First Sunday after Epiphany
Mark 1: 4-11
The Rev. Leonard Oakes
“What is Fr. Leonard doing singing and drinking with a bunch of sinners in the dark?” was the common comment I hear from some of my parishioners when I was assigned in a remote area north of Philippines.
Some people see things on a different perspective. It would be unholy for clergy to be mingling with people just having fun over a bottle of beer and wild animal meat (pulutan). I explained to them later that it is wise to listen and feel their stories rather than keeping distance from them. I had to go down under and bring Christ in their midst and raise them up from darkness to see the light. The next Sunday, these “sinners” were seen at church and the people’s eyes were opened saying, “Forgive us Father if we judged so fast.”
Similarly, a man protested after hearing the Gospel read. “What is Jesus doing in the river Jordan being baptized by John?” “What is the Son of God doing in the river Jordan?” He is supposed to be sinless. Only sinners need to be baptized for repentance, get him out of there!”
Some of us may join that protest worried about what people might think if Jesus submits to a baptism of repentance. Why on earth would Jesus go out into the wilderness to be baptized with this ritual cleansing of repentance? After all, if Jesus is who we say he is, the Son of God who was “in every way as we are, except without sin,”
There are complex theological responses to these questions. We may well remember that each Gospel writer has his own way of sketching the life and works of Jesus. This particular passage in the Gospel of Mark sets the continuation of the writer’s attempt to parallel the differences of John the Baptist and Jesus. At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, the writer presented to us an Old Testament passage of Isaiah crying in the wilderness to make straight the path of the Lord. Mark presented to us John the Baptist as the forerunner of Christ. He was not the messiah but someone mightier than him is coming. John baptizes with water but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Today’s Gospel is a clear fulfillment of that voice in the wilderness. Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God.
We may also find understanding of this event when in the words of St. Paul, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). To put it in another way: In everything that Jesus says and does, God is at work, showing us how closely and intimately God relates to human beings who do sin, and who do need to repent and turn again. Jesus stands in the Jordan River, just as he lay in the stable as a baby, just as he will hang on the cross of his death, because God is in Christ, identifying himself with us in every aspect of our births, lives and deaths, and in solidarity with us.
On one baptismal occasion where the place of baptism was at a flowing river, a candidate was hesitant in being submerged into the water, he said, “No, No, I don’t want to be in the river.” The people thought that the candidate was possessed by evil spirits. Nevertheless, the minister asked, “Could you tell me why you don’t want to be baptized in the river?” The candidate answered, “There are leeches in the water.” “May mga linta sa tubig.”
Jesus did not hesitate to join the crowd of repentant sinners at the River Jordan who are repenting and returning to right relationship with God in the framework of covenant and law. No, Jesus does not need to repent. But, by showing his baptism by John, the Gospel-makers show Jesus doing what God in Christ always does” Stands by us, Stands with us, stands for us in our great need for repentance. Jesus would spend his earthly life in the midst of sinners, eating with them, drinking with them, talking with them, healing them, calling them. Why should his baptism be any different? Jesus went under the waters of the Jordan as the others had, under the waters his ancestors crossed after 40 years of wilderness wandering. Historic waters, yet they looked quite ordinary.
That is the Good news of our salvation, and this is why the view of Jesus’ baptism includes a “Manifestation of God, Epiphany.” It is as though God is, indeed, so excited and joyful about Jesus’ first public act of solidarity with sinners; that God rips through the very fabric of creation with the authoritative word of God’s voice: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
“Forgive me Lord if I was fast to judge,” said the man after his questionings was answered.
Perhaps this teaches us something significant on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the baptism of the perfect servant in whom the Father is well pleased, and a baptism in which we all share.
Baptism is about sharing, sharing the love, the joy and the light that we receive from God. Sharing the grace we enjoy to those who are deprived of having them; the poor, the unemployed, the homeless and the uninsured. We are bound to share the blessings of our Health and Wellness Ministry to the rest of the community. Such is the outward visible sign of the inward grace that we receive from God. Baptism is about sharing the stories of those who are lost and bringing them to light. Baptism is about sharing what we have long been hoarding, the love and compassion to others.
The beauty of this feast, which shows us that the Son of God was humble enough to be baptized by a human, compels us to consider the power of God’s love in us when we are willing to let go of being the center of attention, and the ones who try to make everything happen our way. This is not an easy way of life. But it is the Christian way of life. We need to be willing to immerse ourselves in what God wants for us. We are immersed in God’s life and in the Church. Jesus teaches us by his example to let go of those things which keep us from being the instruments of holiness and love that God wants us to be. Instead let us be humble enough to let go of all that clutters our life and our vision, and the we just might be able to pay enough attention to hear our heavenly Father tell us that indeed, he is “well pleased.”
There is a story about a zoo that was trapping monkeys. The zoo trappers put out coconuts underneath a coconut tree, and these coconuts had holes drilled in them. The holes were about the size of a tightly squeezed fist of a monkey. The monkey would squeeze its hand through the hole and grab the white coconut inside. They would do the same thing with their other hand and their two feet. By doing so, their hand became larger and they could not withdraw or remove their hands through the coconut holes. The only way to become free was to “let go” To let go of the white coconut inside the shell. Similarly with us, the only way to emotional freedom in life is to “let go.” To let go of those things that hinder or prevent us from fully following Jesus. To let go of our prejudices and be immersed with Christ in that river Jordan experience. And alas, come out from the water following the voice of God, “With you I am well pleased.” Let the presence of God in us shape our daily lives and heal us. The Spirit of Christ inside of us heals us, and therefore we gradually “let go”. Amen.