these questions are not enough, the hymn we just sang together strings a whole litany of questions together): Did you end oppression? Did all warfare cease?  Did you bring the kingdom of eternal peace?  Why do we still suffer?  Why do we still mourn?  Did you make a difference when you were born?

You’ll be relieved to know I have no intention of answering all these questions this morning.  But I do want to think about one more question:  what is God calling us to be immersed in?  Whether we have been baptized or not, whether ours was by drops or dunking, in what does the sacrament immerse us?  What questions does our baptism demand of us?

I know, more questions.  I blame James and John.  We heard from Mark’s gospel this morning that these two disciples came to Jesus to ask him something, something they were kind of embarrassed to ask, and rightly so.  “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  That’s rather cheeky, don’t you think?  “Hey Mom, I have a question and I want you to say Yes.”  Did you ever say that when you were little?  And how far did that get you?  “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  Jesus replied, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  I imagine James and John had visions of greatness and grandeur, sitting on their thrones among the clouds of heaven, Jesus’ right hand and left hand disciples, with all the power and majesty that implies.  “You have no idea what you are asking,” Jesus said to them.  “You have no idea what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  This is the moment we find that James and John have absolutely no idea what they are talking about, and they have even less idea of what Jesus is talking about.

Jump ahead to Gethsemane.  When Jesus prayed alone in the garden in the moments before his arrest, what was the content of his prayer, do you remember?  “And going a little farther, [Jesus] threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.’”  And what did he mean by that?  He wanted to avoid the suffering and death that lay just before him, if that were possible.  Let this cup pass from me.  “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Jesus was asking them if they were ready to face the same suffering and death he would soon be facing.  The fact that they didn’t get it is revealed by the eagerness of their reply:  “We are able,” they said simultaneously.  And so they got their wish.  “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but for those for whom it has been prepared.”

James and John were so intent on their own glory that they completely missed the obvious.  What did Jesus’ baptism by immersion look like but being buried - being immersed completely into the water - and then rising out of it into life?  Into what does our baptism immerse us, and then what is God calling us to be immersed into once we to rise up into our own lives?

 It’s often been said that the sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the water and the cup – are outward and visible signs of inward and invisible grace.  They are God at work in us, equipping us for a full-bodied immersion into the world.  And what a world it is!  In a year that is only twelve days old we have already witnessed foreign leaders assassinated, civilian aircraft accidentally shot down, serial earthquakes roiling the Caribbean, an entire continent being consumed by fire, and lies are habitually disguised as truth.  It’s enough to make you want to throw the blankets back over your head and stay inside until sanity returns.  Or at least it makes you want to turn off the news and go for a long walk.  In yesterday’s Pearls Before Swine comic strip, Pig is telling Goat that the pipes in the apartment above his burst, and the water cascaded into his living room, and his television, computer and phone were destroyed by water.  Immersed, you might say.  Goat is worried about his friend and asks, “Oh my goodness, now what?”  “Now,” Pig replies, “I can’t communicate with anyone and I have no idea what’s going on in the world.  And life is great!”  Pig runs off giggling and blissfully content, leaving Goat to wonder, “Maybe it is just that easy.”  Withdrawing from the world does seem awfully tempting, but in the end of course it is not a real option.  God calls us not to withdraw, but to immerse.

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany, the time of the church year when we celebrate the many ways Jesus is revealed, or manifest – epiphany means manifestation – to the world.  In the story of Jesus’ infant dedication where we met Simeon two weeks ago, Jesus is manifest to the religious authorities; remember, his dedication took place at temple.  In the story of the magi, Jesus is manifest to the political world – the world of royalty, of magi, of emperors and kings.  And this morning, in the story of the baptism, Jesus is manifest to all the world, to anyone and everyone who is in earshot of the heavenly announcement as he comes up from out of the water:  “This is my son the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  It’s almost like Ed McMahon introducing Johnny Carson, “Heeere’s Jesus!”  And with his baptism, he rises into a waiting world, a world which for Jesus and his followers alike will be filled with moments of conflict and danger.  It will also be filled with moments of grace and mercy.  Which is simply to say, Jesus rises into the world in which you and I live.  We go from one immersion experience into the next.

And God will be with us powerfully every step of the way.  Did you notice that in the brief five verses we heard from Matthew this morning, every expression of God is present?  Every person of the Trinity has a part to play?  God the Creator was there:  This is my son the beloved.  God the Son was there, of course.  Jesus came from Galilee… to the Jordan.  And God the Spirit was there:  He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon him.  It is as though God were saying, When I call you out to be immersed into the world with all that means, I will be with you in every possible way, in every imaginable manifestation.  This is the promise with which Jesus began his mission and ministry; this is the promise by which we are able to do our own.

Amen.

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