January 7, 2024
Celebration of Epiphany
Baptism of the Lord
In our secular calendar, this is the first Sunday in the New Year. This might itself be the basis of a decent sermon, but that solution that is not available within the liturgical tradition, which challenges the preacher with a three layered view of this particular Sunday.
First, an arguably most important, it is the Sunday on which we celebrate Epiphany, usually with a focus on the visit of the wise men (sorry – I just can’t say “wise persons” in this context), and, as she has for number of years, Emmy Lu enriched this focus just now with her reading of T. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”. The biblical account from Mathew 2 has its own problems because we traditionally celebrate the wise men’s visit on Christmas Eve and again on Epiphany. Dealing with this discrepancy is actually made easier by the fact that the entire Christmas story lacks any historical basis and was probably made up decades after the fact to call attention to the divine aspect of Jesus as the Christ. What seems to us to be discrepancies and inconsistencies become much less important in the context of myth rather than history.
Another confusing aspect of Epiphany is that it is actually on January 6, yesterday, regardless of the day of the week, twelve days (yes, that twelve days) after Christmas. Since this is usually a week day, and not even the same one every year, we in Celebration Circle simply lack the energy to plan a special service on Epiphany, and if we did this, we are convinced that the attendance would be minimal. (Parenthetically, we experimented several years ago with having a service on Good Friday. You voted with your feet, and that that was discontinued. So we are not going to try this with Epiphany.) We celebrate Epiphany on the first Sunday after the Twelfth Day.
Further liturgically complicating this Sunday is that it is also designated as the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. The lectionary provides four readings on this theme, including the familiar one from Mark about Jesus coming to John the Baptizer to be immersed in the Jordan. I will have more to say about this in a moment. For now I just want to note that the celebration this major event Jesus’ life, the beginning of his ministry that was to change the world, sometimes gets lost in the liturgical calendar.
The final calendar twist to this Sunday is that it is actually the First Sunday after Epiphany. There is not a separate set of readings for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, the apparent assumption being that two sets for one Sunday is enough, and we do have several more Sundays “after Epiphany” to reflect on the Epiphany themes.
Appearances thus far to the contrary, this is not intended to be a sermon about the liturgical calendar. What I want to share with you are some thoughts about how Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus are not as separate as I, for one, first thought and how their convergence on the same Sunday may enrich our understanding of both.
Epiphany, more than any other of our liturgical seasons, is associated with light. The Hebrew scripture reading, from Isaiah 60, begins “Arise, shine for your light has come! …
Though darkness still covers the earth and dense clouds unshroud the people, upon you The Holy One now dawns, and God’s glory will be seen among you.” And for many, Matthew’s account of the visit of the wise men is more about that exceptionally bright star that they follow which “went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay.” More than the visitors or even the baby Jesus, the focus of this story for many is on the bright celestial object, that source of abundant, guiding light that called the wise ones to begin their journey and led them to its conclusion.
And with the light comes transformation. Another aspect of Epiphany is transformation. Marilyn Macentyre, writing in The Progressive Christian notes that
Epiphany is divine disclosure—an “aha!” moment when the whole frame of reference shifts and we see something we couldn’t see before that changes the terms of everything else. It’s the moment of “getting it” when the joke makes sense, or the math problem or the key to a nagging problem. The moment of recognition changes our behavior, our attitude, mood, our plans.
With this understanding of Epiphany as transforming light in mind, I would like to share with you the account from Mark 1 of Jesus’ Baptism.
And so John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. 6 John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. 7 In the course of his preaching, John said, “One more powerful than I is to come after me. I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal straps. 8 I have baptized you in water, but the One to come will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.” 9 It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. 10 Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.” (The Inclusive Bible)
Jesus baptism was an epiphany event both because of the immediate presence of God and because it was a major step in the transformation of this skilled workman (woodworker, mason) into the prophetic voice of salvation. I began work on this sermon thinking that it was going to be something of a challenge, reflecting on two such diverse stories as the account of the wise men and the baptism of Jesus at the same time. There is so much that can be said about each of them that looking at both in a reasonably short time seemed daunting. But now I know that the point of today’s liturgical calendar coincidence is not to see the two passages separately but to notice how they come together. Just as the appearance of the star of Bethlehem made a major change in the lives of the wise men, so Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan was transformational for him, an epiphany, a “divine disclosure…when the whole frame of reference shifts and we see something we couldn’t see before.”