turning towards the light

telescopeIn Sutherland South Africa, about four hours outside of Cape Town you will find the South African Astronomical Observatory.

The Observatory has a really big telescope called SALT, which stands for South African Large Telescope. I’ve read that the thing is so powerful that it could detect a candle flame on the moon.

Part of the reason for the observatory being in Sutherland is that the countryside is relatively undeveloped. There’s not much in the way of pollution or radio waves to interfere with optical and radio astronomy.

And, what’s really intriguing to me is that there is almost no artificial light. Most of us understand the idea of light pollution, that when you get out into the country side you can see all these stars. And then you get back into the city and where are they? They’re still up there, but we can’t see them because we’ve created so much artificial light that shines into the night sky.

You’ve got to get away, to physically distance yourself from the artificial light in order to see those stars. And this huge powerful telescope needs to be in the countryside of South Africa in order to function at its best.

I’ve been thinking about light a lot. It’s one of the big themes of this Epiphany season, the idea of the light coming into the world. When John writes about Jesus’ birth, there’s no mention of mangers or magi. Instead he says, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

There’s light in our Gospel reading for today too. For today is the day when we remember Jesus’ baptism.

Now, Jesus’ baptism and our own baptisms are not one and the same. We are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a formula that wouldn’t really have made sense to John the Baptist.  Jesus is believed to be about 30 when he comes to John for baptism. We’re not sure exactly what his life was like up until that point, but baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry.

At his baptism, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is made clear, and it is the first of many steps that will lead to his death upon the cross

Following both Jesus’ command and example, the church has been practicing baptism as its means of initiation from the very beginning. It is an ancient tradition for baptismal candidates to make renunciations and commitments at the beginning of the service. In our baptismal service, we do this in the form of six questions, first asking:

Question     Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Question     Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the  creatures of God?

Question     Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

Traditionally, the person about to be baptized faced west and sometimes even spat upon the ground to underscore these renunciations.

Then, there are three commitments to parallel the three renunciations:

Question     Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?

Question     Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?

Question     Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?

And these or similar affirmations were said facing to the east, the direction of the rising sun.

The baptismal candidates affirm their commitment to Jesus and turned towards the light.

I sometimes think that our connection to God is kind of like those astronomers in South Africa, trying to see out into the Milky Way.

We need to get away from the light pollution, in order to see the light. We need to distance ourselves from the distractions and the noise, the things that seem so urgent in our lives, but really aren’t. And sometimes, it is only then that we are made aware of God who has been present with us all along.

Sometimes people say Jesus came to be a great moral teacher, or to do good works in this world.  And both of these things seem to be at least partly true.

But then we have this story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s in all four gospels.  I don’t think there’s a lot of moral edification in it, nothing like ‘turn the other cheek’ or some other nugget of wisdom we could put into practice in our daily lives.  And Jesus isn’t performing any good works here either. No one is healed or fed in this story.

No, this story of Jesus’ baptism is meaningful only if we believe that Jesus came to do more than to be a teacher or a do-gooder.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is significant in that it points us in the right direction. In those ancient baptismal practices, people turned east to face the light when they proclaimed Jesus as Savior and Lord. They didn’t worship the sun, they recognized it as a symbol. Jesus’ baptism shows us, that he is the Word made flesh, come to reconcile the world to himself. He is God’s beloved son, whose work allows us to be called adopted children of God. Jesus is the light.

In his baptism, we see that Jesus is indeed the one who has come to rescue us from our brokenness, our pettiness, and our ineptitude. In this baptism, we recognize that without God we are lost. And as we think of our own baptisms, we are reminded that, no matter where we are in our lives, we can always stop, slow down, and turn towards the light. Today I give thanks for the gift of baptism, in which we are indelibly marked as Christ’s own forever.

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