Where's Your Altar?
It’s a little awkward isn’t it? Jesus comes from Galilee to be baptized by John at the Jordan river. But John doesn’t want to baptize him. You get the sense from reading today’s gospel that Matthew wasn’t all that comfortable with Jesus going to John to be baptized.
Nowadays, I don’t think it bothers most of us that Jesus was baptized by John. In some ways it serves to reaffirm the humility of the man Jesus, and to underline his willingness to stand in solidarity with all of us, those being baptized by John and those of us who have been baptized in the years and centuries that followed.
But many Christians do have a question about Jesus’ baptism and it’s more along these lines. If baptism is, as we’ve been taught and as scripture tells us, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and if Jesus is without sin, as we’ve also been taught and as scripture also tells us, then why was Jesus baptized?
Perfectly legitimate question. It’s the sort of question that typically arises when we think we have things figured out and sorted into a nice logical framework. But have you ever noticed that God has a habit blowing up our nice logical frameworks and taking us by surprise? Because that’s kind of what happened at Jesus’ baptism.
Baptism is indeed about repentance and it is indeed for the forgiveness of sin. When we’re baptized we’re washed clean and given a new start. But baptism is so much more than a mechanism for the forgiveness of sin! Baptism is an Epiphany, a moment of revelation. When Jesus had been baptized, just when everyone thinks the baptism is over, and Jesus is coming out of the water, bam! The heavens are opened and the Spirit of God descends upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven declares “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And in this moment we see that baptism is so much more than the forgiveness of sin. Baptism is also about:
The gift of identity,
Being commissioned for a purpose, and
Being empowered to go out and change the world.
Identity, purpose and empowerment. We see this clearly in today’s gospel. The voice from heaven declares Jesus’ identity. “You are my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit of God descends upon him, empowering him and assuring him of God’s presence. And then that same Spirit calls him to go, first to a time of preparation in the wilderness and then to launch his public ministry of healing and teaching in Galilee followed by his journey to Jerusalem and his mission of redemption and reconciliation upon the cross.
Both Isaiah as the prophet looking forward and Peter as the disciple looking backward can see this threefold gift of identity, purpose and empowerment in Jesus’ baptism.
From our first reading in Isaiah we hear the following:
“My servant, my chosen, in whom I delight” – the gift of identity.
“I have called you, I have given you as a light to the nations” - the gift of purpose.
“I will put my spirit upon you, and you will bring forth justice” – the gift of empowerment.
In our second reading from Peter, we hear it again:
“God anointed Jesus” – identity.
“with the Holy Spirit and with power” – empowerment.
“and Jesus went out doing good and healing” – purpose.
Now there’s no question that Jesus’ baptism was unique. It isn’t at every baptism that the heavens are opened and we see the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and hear God’s voice in such a tangible way. And Jesus’ vocation, the purpose to which he was called, to reveal God to us and to redeem the world, well that too was unique.
But Jesus’ baptism though unique is also a model for us and teaches us something about our own baptism. Because every baptism is about identity, purpose and empowerment. For each one of us, when we were baptized, whether you heard it or not, the voice of God said to you,
“You are my beloved child, deserving of love and respect, and I will use and empower you to change the world.”
And just in case you missed it when you were baptized, or you were too young to remember, I want you to hear that voice. So please, right now, turn to the person beside you, and tell them,
“You are God’s beloved child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use and empower you to change the world.”
That’s who you are. That’s your identity, your God-given identity, given to you by the one who created you and therefore knows who you were created to be.
Imagine what it would mean to really know and trust that this is who you are. You don’t need a Facebook profile, you don’t need pictures on Instagram, you don’t need a fancy job or an impressive degree, you don’t need to wear make-up or put on a suit. Despite all the identities the world tries to give you, or makes you try to earn, your true identity is as God’s beloved child, right now, just as you are.
But it doesn’t stop there. Because as soon as you hear that voice telling you that “you are God’s beloved child, deserving of love and respect, and that God will use and empower you to change the world,” then, it’s go time. Because as surely as spring follows winter, God-given purpose follows God-given identity. As soon as you hear the voice, it’s go time.
When Jesus heard the voice, immediately he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, and immediately he began his ministry of healing and teaching right in his home town, right there in Galilee. Jesus’ vocation, his calling, was unique, no doubt about it. But each one of us also has our unique vocation, our unique ministry. And baptism is when we become ministers, servants of the Kingdom of God.
Now for a few of us our ministry and vocation takes the route of ordination as priests and pastors of the church. It’s a good vocation, it’s good ministry. But it’s only one form of vocation and ministry, and to be honest and speaking from experience, in some ways it’s actually the easiest route to take and the one which requires the least imagination. Because as an ordained minister, I am given an altar to work from, a place from which I can teach and heal and nourish people with the sacraments of our church, and everyone can see my altar here, it doesn’t take much imagination to see, does it?
But for most of us, in order to respond to our calling as ministers, we need to create an altar in the world, to borrow a phrase from Barbara Brown Taylor. And that takes a little imagination and creativity.
Where is your altar in the world? Where is the place in your life from which you speak a compassionate word and offer a healing hand? Where in life do you do justice and witness to the love of God?
For the mom or dad, maybe your altar is the kitchen table, maybe that’s the place where you dispense wisdom, heal broken hearts, and nourish our next generation of ministers.
For the businessperson or the public servant, maybe your altar in the world is your desk, perhaps that’s the place from which you seek justice in the management of the resources that are under your direction, and strive to create a healthy work environment for your colleagues and employees.
For you lawyers, maybe your altar in the world is the law court itself, the place where you defend the weak and stand in solidarity with the oppressed and free the captive from prison.
For the teachers, maybe your altar is the blackboard, or the white board, upon which, day by day, you transform the ordinary materials of chalk and dry-erase ink into pearls of wisdom in the sacrament of learning.
For you who are homeless, perhaps your altar is the street, the place from which you can bear witness to your identity and my identity as God’s beloved children even in the midst of all the chaos and suffering of life.
Maybe there are many altars in your world. Perhaps your altar in the world is as portable as your own body, the place from which you have arms that hug and eyes that cry and a mouth which speaks words of comfort.
And when you are ill or in need, perhaps your altar in the world is your own bed, from where you show others what it means to receive love, and to be humble and vulnerable and faithful.
In the sacrament of baptism each one of us is given our identity, called to a purpose and empowered by the Spirit for ministry. It’s go time. And every week when we gather, we are renewed in our calling and nourished and sustained in our ministry through our worship and through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Every Sunday morning when we gather here, it’s go time all over again. In fact, the most important words which will be spoken in all of our liturgy this morning are the ones which will be said at the very end.
“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”
Homily: Yr A Proper 1 The Baptism of the Lord, Jan 12 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Is 42.1-9; Ps 29; Acts 10.34-43; Mt 3.13-17