The Sunday of Epiphany, The Baptism of the Lord, and the Doctrine of Perfection

A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

January 7, 2018

Isaiah 60:1, 2, 4; Mark 1:4-5, 9-11


On this feast day morning, the voices of Isaiah and Mark blend together, as do the voices we often hear of people speaking across rooms, across generations, and across creation.  As the Three Kings arrive in Bethlehem, a royal conversation moves us forward; Mark’s voice is matter of fact, Isaiah’s more poetic. These are the voices of Little Christmas and the Jordon River, two appearances, one following on the heal of the other, despite a chronological gap of 29 years between Christ’s infancy and his Baptism.  

Mark tells us three things about the Spirit’s appearance at the Baptism of the Lord: (1) John the Baptist preaches “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (2) the people who went to hear John were baptized “confessing their sins,” and (3) the Spirit appeared to Jesus as if alighting on his shoulder, as he was baptized by John, and from the sky Jesus heard the voice of the Father.

When we reflect on these three facts, we notice distinctions and relations among them: (1) unlike “the people who went to hear John,” Jesus was not “confessing his sins,” (2) unlike Jesus, the people who went to hear John did not see the Spirit alight on their shoulders, and (3) in some way, the Spirit and Sonship are related.

These observations enable us to begin making inferences: (1) John’s baptism with water did not confer the Holy Spirit; (2) Jesus was sinless, because he had nothing to confess; and (3) the baptism of Jesus is the pattern for baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Putting together these inferences, we discover Mark’s Epiphany narrative gives us insight into our own experience.  When we are baptized, we are adopted as sons and daughters into the fellowship of the Heavenly Kingdom, God is pleased, and the Holy Spirit is given to each of us.  The voice of the Heavenly Father assures us of our standing before God, and the gift of the Spirit assures us that we can realize our potential.  We are children of God even while enmeshed in wrong-doing. We confess our sins, even after our lives are led by the hope of glory.

This is what the prophet Isaiah says:   “Arise, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” By “the glory of the LORD” the prophet refers to the personality we call “the Holy Spirit.”  When Isaiah says, “has risen upon you,” we interpret him to means this: the Spirit emerges with us from the baptismal water in which we were immersed, “for baptism with the Holy Spirit” enacts death and resurrection.

How will a child who is “christened” experience the significance of baptism? The mechanisms of socialization – the nurture that extends nature – are a natural not a supernatural phenomenon, and holiness is a disciplined, voluntary, and adult accomplishment.  The requirements for righteousness are stringent.  Baptism aids us in this manner: baptism confers upon individuals the means to be successful within a gathered spiritual community that defines itself as separate and distinct from a larger, un-gathered worldly community.  However, in the shifting of boundaries over time, the rituals that establish their boundaries lose significance.

Just as the Spirit leads Jesus out into the desert and stays with him through days and nights of temptation, so the Spirit leads the baptized person through his and her daily rounds of experience.   Making our rounds, within the reality of an unbounded, ungathered “community of all,” we consciously re-claim the significance of what has lost its significance: “darkness and gloom,” we say, will be lifted from our countenance, “and God’s glory shall be seen” upon us. God’s glory is the visible sign of the Spirit within us, and the Spirit – as we reject the images of nature and nurture – helps us to make over our image into love for God and neighbor.  Only then we “will see and be radiant” and our hearts “will thrill and rejoice.”

Any number of witnesses can collaborate truth, as long as they number at least two.  Isaiah describes the collaborating “cloud of witnesses” to the perfection of our love as “all your descendants…gathered together again:  your sons from far away, your daughters upon their nurses’ arms.” The author of Hebrews says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles(Heb 12:1).  The Spirit-led commitment to throwing off “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” is the way we take as followers of Jesus in pursuit of love’s perfection. The cloud of witnesses encourages us and holds us to truthfulness. The cloud of witnesses overshadows everyone: the entire un-gathered community of creation and the world, not just a remnant of the elect.

The doctrine of Perfection was John Wesley’s response to 18th century English Calvinism.  Its roots lie in the Orthodox doctrine of theosis.  In Christ, at the onset of our journey through life, when we are baptized, we are justified; justification is unconditional and in some sense final.  Yet we continue to sin, even as we continue to grow in love.  A lifetime does not exhaust the possibilities – and necessity – to be sanctified.

Three wise men, Babylonian astrologers, followed the sign of a star, and days after the nativity arrived at a manger in Bethlehem with gifts.  Three decades later, Jesus followed the sign of the Spirit into the Wilderness.  The Wise Men perfected their Wisdom when they offered gifts to the infant God-man; the adult God-Man, whose Wisdom was complete, offered the gift of perfect love to creation, so that creation, too, could be perfected.

Let us love each other unconditionally, encourage one another, and hold ourselves accountable, not for humanly impossible results, but for concerted effort to become for the world a light, truth, and the way.  And all the people said, Amen.

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