God's Word on Sunday: Baptism sets us on life-long path of love, service

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  • January 2, 2022

Baptism of the Lord, Jan. 9 (Year C) Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 104; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

What if the lead story on the evening news were one of great joy and life-changing significance? Can we even imagine what it would be? And could we even handle it, conditioned as we are to bleak and depressing news? We might ask what the catch is, or even label it “fake news.”

Isaiah’s good news was given to the exiles in Babylon in the mid-sixth century BC and it was welcome news indeed — they were going home, and they did. King Cyrus’ more tolerant policy allowed captive peoples to return to their lands. The prophecy promised that all obstacles would be removed and God would lead their return. The joyful proclamation to be shouted from the mountaintops was, “Here is your God!”

God ordered words of comfort and tenderness to be spoken to the people, and God’s care and guidance was even expressed in maternal images. But life in Judah was never the same and it was a crushing disappointment. Much patient rebuilding and relearning remained before the nation would begin to recover — just in time to be conquered again.

The prophecy was meant to give hope and courage and to refire the sacred imagination of the people. It was not so much a description and prediction of future events as a reassurance of God’s love and provident care.

What does it mean in our own time when we face so many challenges and fears? God is with us and in our midst and will give us the comfort and strength that we need. We need not be afraid.

There is also a call to continue the work of proclaiming the presence and the sovereign majesty of God, not merely in words, but in deeds and attitudes. As much as many people deny it, they long to hear in convincing and moving terms, “Here is your God!”

The author of Titus describes our salvation in terms of the goodness and loving kindness of the Lord. It is not something we have earned or merited in any way, but a gift born of compassion and mercy. The transforming and purifying Spirit was poured out on us along with the waters of baptism to lead us into a new life in God.

The only thing asked of us is that we continue to reflect this merciful gesture on God’s part by remaining faithful to the elevated life to which we are called. To do otherwise would be to show stunning ingratitude and to nullify the effects of God’s grace.

None of the four evangelists was comfortable that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. To make matters worse, John’s baptism was one of repentance. Jesus was without sin so why was it necessary?

Each dealt with it in his own way: Matthew inserted a midrashic dialogue between John and Jesus that put the matter to rest, while Luke has John arrested before the baptism (in the omitted verses), so it was not at John’s hands.

John promised the people a lot more than they were expecting. He would baptize them with water, but the one to whom he bore witness — Jesus — would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. They were clearly on the verge of a new spiritual order. But baptism was also an initiation and a moment of clear vision and purpose.

It was at this moment that the heavens were opened and Jesus was empowered by the Spirit. There was also a divine affirmation — Jesus was the beloved Son and God was pleased with Him. Jesus became more fully aware of His identity and mission, and it was immediately after this that the Spirit led Him to the desert for testing by the devil.

The baptism of Jesus is a model for our own lives. Although most cannot recall their own baptism, they can focus their minds and hearts on that moment of grace and draw strength and guidance from it. Baptism is not an event in the past; it is a continual and lifelong process of love, service and transformation. We grow into the fullness of our baptism by walking in the ways of the Lord.

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