First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
Year C, RCL
Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
When I was in college I had a motorcycle. One day I went out for a ride, just randomly going on back country roads in the rolling landscape of Wisconsin. I had no map, no GPS, I just went out as if to intentionally get lost. Over the next several hours I saw beautiful farms, rustic barns, and all kinds of sights. During this time on my motorcycle, my thoughts cleared out of my mind, I spent time with God. I didn’t realize this is what was happening. But when I eventually made my way back home, I felt different. The college town seemed brighter, the traffic and people around me seemed like a good thing, not just busyness. And I realized that I had changed. I was at peace with the world around me. This is when I knew what had happened, that I spent time with God and that God was clearly present with me. Every once in a while I would go for such rides again and most of the time I would return in a similar refreshed state.
Many of us have probably had an epiphany, a time when we recognized God in our midst or God’s hand at work. When we are out in nature we may come across an incredible vista and recognize this as God’s work. When we are in deep conversation with someone and all the sudden we experience their beauty; their mind, their interactions, their face, some inner beauty that can’t really be explained, and in this beauty we recognize them as an image of God. How many of us have been on a spiritual retreat and at some point we feel the exciting presence of God within our very own being, and noticed God’s presence among those gathered. Or have you ever been reading the Bible and all of the sudden a word, phrase, or passage jumps off the page in a new light, with new understanding, as if you never read that passage before? I could go on and on about how we may recognize God in our lives and I wonder if all too often we think that these experiences just happen randomly. With no rhyme or reason, we just happened to be there when we have an epiphany.
But the truth is that none of these epiphanies happen by random chance. Much like my subsequent outings on the motorcycle or in contemplative prayer, It was the act of doing something or going somewhere that in which we expected to have an encounter with God.
Luke’s Gospel account says that the people were filled with expectation. All these people, in the middle of nowhere, standing at the river’s edge, were filled with expectation that John might be the Messiah. They went somewhere with the intent of having an experience with God. John’s reputation had spread and people were talking about this strange man in the wilderness. They might have been disappointed when John tells them that their expectation is misplaced; that he is not the Messiah. No. Even with this news, the people do not leave. They listen to John. They listen to his harsh sounding message and believe what he says. And they all are baptized, including Jesus.
In the other three Gospel accounts, there are clear witnesses of the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove and God’s voice coming from the heavens praising Jesus. But Luke is a bit different in his account. It is only after everyone has been baptized and Jesus is praying, possibly off by himself, that the Holy Spirit comes down. There is no clear indication that anyone but Jesus saw the dove or heard God’s voice. In this way, Luke’s emphasis the peoples baptisms and Jesus’ amazing epiphany is almost relegated to a foot note.
This crowd came with building expectation. What they thought they would find, they did not. They found something different; a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.(1) Whether the people saw the heavens open up or not, they were changed. They had an experience with God through their baptism. And now they were freed from past sin to live life anew.
When we think of our baptism, our children’s baptism, or any baptism that we have witnessed; I wonder if it comes with expectation. Do we witness the baptism with the belief that we will see something special; see someone free to live a new life with God? Do we come to church hoping to be touched by God, or experience God in a new way? Or do we come thinking that this Sunday will be the same as the one before?
It is all too easy to close ourselves off and think that this day is the same as the day before; that this service is the same as last week; that this baptism is no different than any other. We lull ourselves into a sense that God is stagnant in the world and in our lives. We may think that we have to do something special to have an epiphany. Yet, each day we have the opportunity to experience God. And when we live our lives with expectation, the expectation of having an encounter with God, we are more likely to have one. This is exactly why people go on spiritual retreats. This is exactly why I would ride into the quiet places; that people go hiking, or spend time in contemplative prayer. But we don’t have to go anywhere. God is with us in all moments of our lives and we should expect to find God in all that we do. What would life be like if we started each day wondering how God will make himself know us this very day?
(1) Luke 3:3