Life, especially life in Key West, is full of contradictions and paradoxes. Consider our sister parish, St. Paul’s. It is home to the first Episcopal parish in all of Florida. People go in and out every day for some peace, a chance to meditate or pray or just even to marvel at the stained glass windows. One block away, there is a three story bar which has a roof deck ironically (or appropriately, depending on your point of view) called “The Garden of Eden.” Across the street from that is a mansion which has been turned into apartments with a wine bar on the first floor, but 150 years ago it was the home of a doctor whose life’s work was to treat and hopefully cure those dying of yellow fever. Looking a little closer to home, we are here in the heart of town with a beautiful space in our own rights, but I hear a rumour that there is a crack house a few blocks away.
Many who live here call it paradise. Just as many call it something else. For as many who call this island home and would never think of leaving, there are just as many lost souls who feel trapped, abandoned and alone.
Jesus was no stranger to paradox or contradiction. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we see the authors tracing his lineage all the way back to Adam. We see his ancestors are full of people he can brag about, and also lots of people he probably would like to forget; people whose lives are full of tragic choices and flaws, as well as joyous triumphs. Jesus was the Messiah, but he did not come on a big white horse or as a conquering hero. In fact, this holiest of men was accused of being illegitimate, and the people he decided to hand around with were generally not considered polite society.
Today’s Gospel lesson is also a portrait of paradox. Jesus gets baptized by his cousin, John. This begs the question, “Why? Why does he do this?” At its heart, baptism is an act of repentance, of turning away from the things of this world and a commitment to a way of life where the focus is the things of God, especially of loving each other. It could be argued that it was unnecessary for Jesus because it is taught that Jesus was sinless and blameless and that he had nothing to repent of. It is even all the more remarkable because John the Baptist’s ministry has centered on preparing people for the coming Messiah by repenting and being baptized. Not only that, up to this point the Gospel of Luke has focused on just how special and holy a person Jesus was.
The answer, I think, of why a sinless and blameless person lines up with everyone else in an act of repentance can be found in the mystery of the Incarnation. If you even take a cursory reading of the Old and New Testament you will see there is a big difference in how God deals with humanity. In the Incarnation, God decides to come here, to earth and to live just like we do. God decides to face the choices and temptations we all must confront on this journey we call life.
Jesus was born into a fallen world, just like we were. Jesus knows what it’s like to face all the choices we make, so his baptism is an act of solidarity with us again the powers of Sin and Death. But notice how he does it! he simply gets in line with everyone else. In the Gospel of Luke, there is no big ceremony, no crowds parting for him as he approaches. He simply shows up and stands alongside all the downtrodden, the sick, the broken, the lost. Jesus is standing with those who have no where else to go, those who have given up on themselves and joins them.
In his baptism, Jesus is identifying with a damaged and broken people who need God. It is a first step on the Cross, the first act of ministry which ends with the phrase, “It is finished.”
After his Baptism, Jesus goes off to pray. even the Son of God realizes that he cannot do anything on his own, so he reaches out to the Father, the Source of Everything, and then the Holy Spirit comes to be with him, to give him the strength to keep on loving us for all of our failures and to be faithful even when we are not. Remember, this is the One who created the world. As it says in the Gospel of John, “Through Him all things were made,” and yet he decides that we are people worth loving and ultimately worth dying for. That love will ultimately prove to be stronger than Death itself.
If we return to our first reading in Isaiah, we find his words written for a nation in exile still resonate today. We see a God who is both Creator and Redeemer before we even leave the first verse. “He who created you, who has formed you, now has redeemed you.” Not only that, Isaiah goes on to say, “I have called you by name and you are mine. I will be with you.” Of course, one of the names that we have for Jesus is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”
Even in the middle of exile, of occupation, God calls Israel precious in his sigh. The choices we make and our own shortcomings do not prompt God to stop loving us or claiming us as his own, even if it is a mess we create for ourselves. Because God lived and dwelt among us, the Good News I have for you today is that God Himself knows everything you are going through because God Himself has experienced it. The Good News I have for you today is because of our own Baptism we are marked as “Christ’s own forever” and nothing can separate us from his love and grace.
We don’t have to worry about being respectable or cleaning up our act. In our Baptism, we ARE made clean. The same Holy Spirit that was with Jesus is with us today, guiding us along as we follow in the footsteps of Christ.
In a moment, we will renew our Baptismal Vows. As we do so, and we reply to each other, “I will with God’s help,” let that be a prayer so we will have the necessary strength and endurance to show God’s love to a hurt, broken and lost world just like Jesus did.
“We thank you Father for the waters of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. We thank you that by water and Holy Spirit you have bestowed on us your servants the forgiveness of sin and have raised us to a new life of grace. Sustain us, O Lord, giving us an inquiring and discerning heart; the courage and will to persevere; a spirit to know and to love you; and the gift of joy and wonder of all your works.”