It is difficult to imagine beginning any sermon today without speaking about the tragedy of the Ukrainian airliner that was shot down near the Tehran airport on Wednesday, killing 176 passengers, most of whom were destined for Canada, and 57 who were Canadians, including a young University of Victoria student. The grief felt by the Iranian-Canadian community, all of Canada and many in the world, is profound. Admission by the Iranian Government that it is responsible for the missile strike, which it claims was an error, may clarify how the tragedy happened, but complicates people’s grief and anger. We grieve together with our Iranian-Canadian neighbours, and as a whole nation and world. As we learn more about individuals and families on the plane, the senseless loss of each life takes on a new dimension of sadness. God be with every family and all the loved ones of those who died in the disaster. God be with this world, that acts of war and violence between nations resulting in the shooting down of a commercial airliner and the loss of so many innocent lives, never happen again.
And how does our faith, our sacred texts, our gathering today for the festival of the Baptism of Jesus, our remembering and affirming and being touched by the waters of Baptism speak a gospel word to this and other tragedies and deaths?
Through the days of Christmas and particularly the gospel of Matthew, we have heard the message of who Jesus is, the Messiah/God’s anointed, Emmanuel – God with us. In the gospel narrative timeline, 30 years for Jesus has past and these words that his parents heard in angel-filled dreams may be a distant memory. And the Christmas promise of Emmanuel/God with us in Jesus, may feel that way for us, distant, unsure, especially in the face of this week’s tragedy and death and loss.
Can we hear the story of Jesus’s Baptism by John, see the heavens opened to Jesus, see the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Jesus, and hear the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” and trust God is with, breaks into this world, like this?
By affirming Baptism today, sharing in the words, being touched by the water, can we experience the heavens opened, the Spirit of God descending, the voice of God saying, “You are my child, everyone on that downed aircraft, everyone affected by this tragedy, all who face death and loss, are all my children, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased; and with whom I join in the brokenness and death and tragedy and tears and grief and sadness of this world, of each life, to redeem, to transform, death into life, despair into hope, and we pray, in time, even mourning into thanksgiving, tears into joy. Is that possible?
One Biblical commentator said, “That Jesus was Baptized by John, is one of the most certain historical facts about Jesus.” And what does that mean? As Jesus comes to the Jordan to join in this Jewish wilderness ritual of baptism by John, who in humility would have prevented Jesus from doing so, saying, “I need to be baptized by you,” but Jesus says in response, “Let it be so for now… to fulfill all righteousness;” meaning, to do the revealed will of God, this is Jesus’ purpose, fully joining humanity in life and death, there on the banks of that river, then as now, sharing in murky waters of repentance, of death and life, joining broken lives as suffering servant of God, as God’s well pleasing beloved child, for God’s love and redemption/saving of this world. This is what God makes possible in Jesus’ baptism for the world.
The words of Isaiah that we heard today are one of the suffering servant songs, and contain part of the words spoken from heaven at Jesus’ Baptism:
1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Jesus baptized by John with all humanity, suffering servant, Messiah/anointed, God with us in this blessed, broken, life and world. And through baptism, joined with Jesus, and his suffering and death, his resurrection and ascension, promised by the very voice of God, and the Spirit descending and alighting upon each one, that all are God’s beloved well pleasing children, now and forever. That we trust this to be true, for ourselves and see well pleasing belovedness in every other person, no matter the differences between us; is a radical and transformative way to see and live, God breaking into this world, Epiphany, God seen and with and changing this world.
On Thursday evening, Dr. John Borrows, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at UVic, was our guest for a Dessert and Dialogue on Indigenous Law presented by our Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It was a great evening. Dr. Borrows is very knowledgeable, articulate, gave us a sweep of history and current and local findings in the relationship between indigenous laws and Canadian law, and shared stories and words, including in his own language of Anishinaabe Cree. To experience the strength in indigenous identity and heritage, including indigenous laws and language and stories and presence, that Dr. Borrows shared with us in himself and the stories and pictures of other indigenous people, was a great and hopeful Epiphany. As indigenous and non-indigenous people together, we need to continue the struggle against colonialism and racism and white privilege and supremacy that is as endemic as the name of our local paper, The Times COLONIST, and that continues, as Clark Wilkie was always reminding us, and see together, the recovery of Indigenous laws and diverse cultural practises and communities and peoples in all their strengths and truths, for a greater, more inclusive, more just and compassionate and caring land and communities and peoples together. In John Borrows and his students and family we saw and heard it is possible and happening, the revealed will of God being done, the fulfillment of all righteousness, as Jesus did in Baptism, in life and ministry and death to life everlasting; and invites us to join in doing as all God’s beloved, well-pleasing Spirit anointed, children, for the sake of this broken and blessed world. Let it be so, in all our relations, Hych’ka Siem. Amen.