12 January 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
If you take a look at the front of your bulletin this morning, you will note that it is titled, “The First Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany.” In fact, today is the first of seven Sundays that will carry the title “after the Epiphany”. But just what, you may well be inclined to ask, is “the Epiphany” that these Sundays follow?
The Feast of the Epiphany, which falls each year on January 6th, follows the close of the Church’s 12-day Christmas season, and marks the beginning of the next liturgical season in the church year. In many cultures, it is an important celebration, commemorating the visitation of the Wise Men. And in imitation of their bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child, the day is marked with the exchange of gifts on this feast day, rather than on Christmas.
Yet in most Episcopal churches, the Feast of the Epiphany is hardly celebrated at all. In fact, Epiphany is perhaps the only great festival day of the church year that is observed more by neglect than with celebration. Although an important holiday in many other countries, Epiphany has simply never caught on in mainstream America, having been eclipsed by the celebration of Christmas.
The Feast of the Epiphany is dedicated to the Three Wise Men, called ‘Magi’ in scripture, meaning sages, magicians or astrologers. This unlikely trio from the East comes seemingly out of nowhere, looking for the one who is born King of the Jews. Appearing only once, for only a few verses, and only in the nativity story as Matthew records it, they then disappear from scripture as suddenly as they first appeared, never to be heard of or even referred to again. But the point of their journey remains forever important. These foreigners, these non-Jews, these Gentiles are the first to understand what others could not see: that while Jesus was born “King of the Jews,” he came among us not just for the Hebrew people and nation of Israel, but for all people, throughout all the world, and throughout all time.
The Greek word “epiphany” means “to reveal.” And for the ancient Church, this “epiphany” or “revealing” of the Christ in the world and to the Gentiles was worth celebrating. It still is.
The Gospels are full of moments of epiphany in which the divine becomes manifest and is revealed in our midst, and we will read more of these revelations throughout the coming 7-week-long Epiphany season. On this First Sunday after The Epiphany, we always hear an account of Jesus’ baptism, so in our Gospel reading for today, also from Matthew, Jesus arrives at the Jordan River requesting baptism from his cousin, a rather reluctant John the Baptist. In Matthew’s telling of the tale, coming up out of the waters, suddenly the heavens are opened to Jesus and he sees the Spirit of God, descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." In this sacramental instant, heaven and earth, the divine and the worldly, the infinite and the finite, are brought together and Christ is revealed as the Son of the One, True, Only, Living God.
“This is my Son, the Beloved.” These words, or ones very much like them, are proclaimed more than once throughout the Gospels; almost as exclamation marks emphasizing the role and reality of jesus Christ as Savior and Redeemer of the world. We find them repeated at the Transfiguration, midway through our Lord’s public ministry. And the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross comes to the same epiphany, exclaiming that Jesus was indeed “God’s Son.”
But just what are we to make of these epiphanies, these revelations, for ourselves today? For one thing, they are sobering reminders that the Lord is much more than just our heavenly brother, more than simply a friend we can turn to when we need a listening ear, more even than a prophet or teacher or healer.
Christ. Is. God.
Christ is God made present in every day and every age – including our own. Beginning all those centuries ago in a cold Bethleham manger, his divinity, which can never be contained, continues to spill over into our poor earthly realm.
And if the Father can be well pleased with Jesus, his Son, at his baptism, he can be well pleased with us too, his children by baptism and adoption. That is the Good News, the meaning of the Gospel, and the promise made to each of us as we emerge from our own baptismal waters.
If Epiphany is the sometimes-forgotten feast of the Church, perhaps it is in part because epiphanies of Christ in our world and here among us can sometimes seem no more than an ephemeral and momentary reality. Christ abides with us – continually and forever; yet his presence in our lives can seem at the same time all too fleeting as we go about and become caught up in and focused on our ongoing and persistent daily and weekly and monthly routines of family and friends and work. Indeed, even as Jesus’ own short baptismal moment passes, the heavens that had miraculously opened to him once again close, and the descending dove suddenly departs, leaving Jesus alone among John and the crowds to assume his mission on earth. And that is at it should be, for there is now, after all, work and ministry to be done. There is now, after the baptismal moment, Good News to be proclaimed and taught. And epiphany experienced must now become the Gospel lived and revealed.
In seminary, we were taught that today is one of the four days of the church year especially appropriate for baptisms to be scheduled, and even when a baptism isn’t held, it is fitting to recite and renew our own Baptismal Covenant. As we remember Our Lord’s Baptism, we would do well to remember that whenever it was that we came up from the waters of our own baptism, whether only recently or decades ago, we came up from those waters a new person in Christ, a child of God called to make the Lord manifest and known in our world today. Our own baptism unites who we are today with the same Holy Spirit, the same power given to Jesus, the “Beloved One” of the Father, at his own baptism in the Jordan and first revealed all those centuries ago. And, somehow, in some unfathomable, sacramental way, through that same Holy Spirit, our baptism unites us one with another, and unites us with every other baptized person, whoever they may be, and whenever they lived.
Miraculously, the sacrament of baptism exists outside and carries us beyond the boundaries of time. And not constrained by the limits of time and space, Christ dwells not just two thousand years ago, but with us today, still here now to be seen and discovered by those who, like the Magi, are willing to journey far from the commonplace in their quest for understanding and knowledge.
I wonder what the first reaction of the Wise Men was when they entered into that Bethlehem stable. Awe? Faith? Belief? Understanding? Surprise perhaps, that they were not led to a magnificent palace, but to a stable behind a small nondescript inn? Or astonishment that they were met not with trumpets and fanfare, but with a simple welcome by an overwhelmed young peasant mother holding a newborn child wrapped not in silk and lace, but in simple swaddling clothes? I think it is likely that their initial reaction was probably disappointment – after all, this was not at all what they expected and had traveled so far to see. Only as a second response was there awe and understanding and faith and belief, and the opening and giving of their treasure chests.
Like the Wise Ones from the East, we too must be willing to leave the comfort of our preconceived notions and prejudices when seeking our Savior. We must be willing to look for the Christ not in places we choose to go, but where we are led. We must be willing to look for the Christ in places others refuse to enter, whether it be at a homeless shelter, in a soup kitchen, underneath a highway overpass, or in the filth and foul smells of a stable.
The Magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We, in contrast, must bring and open and give something even more valuable - the treasured gift of ourselves - as we encounter Christ alive and present in the elderly, in children, in refugees, and the dispossessed, and the marginalized - in all the vulnerable and defenseless people of our world.
We must be open to – even expect – epiphanies of Christ in the sacramental moments of our own lives. Christ is manifest here this morning in the bread and wine of this Communion we will share. But remember that sacramental moments don’t only occur in a sanctuary. Christ is also there when we turn to him in confident prayer, and present in those times when we find ourselves without words and on the point of despair. He is revealed in both the quiet places of our hearts, and in the throb and cacophony and chaos of our cities.
But Christ is not ours to hold or keep. He is not ours to possess. As we are known to God from before our birth . . . as we are claimed by Christ in the waters of baptism . . . so must we now become, in and through the opening and giving of ourselves and our lives, the epiphany and revelation of Christ’s presence in our world today.
We are called to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”
Called to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”
Called to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
In our Baptismal Covenant we find our Epiphany challenge, to reveal Christ in the world.
And not just for today.
Not just for a season.
But for a lifetime.