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Sermon: God’s Epiphany

January 9, 2011

Matthew 3:13-17; Acts 10:34-43

Those of you who were here last Sunday know that we celebrated the Epiphany last week.  Many of you also know that the actual day of Epiphany is January 6.  Between now and Ash Wednesday on March 9th, we are in the season known as “the Sundays after the Epiphany.”  And, as you can see from the monitors, my sermon title is “God’s Epiphany.”

I know that all of you are thinking the same thing:  “What in the world is Epiphany?”

The season of Epiphany, of course, immediately follows the Christmas season in the Christian calendar, and so, of course, many people assume that Epiphany is a season of dread, the time for awaiting our first credit card statements after Christmas.  Others have thought that Epiphany is the season of death and decay, like the dead Christmas tree at curbside.  Actually, though, Epiphany is not a season of dread, or death and decay.  It has a much more positive and hopeful outlook.

The word “epiphany” means “to reveal.”  It is an appearance, a manifestation.  In the context of the Church, we mean to say that it is God who has revealed God’s own self to us.  That is really the heart of the Christmas message.  In Jesus, God made an appearance here on earth.  Jesus is the great Epiphany.  In Jesus, God has said, “Here I am.  This is who I am.”

We always celebrate the baptism of Jesus on the first Sunday after January 6.  And one of the first things people say when we study the baptism of Jesus is, “Really?  Jesus was baptized?  Did he need to be baptized?”  After all, Jesus is God’s Epiphany, the great appearance of God on earth.  In fact, John the Baptist was out there at the Jordan River dunking all sorts of people who came to him to receive a sign of the forgiveness of their sins, and John saw Jesus coming for baptism, and even he said, “You?  Jesus?  You don’t need to be baptized.  If anything, you should be baptizing me.”

But Jesus said, “No, this is right,” and like everyone else—like you and me—Jesus was baptized.

That’s where the similarity between us and Jesus ends.  I don’t know about you, but when I was baptized, nothing spectacular happened.  It was a nice, meaningful moment, but the heavens did not open up.  A dove did not descend upon my head, and no one but the pastor spoke.  There was no heavenly voice: “This is my Son!”  There is a difference between the baptism of Jesus and my baptism.  There is a significant difference between Jesus and me.

Our baptisms mark us as God’s children.  Jesus’ baptism marked him as something else.  In the book of Acts, Peter made a speech about Jesus.  He said that the message of Jesus Christ was one of peace and forgiveness of sins.  Peace between God and Creation, and forgiveness of sins for you and me.  That message, that mission, was given to Jesus.  He was the one chosen and anointed by God for that task.  He was the one given the gift of the power of the Holy Spirit to preach, heal and die on a cross so that God’s peace and forgiveness could be realized.  We are baptized, but Jesus was baptized.

One of the most important things that scripture and worship teach us is that we are not God.  We like to play God.  We like to think that our powers and goodness are limitless.  We like to think that we know best.  But we usually don’t.  While Jesus comes to us where we are and shares the life that we know—with all its troubles, tribulations and joys—while he shares in our baptism, the reality is that Jesus has a unique role in God’s kingdom, and we can never step into his shoes and fill that role.  We can witness to Jesus.  We can share his love and compassion with others.  We can love him back.  But we can never be Jesus Christ.  As Peter said in the speech in Acts, “Jesus Christ…is Lord of all.”  You are not, and—as much as I like to think I am—I am not.

The heavens opened up to Jesus at his baptism, not to me.  That means I am not the One.  I am not the One God has chosen to embody the divine message of God’s peace and forgiveness.  The success or failure of this divine enterprise does not rest on my weak and weary shoulders.  I am not ultimately responsible for the salvation of the world, and that’s a pretty big relief.

In theory, that ought to make Christians very humble people—humble in the way we serve our Lord, humble in the way we represent our faith, and humble in our relationships.  In theory, that ought to be the case, and there are many people who have lived lives of deep humility in gratitude for all God has done for them through Jesus Christ.  There are people like Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to loving people who just don’t matter in the structure of our present world.  She never sought the spotlight, and only entered it because her life inspired others and her fame could be a help to the destitute people she served.

People like that are all around us, people like Jim Benedict, a member of this congregation until his death.  Before I knew Jim, he was a well-known heart surgeon who pioneered new techniques.  When I knew him, he was in retirement.  He could have chosen to live out his life in luxury, but instead chose to continue to serve.  In his retirement, Jim probably fixed as many church toilets as he had hearts during his working life.  People with that same spirit of humility are around us all the time.  Some of them are sitting here with you today, and you know who they are.

Those are the people I most admire.  It seems to me that they are the ones who “got it.”  They are the ones who have figured out the key to faith and life is knowing that there is one God, and it ain’t me.  As a result, their lives had true value to the kingdom of God, and to their brothers and sisters on this planet.

It makes me wonder what I can do to live a more humble life.  I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions, but if I were to do so, this might be the year to take steps to live with more humility.  One definition of humility says that the truly humble person “willingly submits…to God and to others for God’s sake.”  St. Bernard said that humility comes when we know who we really are.  (New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia, “Humility”.)  We really are children of God, but we are not God.  We are not the ones God has chosen to bring salvation to God’s creatures.

But Jesus is the One.  Jesus is God’s epiphany, the one who reveals God’s self and God’s intentions to us.  God intends peace and forgiveness, and Jesus came to live among us, to teach and heal, to die and rise again so that we can carry the peace of God in our hearts with the knowledge that we are forgiven.  That is why Jesus Christ was born; that is why he was baptized; that is why, even though he was entitled to the honor due a king, he lived among us as a humble servant.  So if God shows such remarkable humility and love toward us, perhaps I can manage to be at least a little bit humble this year.

And now, in that spirit, please turn to page 50 of your hymnal for our reaffirmation of baptism.

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