Epiphany 1, Year A: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, January 8, 2017
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
There is a beautiful baptismal scene in C. S. Lewis’ third book of the Narniad, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It depicts Eustace, a boy and cousin of the Pevensie children”Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Eustace has turned into a dragon. He was a greedy, conniving, whiny boy prone to tantrums and ugliness already”really not that far removed from being a dragon already, at least on the inside. But now, he is scaly and squat with thick, stumpy legs and columns of smoke come from his nostrils. He has lost the use of words and can no longer talk, but he knows he is Eustace and is really supposed to be a boy.
Aslan, the Christ-figure of the Narniad, approaches Eustace some days after he has become a dragon and tells Eustace to follow him. Eustace does and the two travel a long way up into the mountains. They finally arrive at the top of a mountain where there is a garden with trees and fruit and a well, only the well was bigger and looked more like a bath”round with marble steps leading down into it and water bubbling up from the bottom. Aslan tells Eustace that before he can before he can enter the water, he must undress first. Eustace remembering that snakes can shed their skins, starts scratching and scales begin to come off all around him. He scratched a little deeper and instead of scales coming off, his whole skin peels off beautifully”as if he were a banana”and he steps out of it and casts it aside.
He goes to get in the bath and just as he is about to put his feet in, he looks down and sees that they are hard and rough, wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. He scratches and tears at his skin and again it peels off beautifully and he steps out of it to go down into the bath. But exactly the same thing happens again”he notices his feet are hard and rough, wrinkled and scaly. He begins to wonder just how many skins he will have to take off even as he begins scratching and clawing at this third one. As soon as he finishes peeling away this skin, he realizes it is no good”there is still another underneath.
At this point, when Eustace is contemplating just how many skins he will have to shed and stands at the precipice of despair, Aslan steps in and tells Eustace that he will have to undress him. Eustace is worried about Aslan’s claws, Aslan is a lion after all, but Eustace is desperate and submits himself to the undressing. The first tear was deep and Eustace thought it had gone straight to his heart. As Aslan began pulling off his skin it hurt worse than anything. According to Eustace, the only thing that made it bearable was the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. Aslan peels a thicker and harder skin than the previous ones off of Eustace, catches Eustace up in his great paw, and throws him into the water. It smarts for just a moment and then becomes perfectly delicious. As he swam and splashed he found that all the pain had gone away and he had turned into a boy again.
Eustace’s baptism is one of transformation”he is undragoned and turned into a boy again”but this time he is a nicer, friendlier boy who isn’t carrying the greed and corruption in his heart anymore. Granted, he is not always good, and suffers occasional relapses when he could be very tiresome, but he began to be a different boy. His transformation is not simply a change of his outward appearance from dragon to boy, but a conversion from old life to new life. That is one of the ways we understand the sacrament of baptism”a cleansing or purification of our sins. We are forgiven and our old life is cast aside so that we might rise to the new life of grace.
In this morning’s Gospel, we read the account of Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan. John was preaching a baptism of repentance, he is interested in conversion”living the old life of sin, entrenched in entitlement, and entering into a fruitful life worthy of repentance. And the people of Jerusalem and Judea and all the region along the Jordan were baptized by him, confessing their sins. But Jesus is without sin”he has nothing to confess, nothing to repent of”why would he need to be baptized by John?
The early church asked this same question”if Jesus is without sin, then why must he be baptized? A closer look at the portion of the story we read today seems to reflect some of this discomfort”there is virtually nothing said about the actual baptism. There is an argument between John the Baptist and Jesus and finally consent; Jesus is baptized; and then a beautiful description of God’s approval”a theophany if you will”that includes a dove descending and a voice from heaven. But for all intents and purposes, Matthew hurries over the actual event of cleansing. Sure, he came up from the water, but how did he go in? Did john the B tip him backwards, hold his nose, push his head under? Or did Jesus just bend his knees and sink down? Did he take off his outer garment or remove his sandals? What did John say, if anything, when Jesus went under? How were they standing in relation to one another? To the bank? To the other people? There are a ton of questions to ask about what happened that day and all we are told is that after it happened he came up out of the water.
Just think about any baptism you’ve ever seen”in person or on screen. There is a big build-up to that climatic moment of water and flesh. There is conversation between priest and parents, between priest and people, a lot of verbage, confession of faith, a big deal over pouring of the water, the presentation of the baby, hopefully, the screaming of the baby, not to mention the clothes, the parade of the children from children’s church”there is a lot happening and we are all watching and in awe of this sacred moment. But in the Gospels’ account of the baptism, we really don’t get any of this”the baptism itself is minimized. Why must Jesus be baptized?
I think this is an important question, one that Jesus followers have wrestled with for years. To answer it by saying that it was necessary in order to establish a precedent”Jesus is baptized so we need to be too”or even to say it was necessary to receive the Holy Spirit is an empty reading. Jesus didn’t need to receive the Holy Spirit, he and the Holy Spirit are one as part of the divine Trinity. And if Jesus is without sin, then his baptism is not an example for us who are filled with sin. It must mean something else and I think that might have something to do with his continued transformation from his heavenly to incarnational earthly self. I don’t mean to say that Jesus changes here, I mean to say that his incarnation”that thing we were celebrating just a few short weeks ago”becomes more complete in his baptism.
Jesus the baby becomes incarnate”he takes on our humanness and becomes fully man with one caveat, he does not sin. Jesus the baptized becomes incarnate by taking on Israel’s sin and thus bringing divine forgiveness to the world”all those sins that have been washed into the River Jordan are now poured upon Jesus Christ, the Messiah and he who is pure is our purification. Whereas Eustace must be unclothed, stripped of his sinful nature in his baptism, Jesus is clothed in our sins in his baptism so that he might purify us in all righteousness. Jesus is not forgiven in baptism, he is initiated into Israel, into all humanity, and we are initiated into him.
John’s call to Israel to repent of their sin is heeded by many, but it is this one man”fully human and fully divine”who can acknowledge that sin and commit himself to its transformation”the transformation of sin into forgiveness. On this first Sunday of Epiphany, we recognize and celebrate the baptism of Jesus, not as we do the newly baptized who we receive into the household of God, but as one’s who are received into the household of Christ. Amen.