The Baptism of our Lord – Year C
Deacon Buck Close
January 10, 2016
I wonder how many of you have ever been to a Billy Graham crusade.
When I was growing up in SC in the 50’s and early 60’s it was something
people did – lots of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. When I
was about 6 my mother took my two older sisters and me to such an event
in the Charlotte Coliseum. The place was packed. After considerable
preaching and singing (How Great Thou Art comes to mind), Dr. Graham
got around to the pinnacle event of the evening – the altar call. Everyone
who was willing to surrender their lives to Jesus Christ that night was called
forward to be prayed over by Billy Graham. He emphasized that this was a
one off event that signified a lifetime commitment. Well, even at age 6, I
was a bit cautious about making lifetime commitments that I might not be
able to keep. So, when my sisters went down to be saved, I stayed in my
seat by my mom, thereby risking my mortal soul due to faint heartedness.
The Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer was a 1 st century Billy Graham
crusade. John’s preaching, his call to repentance, had made him famous in
the region and hordes of people went to hear him preach and be baptized.
These mass baptisms were John’s version of the altar calls made famous
in the 20 th century by Graham. Because of modern media, Graham
became famous worldwide. Without benefit of modern media coverage,
John’s fame only extended throughout Palestine. But like Graham, his
compelling message made him a phenomenon that attracted the masses to
Now that I have made the perhaps scandalous comparison between a
modern day evangelical crusade and John the Baptizer, you are probably
asking yourself, where in the world is he going with this? Let me try to
explain. Today, as we commemorate the Baptism of our Lord, there are
several themes or strands of thought that could be explored. For example:
There is the Theophany – the heaven was opened, And the Holy
Ghost descended in bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice
came from heaven, which said, Thou are my beloved Son; in thee I
am well pleased. One could ponder the Trinitarian significance of
that event at some length.
But then there is also the subject of baptism itself. What did John
mean by Baptism? And what does Baptism mean to Christians?
Baptism of repentance versus baptism of initiation.
And thirdly, there is the compelling subject of Baptism of the Holy
Spirit. In the brief reading from Acts we heard that Peter and John
went to Samaria so that the believers, who were already baptized in
the name of Jesus Christ, might receive the Holy Spirit through the
laying on of hands. What’s up with that?
Now if I can think of three major topics one could choose from on which to
preach about the Baptism of Christ, think how many there really are. I bet
that Fr. H could come up with 10 or 20. And that is why he’s the boss and I
am the lowly deacon. But I am getting off track.
What I want us to focus on this morning is the significance of the venue that
was the occasion for the first public act of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus went to
see John. He was attracted to John. And John was, without doubt, a very
public critic of the establishment. He railed against the tax system and
oppression of the poor and he attracted large crowds. He was seriously
seditious and the authorities noticed. Of course this ended up getting him
beheaded when his criticism of the behavior of Herod Antipas went just a
bit too far. The first century Jewish historian Josephus made the following
statement, Because the crowds were aroused to the highest degree by his
sermons, Antipas became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect
on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they
would be guided by John in everything that they did.
At this point, I must concede that my Billy Graham – John the Baptizer
analogy breaks down. While John was every bit the revolutionary, Graham
was every bit the supporter of the status quo throughout his public career.
So Jesus, in his first public act, chose to go to hear John preach his
challenging and prophetic message along with, perhaps, thousands of
others along the Jordan. The scene would have been crowded, muddy, and
full of the smells and sounds of the masses. Once there, unlike me at the
Billy Graham crusade, he answered the altar call and was baptized by
John. This is about as clear an illustration of Jesus being fully human as
one could ask for. He ended up dripping wet in front of a wild looking
prophet standing waist deep in a muddy river surrounded by hundreds of
fellow disciples of John.
In Jesus’ first public foray, we see him associating himself with a counter
cultural figure whose preaching worried the authorities. And eventually,
Jesus’ own preaching and teaching began to attract crowds and become of
concern to the authorities who feared his popularity among the people.
While their messages and methods differed significantly, both John and
Jesus were very public figures – men of the people. They were not aloof.
They were not snobs. They walked the streets and got dirty and they
threatened the status quo. And as I thought about them and the example
they set, I began thinking of a modern day person who is a lot like them.
So, at the risk of being called a papist, I would also offer you this. Is it
possible that the prominent religious figure of today who most resembles
the shared traits of John and Jesus is Pope Francis? Sure, he is the
obvious choice but I wouldn’t have said the same for his predecessor.
Francis genuinely identifies with the poor and walks among them
comfortably while he challenges the status quo that keeps them poor. Hero
worship is a dangerous thing since our heroes usually end up having feet of
clay. But thinking about good role models that seem to exemplify the
imitation of Christ in their lives seems like a good idea. And it seems to me
that Pope Francis is well worth our attention. This week I was reading parts
of Francis’ New Year’s sermon. Like most good sermons, it had the ability
to make me squirm a bit in my seat as if he were speaking directly to me.
Let me close with a paragraph that I found particularly compelling.
We too, then, are called to make compassion, love, mercy and solidarity a
true way of life, a rule of conduct in our relationships with one
another. This requires the conversion of our hearts: the grace of God has
to turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, open to others in authentic
solidarity. For solidarity is much more than a “feeling of vague compassion
or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and
far”. Solidarity is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself
to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each
individual, because we are all really responsible for all”, because
compassion flows from fraternity.