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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Epiphany 1A/23

Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

January 8th 2023

Call and Response

I’d like to begin the sermon this morning with our psalm, which I was quite taken by throughout the week as I read and reread the scriptures for the day. Psalm 29 is one of the oldest in the psaltry, an ancient hymn of praise thought to be of Canaanite or pagan provenance. The psalmist sings now of the one God, Yahweh, and the sheer splendor and power of the Lord’s voice. The voice of the Lord is upon the waters—the primal womb of life—the Lord sits enthroned above the flood—the primal crucible of life—echoing the primeval narratives in the Book of Genesis. The God of glory thunders, to which all of creation cries, Glory!

This divine voice is the same voice that splits open the heavens in our gospel from Matthew after Jesus has been baptized, and declares: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased, or in an alternate translation: This is my Son, chosen and marked by love, delight of my life. 

Our gospel, Psalm 29, and all of our readings today make it clear that when God speaks there is always a response, a movement, or an action: the wilderness shakes, the oaks writhe and whirl, the spirit stirs or splits, the heart opens or closes, we cry out, Jesus climbs out of the river Jordan and takes a first step towards his public ministry and into the desert of temptation. Through it all Jesus embodies and preaches the deepest truth of baptism, that we too are beloveds of God, chosen and marked by love. Can you hear God speaking to you, and saying: You are my beloved, whom I have chosen, whom I dearly love. What is your response? What stirs in your body and soul? 

Listening for God’s voice—be it in the cacophony of the world, the silence of our hearts, or in the words of scripture is vital to our baptismal life, and something I try to do and struggle with pretty much all of the time—am I tuned to the right frequency?—especially as a preacher who is called to make a public response to what I hear. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was once asked in an interview what she said to God when she prayed; she responded that she didn’t say anything but rather listened. The interviewer continued: Alright then, so when you are listening to God, what does God say? Mother Teresa answered with a smile, God doesn’t say anything, he listens to me! I got a simpatico chuckle at this, because truly such is the mystery of prayer and our relationship with God.  

In our passage from Isaiah, written when Israel was suffering and dispirited in Babylonian exile, the relationship between God’s voice and our listening response is explicit; Isaiah’s sets forth a vision of a world of justice, freedom, and peace that will be created in response to what God has spoken. Many Christians understand the servant whom God prophesies of through Isaiah—my chosen, in whom my soul delights; whom I have put my spirit upon—to be the same Jesus who emerged from the waters of the Jordan. As significant is what God declares to God’s people: I have called you to live right and well; to be a light to the nations; to open eyes that are blind and prisons of darkness. What action might arise in response to the voice of the Lord?

The servant song of Isaiah, the ancient psalm of praise, the passage from Acts about the baptism of the Roman centurion Cornelius, the baptism of Jesus in Matthew—all of our readings this morning are about God’s Self, who tells his people plainly: I am the one

who gives breath and spirit to the people; the Christ who is for all creation and humanity, a Lord who heals all; the One God who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45), who shows no partiality; I am the God of justice and peace, who declares new things, now. God’s voice and the light of the Son descend upon everything and everyone; Jesus descends into the waters of the Jordan, the dove descends upon him, God’s voice descends, holiness descends in bread and wine. 

The question has long been asked why Jesus would submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John himself expresses reluctance to baptize Jesus saying, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me? Jesus first words in Matthew are his answer to John: Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. For myself anyway, “righteousness” is one of those churchy words that can be a little off-putting and difficult to really comprehend. I think there can be a tendency to understand “righteousness” primarily or narrowly in terms of morality and moral conduct. But here righteousness means so much more and nothing less than the epiphany or manifestation of God’s whole and holy Self through Jesus’ response and action.

Jesus’ baptism was an act of God’s solidarity with all of the people who had come to John to be baptized; it was a descent into the fallenness and forgiveness of humanity, so that a true new beginning was possible; a new beginning that would come to all righteousness on the cross: new and eternal life through the death and resurrection of Christ. 

Though many of us do not remember our own baptisms, how do we understand it now? How do we respond now to the movement of the Spirit, to the voice of God, to the Son in our midst? Baptism is a sign of commitment to Jesus’ baptism, in which we are cleansed from sin and saved from death—yet what it is that we are saved for? The renewal of our baptismal vows serves as an invitation to ask, and to check in with ourselves: how am I doing? How am responding to the voice of the Lord? How I living out my faith and life in Christ? How are we doing as a church? Are we listening?

One commentary I read and appreciated this week, asked: What does it mean, when so many baptized Christians continue to be committed to the false forms of redemption through modern politics and economic systems, consumerism, racism, sexism or tribalism? (Stanley P. Saunders)

A troubling but valid question. Though God does the growing, pruning and healing, we must do the tending and tilling, ever turning over the soil of our consciousness; ever turning towards the Light that gives Life; ever turning our ears toward the voice of the Lord. Beloveds, let us respond in kind with words of love, powerful words of truth, and words of hope and compassion. Let us shine God’s light into the darkness. Let us do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Let us take to heart the final verse of Psalm 29: The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace. 

And finally, let us pray: We give you thanks Lord Jesus that though you had no need of baptism, you entered the waters to lead us to the fountain forgiveness and new life; pour out upon us, we pray, the Spirits power that we may live as your beloveds, and children of light (adapted from St. Augustines Prayer Book).