When I was a parish pastor in a suburb of Atlanta, one of my tasks was worship planning. Besides regular preaching, worship planning is probably the one thing I miss the most about a congregational call. Since I was in charge of worship planning, and knew that nobody would come to an Epiphany service, I usually found a way to combine the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday with a full-blown celebration of Epiphany.
There is something that made sense to me about the Baptism of our Lord and Epiphany commemorations on the same Sunday. Of course, a lot of things about that dual observance make sense — the revelation of who Jesus is, the start of Jesus’ public ministry, a manifestation of the origin of Jesus’ power. The Baptism of our Lord Sunday makes perfect sense for the season of Epiphany — and it belongs there. But another detail about Jesus’ baptism struck me this time around that makes this event in Jesus’ life, and in ours, an epiphany of grand proportions — the opening of the heavens.
The heavens are opened in the three Synoptic accounts, and “torn apart” in the Gospel of Mark. What difference does this detail make, that the heavens are opened? Exegetically, interpretively, rationally, even theologically, we know that it means that which separates us from God is no longer; that God is no longer behind the firmament, up in the clouds, at a distance, but here among us. We know all of this — but do we believe it? Do we get it? Do we live it?
Sometimes we need a reminder that baptism is an epiphany kind of moment.
Epiphanies are not subtle. Yes, we can look for God in all kinds of people and places, but sometimes God comes crashing through the clouds and stops you dead in your tracks.
Baptism should do the same. In my tradition (Lutheran), we talk about the importance of our baptismal identity. I know I am supposed to understand that, but for me, jargon has a way of obstructing a true sense of what something means as well as the ability to articulate meaning on your own terms. My tradition also talks about the importance of remembering your baptism daily, a daily dying and rising to Christ. I’m all for that, but again, it’s not enough to say it. You have to know what difference it makes — and be able to give witness to it in language you, and others, can understand.
So, this is where the heavens opening really matters for me. There is an intrusion here. An inability of God to be separate from whom God loves, whether we like it or not. We tend to define that as grace, the unmerited love of God, but there is something about the radical image of God pulling apart the boundaries that we set up to protect ourselves from God that make epiphanies, and baptism for that matter, a little less safe.
Our baptismal observances are rather tame — a few drops of water, a dressed up recipient, parents and sponsors, a candle, and some affirmative words from the congregation, even applause. But Jesus’ baptism reminds us that we should not get too comfortable with our baptism. This is not to say that we question God’s intentions, God’s actions, God’s desire to make us God’s child. None of that is ever up for grabs. Rather, it’s to say that God choosing to be with us, or God choosing to be one of us, or God choosing to make us God’s own, should be its own epiphany. We get to see the true character of God, our God who would risk security and safety, laud and honor, distance and determination, so that God would know what it means to be among us and be us. Baptism is boundary crossing. Baptism is risk. Baptism is God’s presence when we may not want God so close. If we are honest, the heavens opening can be good news and not such good news, depending how close you want God to be, what you want God to see, and who you want God to think you are.
Yes, baptism is about promise — the promise of God’s love and grace, God’s protection and provision, and the comfort of God’s community. But Jesus’ baptism reminds us that baptism is also an epiphany, and what God chooses to reveal about God’s self is not always seen in white gowns and water. The season of Epiphany is short this year, which then brings us closer to the fact that God will also be seen in rejection and suffering, death and denial, pain and injustice.
God renders the heavens open, God pushes through the firmament, and then says, “you, yes you, are my beloved.” This we know. This is the importance of witnessing Jesus’ baptism as a remembrance and promise of our own. At the same time, this cannot just be a moment of gratitude — it also needs to be a moment of awe. Not just a moment of reliance on our baptismal promise, but a moment of rediscovery of who our God really is. Not just a moment of security and steadfastness, but a moment of certainty that when we look for God, we should actually be looking for the heavens being opened — and when that happens, everything changes.
We need this kind of Epiphany season. An Epiphany that doesn’t settle for God’s appearances in the usual, but that trusts in God’s in-breaking when we least expect it — to give good news to the poor, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to realize that God’s favor is for all, especially those whom our society rejects, overlooks, continues to regard as undeserving of justice, and insists are not really worthy of God’s love.
The heavens are being opened, Dear Working Preachers. Your call to preaching this week, and during this Epiphany season, is to give witness to God’s interruption, imposition, and interference. This, indeed, might be the true meaning of baptism.