Sunday, January 10, 2010

C: Epiphany I (The Baptism of Christ)

The second verse of the ninth century Latin hymn for Advent, Conditor alme siderum, speaks of God’s motivation for coming among us as our Savior: “In sorrow that an ancient curse should doom to death a universe…”. We sang that hymn three weeks ago—twice, in fact, once in the morning and once in the evening. It sounds like the trailer for an epic science fiction movie, doesn’t it? In ancient times, thousands of years ago, a curse was declared, and now a whole universe is in jeopardy unless someone can intervene and save it. Only this isn’t Part One of a movie trilogy. If Christianity is true, then the curse is real. We sing about it in the familiar Christmas carol Joy to World: “sins and sorrows grow” and “thorns infest the ground” as “far as the curse is found.” I’m a longtime devoted fan of the Chicago Cubs, so I know about curses! And that’s why I don’t have any trouble believing that we live in a universe that has been doomed to death by an ancient curse.

The curse is real. In the book of Genesis, it’s all about a piece of forbidden fruit getting eaten by a couple of people who should have known better. The signs of the curse are all around us. Since that fateful day in the Garden of Eden, women suffer significant pain when they give birth, and men have to drive their bodies to exhaustion in order to eke out a living from the earth. And just in case those signs are not enough to get our attention, torrential rains in Brazil cause mudslides bury people while they sleep. A little child who is healthy a week before Christmas dies of meningitis on Christmas Day. Relationships we think are rock solid turn out to be full of cracks; people we admire disappoint us and turn out to have feet of clay. Selfishness and lack of charity abound. Sins and sorrows grow and thorns infest the ground as far as the curse is found, and the curse is found everywhere—that ancient curse is found everywhere, and our universe is doomed to death.

Now, what really makes our situation as human beings truly pathetic is that we know exactly what we need to do to counteract the curse. We need to repent. John the Baptist was in the wilderness, on the banks of the Jordan River, calling people to baptism as a sign of their repentance. Evidently, according to the reports of all four gospel evangelists, great numbers of people were responding to John’s call. So, what’s big deal? Can’t we just all repent and send that ancient curse packing? Well, here’s the thing: In order to deal effectively with the curse, we need to repent perfectly, we need to repent flawlessly, we need to repent completely. We need to turn ourselves completely toward God and away from anything that comes between us and God. And that’s not only hard for us to do; it’s impossible. We don’t have it in us.

A man once fell into a hole in the ground. The hole wasn’t so deep that he was seriously injured in the fall, but it was too deep for him to climb out. There were no steps, and no ladder was available. The walls were smooth and hard, and didn’t offer him anything to grab hold of either with his hands or his feet. Unless somebody came along to help him, he would die of exposure, or dehydration. You and I—the human race collectively—we are that man. We have fallen into a hole, and we can’t get ourselves out of it. We are at risk of our lives. We are at risk of our souls. We are at risk of being permanently cut off from life and love and everything else that is uniquely human about our experience. We are at risk of being permanently alienated from the very source of life—God himself.

So…can you hear the cavalry charging over the hill to save the day? I can. This is where the Christmas good news of the incarnation comes to the rescue. The whole concept of incarnation —God taking human flesh—is a dramatic sign of both love and humility. As St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians, Christ Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Today is the feast of the Baptism of Christ, an event that marks Jesus’ public debut, the beginning of his public ministry. He comes to John the Baptist at the Jordan and asks to be baptized. Of all people, Jesus was the least likely candidate for John’s baptism, because he had no need of repentance. Yet, ironically, the only person who did not need to repent was also the only human being capable of repenting, keeping his will and affections, his words and deeds, perfectly oriented toward the Father.

So Jesus begins his career with a very conspicuous act of humility. And in doing so, he makes it possible for us to go where we could otherwise never have gone. Christ’s voluntary and humble submission to John’s baptism has the effect of creating a pathway for us—blazing a trail, establishing a pattern—making a way for us to repent perfectly. This is the path onto which we were initiated in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. In the waters of the font, we were given, through the grace of Christ present in the sacrament—we received the power to repent, to turn our face toward God, because Jesus has already done it for us, done it on our behalf, in an act of humility and love as he went underneath the waters of the Jordan.

So… remember that man in the hole? Just as he’s about to give up hope, another gentleman happens along. The trapped man shouts up, “I say, can you help me? I seem to be stuck down here.” The passer-by looks down into the pit and replies, “Indeed, it seems that you are stuck. I’d be delighted to help.” At which point he jumps down into the hole himself, picks himself up, dusts himself off, and introduces himself to the one who was there first. But that man who was there first goes apoplectic. “You imbecile! What could you have been thinking? When I said, ‘Can you help me?’ I meant, ‘Can you get a ladder, or a rope, or something?’ Now look at us; we’re both trapped.” The would-be rescuer remained calm and simply replied, “Ah, but you’re lacking one crucial bit of information. I’ve been in this hole before, and I know the way out.”

My friends, Jesus has been in this hole that we’re in before. He jumped into it at the moment of his conception, and he revealed himself among us on that day when he waded into the waters of the Jordan and submitted to John’s baptism. When he was raised from the dead and ascended back to the right hand of the Father, he built an escape hatch for our benefit. The one who had no need to repent repented perfectly on our behalf. His repentance has been posted to our account. In that act of humility and love, the ancient curse that doomed to death a universe was broken. In that act of humility and love, a roadbed was built that enables you and me to share the very life of God, to participate in the community of love that binds the persons of the Holy Trinity to one another. This is what God has done for us; this is what we recall this morning. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.