A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, January 10, 2016.
Here we are in January… in a new year, in a new season, at the threshold of what is to unfold for us in the year 2016. January, the name for this first month of the calendar year, is actually derived from the mythological Roman figure Janus, the God of beginnings and transitions… the God of thresholds both physical and metaphorical. He is depicted as having two faces… one looking back into the past and the other forward into the future. Janus was associated thresholds and transitions of all sorts…with gates, doorways, passageways, journeys, and birth. He was associated with both war and peace as the one who presides over the beginning and the end of conflict. The word “janitor” is derived from Janus as “janitors” were originally more like doormen, custodians of entrances and thresholds… the holders of keys. In ancient Rome Janus was remembered with each new dawn, the threshold of a new day and with the times of planting and harvesting that bookmark the period in which the fruits of the earth take root, grow and mature.
On this feast day of the Baptism of our Lord we stand at the primary threshold of our faith story as we remember the moment when Jesus appears on the scene thirty years after his birth. What little we know about Jesus’ early life comes from the second chapter of Luke. Luke 2 begins with the birth of Jesus, and then proceeds with the infants’ presentation in the temple for the first rite of passage in the child’s life. This Jewish rite for male children would occur 40 days birth at which time mother’s ritual purification form childbirth would be complete and a sacrificial offering for made in thanksgiving for a male child. A standard offering would have been a lamb. For a poor couple like Mary and Joseph, two turtledoves would do. This story in the temple is especially notable because of the presence of two people of “great age.” Anna, who is said to be 84 years old, and the elder Simeon are nearing the great transition that comes at the end of our earthly lives. The two are blessed to encounter the infant messiah and in this story we are given Simeon’s song of gladness. The “Song of Simeon,” from chapter 2 of Luke, appears in our offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. We chant Simeon’s song here on Thursday nights on the threshold that marks the end of the day:
Lord, you now have set your servant free * to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, * whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
With that song Compline pray-ers transition from the work of daytime to a time of sleep and renewal in preparation for meeting the threshold of the next new day.
What little else we know about Jesus’ boyhood comes at the end of the same second chapter of Luke. The holy family has travelled to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. As they are preparing to leave mom and dad loose their 12-year-old son. Mary and Joseph had been heading home for a whole day before they realized that Jesus wasn’t with them. They must have been out of their minds with worry as they went back to the city searching frantically for three days… until they find their precocious son in the great temple sitting among learned teachers, listening and asking questions. Luke notes that “…all were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2: 47). Upon finding Jesus in the temple Mary asks, “why have you treated us like this… your father and I have searching for you in great anxiety. He responded, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. “ The chapter concludes with the synopsis of the rest of Jesus’ youth: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour. (Luke 2: 48-52)
As Jesus increased in years it is highly likely that he spent much of it learning the trade of woodworking and carpentry from his father. His hands would have become strong and calloused from lifting, sawing, pounding, sanding and finishing. It was a time for deepening his education in the school of being human, under the tutelage of his father, within a family of siblings, in a small community in which he would learn cultural norms and most likely challenge them as teenagers are wired to do. This was a time of “hands-on” learning as Jesus lived into challenges of going through the necessary and often challenging stages of life and maturation that lead all human beings towards adulthood.
At the River Jordan the people were “filled with expectation.” Was John the one who for whom they had been waiting? No… someone more powerful is about to appear. We have come to a great threshold in the sacred story. Thirty years of learning have been accomplished. It is time for the curtain to rise on a new chapter. We have come to the moment that marks the beginning of Jesus’ three-year ministry that will lead to the threshold of death at Golgotha and to a final doorway that leads to new life in resurrection.
At this juncture at the river… John initiates Jesus ushering him onto the great stage of his ministry… within the great cosmic story… that is to proceed through his death and resurrection. There is a detail that is contained in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism that is not contained in the other Gospel accounts. In Luke we hear that after his baptism: Jesus prays. There is a pause in the action. Jesus is praying… as heavens then open, the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice from above says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This monumental moment is punctuated with prayer and the gift from heaven that says “beloved.”
As we gather here together today we are not simply gazing fondly on the ancient story of Jesus’ baptism. Here today we recall the meaning and the power of our own baptisms… the entrance… the doorway… the waters through which… we died to our old lives and rose up in new life in Christ…. waters through which we were cleansed and made new… the moment in which all of our past experience and learning brought us to the threshold of new beginnings in which we are given the charge to go out into the world as beloved servants and live into the fullness of our new life. Many of us do not remember our baptism. I was but a year old when water was sprinkled on my forehead. Deidrei remembers her baptism well as she received the sacrament a year ago on this feast day. Today we will reaffirm our baptismal vows as we stand at the threshold of a new year and a new moment of discipleship.
I think it is important to consider that Jesus most likely did not have a map for the future ahead. His first stop would be forty days of temptation in the desert. He would then gather disciples. He would teach and heal… sharing with the people he encountered the good news that they are worthy and beloved. Jesus would challenge the forces of empire that enjoyed maintaining control with their oppressive ways. As Jesus stepped back onto the riverbank and dried himself off he would have had no map, no strategic or long-term plan for the future that was before him…At this great threshold he would have had the clothes on his back, an internal compass that pointed towards Jerusalem, and a heavenly message that dwelt fiercely in him, one that he would share with the multitudes that he would encounter as he walked…step-by-step… the road before him… blessing the people with the song of their own belovedness.
Each Sunday when we are dismissed from worship we cross the great threshold of discipleship as we are sent into the world in peace to love and to serve in Christ’s name. Each morning we cross the threshold of a new day to live out our faith wherever we are, with whomever we meet, as a witness to God’s love for all creation and humankind, and for the dream of a new heaven and a new earth in which justice and peace prevail. As we cross the many thresholds of our lives and discipleship we don’t carry with us a map, or a script… only the raw materials of our life and our experience… and a deep knowledge of our belovedness, the feeling of being stirred to life especially… especially as we have traversed and continue to traverse the trials and tribulations that texture our lives and our world. Through the waters of baptism we know God’s fierce bright presence dwelling in us and guiding us.
At Boeing there is a saying, “We build the plane as we fly it.” There is a wonderful book about faith and discipleship by Brian McClaren entitled: We Make the Road by Walking. As we renew our baptismal vows this day my hope is that you will embrace this threshold moment that you may go forth with a deep sense wholehearted renewal for the work of building-up… for the sake of the Reign of God on Earth.
In her book Song of the Baptized Caroline Westerhoff reminds us of the meaning of our life in Christ:
We are to travel light, willing to live lives of downward mobility in an upwardly driven world.
We are to be involved in the stuff of the world, with dirty hands and stained clothes.
We are to identify with those who suffer, for we too know the pain of disappointment and loss.
We are to protect those who are vulnerable, for we join them in feeling exposed and unprotected.
We are to eat with those who are hunger, for we too long for the nourishment that sustains our spirit.
We are to lay down our lives.
[extra: At baptism we are grafted into a royal household, the company of Christ; the body for which Christ is the cornerstone, the foundation, the community meant for worship, witness, and loving service. It means that we never have to rely on our own self-sufficiency because our certainty comes from beyond ourselves. Our lives, our vocations, our holy dignity find their origin in the central unshakable pattern of God’s redemptive will for the entire creation. We are God’s royal people.] 1
The prophet Isaiah tells us:
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.
Let us stand and renew our vows made by us or for us in baptism… at the threshold of new life. And let us remember that we belong… and that we are empowered, mightily, to live out our discipleship in the brilliance of God’s abiding love.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
1 Caroline Westerhoff, Calling: A Song for the Baptized, Cowley Publications, Boston, 1994, pg. 122.