I am not much of a world traveler. For most of my life, my idea of travel was a weekend trip to the Jersey shore. In January of 2014, however, I had my horizons dramatically expanded when I joined a group of fellow students and faculty from Trinity School for Ministry on a trip to Ethiopia. It was an eye opening experience to say the least! We landed in the capital city of Addis Ababa. My introduction to the city was through a hair raising taxi ride through the crowded streets. I looked in vain for a seat belt as we sped along. There didn’t seem to be any traffic lights either. Cars flew at us from every direction!
From Addis we flew into the more remote area of Gambella a couple days later where we stayed with a former professor of mine Bishop Grant LeMarquand and his wife Dr. Wendy. We got to meet the local clergy and even got to celebrate Christmas in a small country church packed with worshipers. Even among Anglicans, Christmas is celebrated there on January 7th according to the calendar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It was a joyful occasion. They slaughtered a calf and served us what they described as the best part, a portion of the intestine which I wrapped in injera and discreetly disposed of.
Later that evening chatting over a cup of tea in Bishop Grant’s living room, he explained to us that although Christmas is an important feast, the real celebration for the Ethiopians wouldn’t occur until January 19th, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, or what they called Timket.
In Ethiopia the event is a three day festival including colorful processions through the street, singing, and dancing along with solemn prayer and worship. The Bishop slid back into his place as our professor and began to quiz us, “Why should that day, of all days, be so important?”
“It marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry,” I volunteered.
“Yes, but that isn’t the main reason,” he said, “Think about it. What happens in the story?”
We began to recount the story together of how Jesus came to John in the river Jordan, and of how John initially refused to baptize him, replying that it was he who had need of being baptized by him, of how the spirit came down in bodily form like a dove, and of how the Father declared from Heaven that Jesus was his beloved son in whom he was well pleased. "Is it the Trinitarian reference?" another student volunteered.
“Exactly,” Bishop Grant continued, “In that moment, for the first time in salvation history, the mystery of the Trinity is publicly revealed for all to see. It is what the Greeks call an Epiphany, a sudden appearance or manifestation of God, the revelation of some hidden truth.”
I can honestly say that I never really thought of it in quite those terms, but this is where the distinctly Christian understanding of God as triune really begins. This morning I want to talk about the three ways in which God is reveled in the story of Jesus’ baptism and what that means for us.
First, let us look at how God the Father is represented by this passage. Saint Luke tells us, “the heavens were opened.” When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to address their Father who is in heaven. Where is heaven? On one level heaven simply refers to the atmosphere around us, the cloudy sky and starry firmament, but I think it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the Father literally lives up in the sky. No, the language of heaven is meant to be figurative. It tells us that God in simultaneously near to us and also high above us, both immanent and transcendent. For the ancients the heavens suggested the realm of spirits and other invisible powers, the hidden dimension of reality. For just a moment the veil between this world and that one is opened.
The Father remains hidden and unseen in this passage. Indeed Jesus tells us that no one at any time has seen the father. He is spiritual and non-bodily, the invisible creator of both spiritual and earthly entities, but here he speaks with a voice that is audible to all. Rarely does God speak in such a direct fashion. More often he speaks through mediators such as prophets or angels. If God is so dramatic and unambiguous about his speech, we would do well to mark with great seriousness what he says. He speaks directly to Jesus saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well Pleased.”
We will return to those words in just a moment, but first let us look at how God the Holy Spirit is represented in this passage. Unlike the Father, the Holy Spirit does in fact make a visible appearance. Luke tells us that he descended in bodily form like a dove. I don’t think we should assume, based on this passage, that the Holy Spirit is actually literally a bird. The Holy Spirit, like the father in non-bodily, but he temporarily takes on a physical appearance.
What should the form of a dove suggest to us? The dove has become a symbol of peace and gentleness for us, and perhaps it had many of the same associations for those gathered at the river Jordan, but I believe that it would also have another association for them, that of Noah’s dove. Do you remember the story?
God sent a horrible flood upon the earth to cleanse the world of wickedness. Noah, his family, and the animals were kept safe on the Ark. When the rains had ended, Noah sent out a dove to find some evidence of dry land, and it returned with an olive leaf in its beak.
Both holy scripture and the Church Fathers see the flood as a type of baptism. It is a washing away of wickedness and a kind of new creation, a second beginning. Just as in the story of Noah, the dove brings a token of peace declaring God’s judgement has ceased, so here the Spirit’s appearance as a dove, does the same. He comes from heaven to declare God’s mercy and favor.
This blessing and love fall on Jesus in particular. Let us look now at how God the Son is represented in this passage. In order to do so, we return–as promise--to the words of the Father, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Jesus is the son of his Father’s love. The son whom scripture describes as the image of the invisible God and the first born over all creation (Col. 1:15). In the Gospel of John we read, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18). In these last days, God has revealed to us the Son. He is the very Word of God, the revelation of his heart and mind, in human flesh. The Father speaks from heaven to confirm this fact.
During the festival of Timket in Ethiopia, a model of the Ark of the Covenant which is present on every altar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, is wrapped in sacred cloth and bourn in procession by the Priest to the nearest body of water. This is to represent the coming of Jesus to the river Jordan, as the Word of God wrapped in human flesh. The Divine liturgy is celebrated and a blessing is said over the water. It is sprinkled over the people and some of the people even jump in and immerse themselves in the water reenacting their baptism. The environment is one of jubilant praise and celebration, because at the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord we remember the fact that Christ came as one of us in order to restore us to the love of the father.
When the first man, Adam, fell, heaven was closed to us. A flaming sword was placed between us and intimate communion with the Father. But at Jesus’ baptism heaven was opened to us in the second Adam. When we are baptized, we are joined to Christ, the peace of God descends upon us, and we hear with him the words of the Father, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Today, let us give thanks that God has revealed himself to us. That he has made a way for us to share in the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is from everlasting. Lets us give thanks for our own baptism and the peace we have with God in Christ.