Debuts and Renovations

SJF • Epiphany 1 • Tobias Haller BSG

See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before the spring forth, I tell you of them.+

Many cultures around the world have developed ways of recognizing important transitions in young people’s lives. Some of these are social, and some are religious — and some are both. A Jewish boy, for example, can look forward to the day of his bar mitzvah — the day on which he becomes responsible for observing the Jewish law, at about the age of 13. In many Latino cultures, a young woman looks forward to celebrating her 15th birthday with a Quinceañera — often a lavish party that looks a little like a junior version of a wedding — and like a wedding, can set back her parents a pretty penny!

In high society circles in Europe and the United States there used to be an event in the social calendar each year when young women from the leading families would make their first appearance in polite society, usually at a ball or some other formal function. This would be their debut, and so they were called “debutantes.” This was the time when a young woman — who had up till then lived a fairly private life in her father’s house — was presented to all of the eligible young men to begin the process of matchmaking leading to marriage — and her transfer to her husband’s house. Although I’m told this still goes on in some circles, I think we have moved rather far from the days of Jane Austen and Scarlett O’Hara!

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In today’s Gospel, however, we hear of another kind of debut. It may seem odd that in just two weeks we have jumped all the way from the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, and the visit of the Magi last week, to his baptism in the River Jordan at about the age of 30. But it is no secret that the Gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus from the time of his infancy to the time of his baptism — the only exception being Matthew’s passing reference to the fact that Jesus lived in Nazareth, and Luke’s account of that visit to Jerusalem about the time of Jesus’s own bar mitzvah, when he worried his parents, and to calm their fears said he must be about his Father’s business.

It appears, though, that he took his time in preparing for that business, for from the age of 12 or so until he was about 30, the gospel record is silent. Many people have offered speculations about Jesus’ childhood, youth, and young manhood; but the speculation remains just that. All we know from the gospel itself is that Jesus reached the rather ripe age of 30 or so without making any particular kind of splash in the world.

Until that day at the River Jordan. And what a splash that was — and what a debut! Perhaps the most interesting thing about this incident as Matthew describes it lies not so much with Jesus as with John the Baptist. For John immediately recognizes Jesus as someone very special — Matthew’s Gospel suggests he recognized Jesus as the very one who’s coming John had prophesied! And he recognizes this without Jesus having done anything spectacular for those 30 or so years of his life in Galilee. Even before Jesus has begun to teach or preach or work a miracle, John the clear-eyed prophet can see the importance of what is going on right in front of him, and recognizes the one who comes to him. He immediately perceives Jesus to be the bringer of grace, the bringer of blessing, the one who is to come to make all things new, the one who will begin the great renovation, not just of the house of Israel, but of the whole world.

And so John and plays his part, like the good matchmaker he is — after all, John would later call Jesus the bridegroom, and John knew he was not the center of the story — John steps aside. John is like the manager of the banquet hall who sets up the Quinceañera or the bar mitzvah or the sweet sixteen party, or the coming-out ball for this season’s debutantes; and then steps aside and fades into the background, as the proud father — in this case the Father in heaven — beams with delight in his beloved Son and pours out his Spirit upon him, visibly descending like a dove.

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Does that sound familiar? We’ve all seen fathers or mothers at parties such as the ones I’ve described — at a graduation or a prom, or a wedding, beaming with pride and delight as their child steps forth into the world as a new person.

And so we shall see that today — for baptism is itself the fundamental great new beginning and it makes those who are baptized into new persons: it is both debut and renovation, all in one. Although we aren’t at the River Jordan, still the baptism here will be like the baptism of Christ; for these children here today at Saint James Church will be baptized into Christ, in water like the water in which he was baptized, and they will be anointed with the same Spirit with which he was anointed: God’s Holy Spirit. And the parents and godparents here will beam with delight, a delight that God himself shares — for God will have gained new children by adoption this day.

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I said last week that the Epiphany season is about the manifestation of Christ to the world. His baptism marked his own first step into that world — the debut of his active ministry, emerging from the shadows of those 30 years of quiet life in Nazareth of Galilee. And the baptism of these children here today will mark a new beginning for them; and it will also be a manifestation of the presence of God. They will have become members of Christ’s body, the church. From now on, where ever they go, whatever they do, they will do so as members of the Christian family, marked as Christ’s own, forever. As they grow to maturity, they will do so within that context, in that environment: for their parents and godparents will promise that they will, with God’s help, bring these children up “in the Christian faith and life.” And all of us here will promise that we will, by our “prayers and witness help these children to grow into the full stature of Christ.”

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We have come to the beginning of a new year, and it is so fitting to celebrate baptism at this point. We celebrate both the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the baptism of these children. In their debut, we find renovation. For it provides us an opportunity to make a new year’s resolution of a very particular sort. We will in a few moments renew our own baptismal vows even as we support the vows made on behalf of these children. That renewal is an invitation to renovation, for all of us and each of us.

And we will pray for God’s blessing, and we will sing of God’s redemption, and we will give thanks for the gift of water — through which the world was created, and judged, and redeemed. And these children, and all of us, will begin a new life on this day — brand-new or re-newed: our common life as members of the household of God, all of us children of a loving Father in heaven who pours out his Spirit upon us.

“See, the former things have come to pass, and new things are now declared! Before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” In the power of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit may we all become anew God’s servants, his chosen ones, in whom his soul delights.+