SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT
JANUARY 16, 2011, THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

From St. Matthew’s Gospel which we heard last week:  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (3:17)

And from St. John’s Gospel which we just heard:  “I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (1:34)

This morning for the sermon I want to do a bit of Bible Study.  Last week we celebrated baptism of Jesus by John, and we heard St. Matthew’s account of that event.  Today we heard what would appear to be another version of the same incident, reported this time by John the Evangelist.  I want us to think about this and look carefully and closely at what Scripture says, for there is no doubt that Jesus’ baptism was a critical moment in the his life.  And all four gospels understand it to be so.  With the Crucifixion and the feeding of the five thousand it is the only other event all four Gospels report.  Not only that, in all four it marks the beginning of his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing, and so I think that it is very important, even crucial for us to understand what is going on.  Perhaps, indeed, to understand this particular moment in Jesus’ life will bring us to a deeper understanding of that life itself.

As I said, today we heard from St. John’s Gospel, and it is not so much an account as it is a memory.  The Baptist is with a group of his disciples when Jesus approaches.  “Behold the Lamb of God,” John exclaims, “who takes away the sin of the world.” (1:29) Then, he recalls something which happened earlier, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.  I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’  And I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (1:32)

St. John’s account is significantly different from that of the first three Gospels.  In the first place, notice that John knows nothing about a family relationship between Jesus and the Baptist.  St. Luke has it that they were cousins, but John would seem to deny this:  “I myself did not know him,” the Baptist says. (1:33)

Secondly, the first three Gospels picture the aftermath, so to speak, of His baptism as an interior and spiritual event, something experienced by Jesus alone.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke it is either stated or implied that only Jesus saw the heavens opened and only he heard the voice proclaim.  In John, however, the event would seem to have been public.  Public enough, at least, for the Baptist to have been a witness.

And another divergence is this:  in John’s Gospel the voice from heaven is spoken to the Baptist, not to Jesus, as in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  And in John it is the Baptist himself, not the celestial voice, who proclaims Jesus to be Son of God.

But if there are differences between John and the other Gospels, there is also one very striking and surprisingly important similarity:  the image of the dove.  All four Gospels liken the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus to that of a dove.  It’s odd that few scholars make much of this, but there it is.  Indeed, it is the only explicit detail upon which John and his three colleagues agree.

Now, what does all this mean?  Let’s think together.

You will remember, I am sure, that the Fourth Gospel, St. John’s, is very sparing.  It reports considerably fewer events in the life of Jesus than do the others, and when it does report an incident, its primary intention is to make clear the meaning of that event.  John seeks to make explicit that which is implicit, to make visible that which may have been hidden or concealed.  And so it should come as no surprise that what is reported by Matthew, Mark, and Luke as something interior and spiritual is changed by John into a public proclamation.  “This is my beloved Son” – heard only by Jesus – becomes “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” – announced by John to his disciples.

But what about the voice that speaks to Jesus and is later referred to by John?  “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  What exactly does this mean?  And what kind of interior experience is Scripture describing?  The answer to both of these questions is the same and involves a look at the words which were spoken from heaven, for you see the celestial voice is actually quoting two portions of Scripture.  It’s a kind of shorthand which calls to mind two different passages.  The first is from the Book of Psalms, and at the time it was understood to speak of the victorious Messiah who will come to save the Jews from their conquerors and enemies. (Psalm 2:7 - This is my beloved son) The second is from the prophet Isaiah (42:1 - with whom I am well pleased), and is a part of several passages in the writings of the prophet known as the Servant Songs.  They describe a man who will endure terrible suffering, but somehow by that suffering will bring salvation to the world. (Isaiah 42:1ff)

Isaiah’s idea is unique in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It stands alone.  Suffering, if not simple misfortune, was usually seen by the ancient Jews as a divine punishment.  One might be chastened and learn from it, but that’s as far as it goes.  How could suffering be anything more than that?  Isaiah was convinced that it could.  Isaiah though it could be redemptive.

But as unique as Isaiah’s idea may have been, the bringing together of these two ideas – the Messiah and the man who suffers for others – is so unique, so unparalleled as to be outrageous.  This was a thought which had never been thought before.  A suffering Messiah?  Impossible.  Triumph through pain?  Unheard of.  Salvation through defeat and death?  Ridiculous.

One might well say that it was an idea so unexpected that it could only have come from heaven, and at his baptism it was spoken from heaven to the earthly heaven of His sacred heart.  And so, you see, this – I think – was the moment our Lord took upon himself the fulfillment of His vocation.  The heavenly voice made clear what that vocation was to be.  His baptism was the event in which He decided actively to assume the destiny which God had decreed.  To be the Messiah.  Yes.  To save His people.  Yes.  And more:  to save the whole world.  And to save it not by might and domination, but by compassion and meekness and self-giving love.  To conquer by obedience, by the enduring of pain, and by death.

The Cross, then, good people, is there from the beginning.  It’s not some terrible mistake, a dreadful injustice which befell a good man.  No – suffering and death were there as part of his vocation from the beginning.  There at his baptism by John he accepted them and took them upon himself.  And from that moment on everything that he will say, and everything that he will teach, and everything that he will do must be seen in that light.  In the light of the Cross.

And at that moment of vocation and decision he was anointed by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.  As I said before, this is the only detail upon which all four Gospels agree.  I should also tell you that, once again, here we come upon something absolutely unique.  You and I are used to it.  We’ve heard the story again and again, and we’ve seen it depicted in paintings and windows.  The dove as an image of God’s Holy Spirit, of the power of the Spirit, of the anointing of the Spirit.  However, this is, in fact, something new.  The association of the Spirit of God with the form of a dove begins with the gospels.  In point of fact, it begins with the accounts of Jesus’ baptism.  The question of its meaning, then, imposes itself, and this is the answer:  the dove was an animal of sacrifice.  If you could not afford a sheep or a goat or a bull, if you were too poor , you offered a dove.  And Hebrew lore and legend had it that the doves of sacrifice willingly offered their necks to the knife – allowing themselves to be killed.  The dove was, therefore, a symbol of sacrifice, but more than that, it was a symbol of self-sacrifice.  When Jesus, then, in His baptism is anointed with the Holy Spirit – with the power of the Holy Spirit - it is not a power of domination or might.  Rather, it is the power of obedience, the power to sacrifice oneself, the power willingly to give up one’s life.  The power to let go of one’s very self.  It is the power to fulfill the destiny which God had decreed – to be the Messiah and the sacrificial lamb who would take away the sin of the world and reconcile the world to God.  Anointed by a dove to become a lamb.  Anointed by a dove to become a lamb.

And to that Lamb, destined to be slain before the foundation of the world,
to that Lamb baptized in the River Jordan and anointed with the power of God,
to that Lamb nailed to the Cross and now risen from the dead ,
to Him be ascribed all might, majesty, honor, and glory now and forever.
Amen.