The heavens are opened.
Old Testament Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm Psalm 29
Epistle Acts 10:34-43
Gospel Matthew 3:13-17
Thus says God: “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you.” In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Aha! Eureka! By George, I think I’ve got it! These phrases would seem appropriate as we begin the season of Epiphany. At least, that is the common definition, being struck with some great realization. The cartoon light bulb appears over one’s head. We utter these phrases when we have figured something out.
But the liturgical season of Epiphany and our celebration of it has less to do with something we have figured out, and more to do with what has been revealed to us. Leading up to Epiphany, Christmas is the ultimate revelation of a God who so loves the world that he gave His only Son. God takes on our human nature, the Word is made flesh, and God dwells among us. What an amazing revelation of divine love and presence! And if you think that’s big, stick around until Easter. God will one up God’s self.
Through Epiphany, we will encounter many ways God is revealed to us, dwelling among us. The wise men were moved to follow a star, what can only be described as a great cosmic anomaly. True to the prophets, they find a little child, the Messiah, lying in a manger, and pay him homage. Epiphany will continue with stories of Jesus revealing the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus will be revealed as the image of the invisible God, the human experience of the living God, walking among us, eating with us, teaching us, and healing a broken world.
Today, we hear of the baptism of Jesus and the revelation of God’s Son, the Beloved. Today we will also experience the sacrament of baptism, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, revealing that we also are God’s beloved. We will also ponder what shall be our response.
John the Baptist had been preaching repentance, and bid anyone who wished to be cleansed of their sins to wade into the water and come out renewed, prepared for the coming of the Lord. Then John comes face to face with the object of his ministry, face to face with Jesus. John seems struck with awe. "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John's reluctance is not that Jesus doesn't deserve baptism, it is that he doesn't need it. Matthew's gospel shares a conversation that confronts the apparent anomaly that a superior Jesus would submit to baptism by his inferior John.
If Jesus was without sin, why would He need to repent? If Jesus was without sin, why would He need be cleansed and forgiven? John knows Jesus does not need to repent and be made clean. Jesus states it is proper to fulfill all righteousness. In this sense, righteousness means right conduct, right observance, and in accordance with God's will revealed in scripture.
Jesus insists, and John baptizes Him. Jesus presumes no superiority, and is baptized as is appropriate for all humans. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, embraces His humanity fully. This action also bears witness and affirms John's ministry. John has been preparing the way of the Lord, and now the Lord Jesus participates in the way John has been preparing. Jesus' acceptance of this unnecessary baptism marks the end of one era, and the beginning of another. John has carried the baton this far, passes it to Jesus, and Jesus accepts it. This baptism both confirms Jesus’ calling and marks the completion of John's.
Such a pivotal moment in salvation history deserves something to mark the occasion. God does something ... something awesome. The heavens open, the Spirit descends on Jesus, and a voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." We do not hear the response of those present. In fact, the text makes it seem like these signs might be for Jesus alone. But I don't imagine Jesus turned to His disciples and said, "Did you hear that?" The story is repeated in the gospels and early Christian writings, suggesting the account was well known, and had many witnesses.
This divine encounter signals a new possibility of relationship between God and humankind. This event provides a clear identification of the very human Jesus as God's Son. The heavenly voice makes clear who Jesus is and why he is so significant.
Through His baptism, at the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus, God incarnate, is now made manifest, clearly shown and visible. The focus of this gospel is Jesus' baptism, not our own. But our baptism is sanctified through the baptism of Jesus! We can now be baptized into the Son, through the Holy Spirit. Jesus and the apostles are not recorded in scripture as baptizing followers during Jesus' life and ministry because no other symbol of our unity with God was required ... God was present among them. Today, in a post-resurrection and ascension reality, Jesus' baptism connects us to our own. At Jesus' baptism, though not worked out in any overt, doctrinal way, all three persons of the Trinity are present ... the Father's voice, the Spirit descending, and the Son, Jesus. Today, we continue to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
We also proclaim that in baptism, we die to self, and are raised to new life. As Jesus wades into the water and accepts baptism, He also accepts the cross ... they go together. So does our baptism call us to accept the cross of Christ. After Jesus' death and resurrection and ascension, we accept those too. We are not simply called to die to self in baptism, but also to rise to new life in Christ. Jesus accepts our baptism and death so that we can receive His resurrection and life. He shares our reality so we can share His.
The season of Epiphany encourages us to recognize God’s presence all around us. God is still revealing God's self to the world. Our Epiphanies are more than an ‘Aha!’ moment. More than something we figure out. Our Epiphanies are a gift, where God reveals God’s divine presence and purpose among us, real and manifest. God is present in our relationships, in the breaking of bread, in loving and serving others. It is as real and palpable and powerful as a burning bush, a parting sea of salvation, water turned into wine, and a resurrected Christ. Perhaps we simply need to pay attention, train our senses, and be attuned to the sacred breaking in to the mundane.
Several of our brothers and sisters, at this very moment, are preparing weekend lunch for the hungry and homeless. Years ago, I led youth in preparing and serving weekend lunch. I encouraged them to put themselves in the tattered shoes of our guests, and ask, “if you were out on the street all night, cold and wet and lonely, what kind of meal would taste good to you, and warm your heart.” It made our preparation of the food personal. If you have not participated on a weekend lunch team and served the outcast and forgotten, I encourage you to do so. As you hand a hungry child of God a plate of food, and look into the eyes of one of God’s beloved, you will experience God’s presence between you. One blessing before meals goes, “Bless the food in front of us, the friends around us, and the love between us.” The love between us. That is where God dwells.
Living the baptized life and supporting others is a journey. It may take us all sorts of places and reveal all sorts of things as we grow in the knowledge and love of God. Our actions are our response to God's call to each of us, but the Epiphany is not in the good deed. It is in God's presence as we strive to follow and serve.
As we participate in today’s baptism, and renew our own vows, and recall the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, know that God is present and claims us as beloved. God remains present as we live into the baptized life, loving God and loving others. Experience this Epiphany, realize the Divine presence, receive new life, go forth and be pleasing to God. Amen.