Sunday Sermon – January 7, 2018

First Sunday After the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:1-11

7th January 2018

by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal

St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL


May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen


The centerpiece of today’s readings is the dramatic story of the Baptism of Jesus.  This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  And, his first official act is to be baptized in solidarity with the whole of humanity for the forgiveness of our sins.  It is also where he receives the gift of the Spirit, which marks the onset of his vocation as the servant Son of God.


This story is also, interestingly, the only event in the Gospels where God the Father, Son, and Spirit appear together as individual entities.  And, this is why this story is on the 1st Sunday of Epiphany.  The word Epiphany means, “manifestation” or “an appearing of God to humanity.” So, in this season after Christmas and until the beginning Lent, we will be considering the various ways in which God makes himself manifest to us.


This morning I’d like us to think about how God makes himself manifest to us through the workings of the Holy Spirit.   I’d also like us to think about how these manifestations of the Spirit help us to learn to trust in God, and equip us to take up our own individual callings to Christian discipleship.


The Holy Spirit is most often described as the very form of love itself.  It is thought to be the conduit and form of communication between God the Father and God the Son, the force that unites all three of them in divine communion with one another.


But we should be cautious about thinking of the Holy Spirit as love in a warm and fuzzy or romantic way.  The Spirit portrayed as a dove might tempt us to think this.  As if the Spirit is like some delicate fragile bird which wafts down upon us and alights on our shoulder peacefully with elegant grace, but which could also be easily crushed by a well aimed blow.  While the Spirit may seem peaceful in this setting, we have other portrayals of the Spirit in Scripture that portray some other dynamic dimensions of the Spirit’s personality.  


The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, which conveys the sense of a primordial force.  A primordial force is a force that lies behind all other forces.  It is an incalculable force, it is a creative force, and sometimes even a chaotic and violent force.  It is not a force that humans can subdue or contain.


This ruach is the creative spirit of God, the breath of God himself.  It is this ruach of God which broods over the face of the waters at creation that we just read about in Genesis 1.  This ruach is a divine operative energy, which unlocks the great potential of the heavens and the earth, filling the void and giving the primeval matter form and cohesion. It is what gives life to all of creation.  It transforms lifelessness into life.


This is the same ruach of God which swept over the waves of Noah’s flood and began to dry them up, a sign of God’s compassion and grace which delivered the lonely inmates of the ark to the dry land.  And, on that dry land, God would form a new covenant with Noah and his people. (Gen 8:1)


This is the same ruach which held back the waters from the Red Sea to let the children of Israel escape from Egypt, delivering them from slavery and captivity, after which God would make Israel his chosen people by giving them his law. (Exodus 14:21)


It was this ruach from the wilderness which smote the four corners of Job’s house so that it fell and killed his children, after which Job fell to the ground and worshipped God. (Job 1:19-20)


It is this same ruach of God, that primordial force, which tore open the heavens and descended upon Jesus when he rose up out of the waters of the Jordan river.  The Spirit that descended upon Jesus is a gift from God, which equips Jesus to trust in the love of God his Father, so that he can face the life of obedience and sacrifice that awaits him.  It is this ruach of God, this breath of God, that gives voice to the declaration, “This is my Beloved, my Son; with you I am well pleased.”


Looking back on these few examples from salvation history we see that this ruach of God is creative and life-giving, it is a sign of compassion, it liberates from slavery, and it is a mysterious force.  And, it is a gift from God that helps us trust in him.


When we allow the creative, compassionate, liberating and mysterious gift of the Spirit to be active in us and to lead us, we are changed.  When we live in the Spirit, we inevitably experience a greater sensitivity and awareness of the presence of God in the world. This might happen when we are out in nature, when we experience the harmony and cohesiveness of creation in new and profound ways.  We may also become more aware of and sensitive to God when we are the beneficiaries of the unexpected love and compassion that others may show to us.  The fruit of this new awareness generates in us a sense of gratitude and drives us closer to God.


When we live in the Spirit, the Spirit also supplies us with a heightened sensitivity and awareness of ourselves.  We become more deeply aware of our own sins and failures.  We become more aware of our idolatry and those things we love more than we love God.  This new self-awareness, too, drives us to God, seeking his compassion and forgiveness, asking him to liberate us from the slavery of sin, and we are grateful to him when he does so.


It is this ongoing activity of the Spirit, both in salvation history, and in our own lives, which is the power that changes us and transform us into people who trust God.  And, trusting in God is what faith really is all about.  


It is sometimes thought that faith is simply mere belief and intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions.  But, faith, I think, is really about trust.  Trust is something that embraces our whole self, it encompasses our entire being.  It requires the assent of both our mind and our heart and it is something that only exists in the context of a relationship.


One way to think about the nature of trust might be this:  We all know what the definition of a mother is. We might say simply, “a mother is a woman who gives birth to a child.”  But, if we are the child of that mother, our understanding of what a mother is goes well beyond any definition a dictionary might supply.  To have a mother and to be that mother’s child implies an ongoing relationship of love, a relationship of nurture and a relationship of care.  And through the course of that relationship, through the good times and through the difficulties, we come to learn more deeply of what a mother’s love consists.  So it is in our relationship with God.  


Trying to define God simply as St. Anselm did as “that which nothing greater can be conceived,” or by giving a list of his attributes, can never adequately capture the experience of knowing God by being loved by God and loving God back.  The first way holds God at a distance, as a mere object to be considered. The second way is to be involved in relationship with a living being.  It is through the gift of the Spirit that God’s love, constancy, and faithfulness is made manifest to us in our relationship with him and how this helps us learn to trust God, orienting our whole self to him.  It is by experiencing this relationship first that belief and faith and trust in God follows.  Not the other way around.


But it is extremely important to remember that our ability to trust in God is also supplied by God.  Trust is not our own achievement, but it is a gift of the Spirit.  This is why the Spirit descends upon Jesus immediately after he comes up from the waters of the Jordan River.  This is why, in the reading from Acts, Paul insists that the disciples receive the gift of the Spirit through his laying on of hands after they received their baptism.  It is why we, too, received the laying on of hands at our own baptism.


The gift of the Spirit, however, is not given to us only once at our baptism. Rather, the gift of the Holy Spirit in our baptism shows us why the activity of the Spirit is an essential aspect of our life in God.  It helps us to trust that his activity in our lives is always ongoing, even when we may not see it.  It is why we begin and end prayers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it is also why the Holy Spirit is invoked to come upon us and bless us during confirmations and ordinations; it is why we invoke the Holy Spirit when we consecrate the gifts of bread and wine, why we ask for the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands at a healing Eucharist and when we are sick and when we are dying.  


When we allow the Holy Spirit to be active in us, it will lead us and orient us to God.  The Spirit will also humble us, it will discipline us, it will purify us, and it will help us live more fully aware of the truth about God and ourselves.  All of these things will serve to toughen us up so that we can trust God enough to accept the responsibilities of obedience and sacrifice that Christian discipleship requires of us.

And, perhaps, if we are carefully attuned to the activity of the Spirit manifest in us, we might also hear the voice of God, sustained by the power of the creative, life-giving, compassionate, liberating, and mysterious force of the ruach say to us, “you are my beloved; with you, I am well-pleased.” May those words give us confidence that we, too, are loved and saved in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.


Let us pray.


Breathe into us, Holy Spirit, that our hearts may all be holy. Act in us, Holy Spirit, that our work, too, may be holy. Draw our hearts, Holy Spirit, that we may love only what is holy. Strengthen us, Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard us then, Holy Spirit, that we may always be holy.  Amen. (Prayer of St. Augustine)