Epiphany/Baptism of Christ

TEXTS: Matthew 2:1-12 and Mark 1:4-11


Today we find ourselves celebrating—simultaneously—two of the great festivals of the Christian Church: Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ.

Epiphany Day always falls on January 6 (Saturday, this year). And—in our modern liturgical calendar—the first Sunday following that is celebrated as “the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord”.

Now, originally, the Baptism of Christ was observed on Epiphany, as part of a celebration commemorating the coming of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana. Over time in the West, however, the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord became a distinct feast from Epiphany. In most Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the Baptism of the Lord is still celebrated as an integral part of the January 6th date, called the Great Feast of the Theophany. 

Today, I’m going to tie the two ancient threads back together by using not one, but two, gospel lessons.

First, we hear about the wise men bringing their odd gifts to the Christ Child. Then we hear about the adult Jesus coming to the Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John. Ancient traditions aside … perhaps you find yourself wondering how these two events can possibly be connected. Is that a head-scratcher? Well, take heart! Because this day is all about finding things. Including, perhaps, yourself.

Remember what the word “epiphany” means. Spelled with a capital “E,” Epiphany is the religious day we’re all familiar with. But that, really, is a secondary meaning of the word.

According to the dictionary definition, an epiphany takes place “when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you or a powerful religious experience.”

In other words, “epiphany” is about revelation. It’s about things being revealed, uncovered, brought to light. It’s about “a-ha” moments, about realizing something that makes you sit bolt upright in shock. It’s about profound truth suddenly becoming crystal clear.

Consider the familiar story we read in Matthew, chapter two. The “wise men from the east”—whom we call Magi—were members of a learned class in ancient Persia. They were among the best-educated people of their time, and they specialized in the study of heavenly bodies in the night sky. However, beyond simply observing the constellations, they also believed that the stars and planets could reveal things about events here on earth. Today, we would call them astrologers, and you might expect them to have a horoscope column in the newspaper.

Whatever stock you place in astrology, these wise men seem to have known what they were talking about. Their celestial observations led them to conclude that a new king was about to be born in Judea, and they decided to go and see him.

Now, like I said, these were clever people. They must have realized that this was no ordinary king, but someone who was going to be of great importance to all humankind. Otherwise, I’m not sure why Persians would give a hoot about a new heir to the Jewish throne. Maybe they had some idea of what a “messiah” was. Maybe they hoped—as later many Jews would also hope—that this new king would defeat the Roman Empire, which the Persians viewed as a serious threat.

We can’t know any of that for sure, of course, but this much is clear: these wise men thought they already had their epiphany. They thought they had things all figured out.

And so when they got to Judea … Where did they go looking for the new-born king? In Jerusalem, of course!

That seems logical, doesn’t it? If you’re looking for the king, you go to the capital city. The new king must be the son of the old king … right? So you show up at the royal palace, asking: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Matt. 2:2).

Well, you know the story. You know there’s another epiphany in store for the Magi—because they quickly learn that they haven’t got it all figured out.

For one thing, the current ruler of Judea—Herod—has no clue what they’re talking about, and is none too pleased to discover that he has a rival for his throne.

For another thing, they find out that they got their directions wrong. The One whom they seek is to be found not in a palace in Jerusalem, but in a modest home in Bethlehem, about eight kilometres to the south.

Of course, none of this matters, in the end. Their mistakes don’t matter. Their missteps are of little consequence. When they finally do arrive on Jesus’ doorstep, the Bible tells us that they are “overwhelmed with joy” (Matt. 2:10). To me, that sounds like what they found at the end of their journey was even better than what they had expected. In other words, it was a real epiphany!

And that’s the Epiphany story we’re used to hearing, in our Western branch of the Christian Church. But—as I said before—in the Eastern churches, on Epiphany Day, we would not be hearing only about the Magi. No. We would also be hearing the second gospel reading I chose for today.

We would be hearing about the 30-something Jesus coming to the Jordan River to be plunged beneath its chilly stream in a baptism of repentance. And as he emerges from the water, Jesus sees “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And then he hears a voice from heaven, saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11).

Now, why is this part of the Epiphany story, in the churches of the East? Well, it’s because they remain in touch with a very old tradition about Jesus—one which says that, at the moment of his baptism, he had his own profound epiphany.

In other words, this was the moment when the grown man finally understood—fully and completely—the exact nature of the mission God had given him. This was when Jesus finally “got” it, finally grasped the meaning of those bizarre stories his mother had told him—about shepherds and angels and wise men, about gold and frankincense and myrrh, about the mighty God of heaven being his real Father.

This is not a tradition that has been emphasized here in the West. And the reason, I think, has to do with a kind of discomfort on our part—a discomfort with the idea that Jesus was actually human.

Do you know what I mean?

We affirm—correctly—that Christ was God incarnate, fully divine. And we affirm—correctly—that he was fully human. But we have trouble sorting out what all that means.

We think that, if Jesus was God, he must have known all that there was to know about everything—and so the idea that he could have received a shocking revelation at his baptism seems incongruent. But look: don’t we believe that the Baby born in Bethlehem was a helpless infant? Didn’t he have to learn to crawl before he could walk?

As a bright teenager once pointed out to me, limitation is the very essence of humanity. As she said: “Isn’t that what we mean when we say, ‘I’m only human’?”

If Jesus of Nazareth was truly and fully human, he must have had limitations. If he was really and truly one of us, then he must have been subject to revelations—to epiphanies, to “a-ha” moments—just as we are.

In each of the gospel accounts, Jesus’ baptism is portrayed as a turning point in his life. From that moment on, things changed for him. After that epiphany—after that “a-ha” moment—the life of Christ had a sharp focus, and his ministry picked up steam.

If the Christian life—the life of discipleship—is about following Jesus, about striving to be like him, should we not expect to have our own moments of epiphany? Shouldn’t we be seeking them out? Shouldn’t we be making our own journeys to Bethlehem—and to the Jordan?

The truth is, we are making those journeys—whether we know it, or not. And we will have those moments of epiphany—whether we expect them, or not.

Some of you, I know, already realize this. Some of you have already had an epiphany or two. Let me tell you about one of mine. It took place when my now-grown-up son was a newborn infant, and Iris and myself had received this awful news that he had a serious heart defect, and needed emergency surgery. Several well-meaning ministry folk came to me and said something like, “You must be terribly angry with God.” And they wanted me to know that it was O.K. to be mad at God about this, that I shouldn’t feel guilty about it, but should just express it, just let my anger out.

Now, I have to say, I knew what they were getting at. If God is all-powerful and all-loving, it’s hard to understand how He could let my son—or any child—be born with this kind of cross to bear. And I also have to say that, in the years since, as I’ve received formal training in the field, I’ve discovered that most pastors are trained to say this sort of thing.

I might even say this myself to someone—if that person was facing something like this, and was in fact angry—because, let me tell you, God is big enough to bear human anger. And He is a God of love, and He won’t condemn you.

However, in point of fact, when those words were said to me—when people said, “You must be angry with God”—I realized that I was not angry. And as soon as I realized that, I was puzzled. I was a bit surprised. Because I understood the logic. Why had God allowed my son to be born with a defective heart?

Well, I did not know the answer to that question then—and I don’t know the answer now, either. But that’s not important. What’s important is this: the very next thought that entered my mind was, “The God I know does not torture babies!” And then, the very next thought that entered my mind was: “I know who God is!”

I know who God is! I did not know that I knew that. And I was shocked. I was dumbfounded.

But after I got over the shock, after my mind stopped reeling from the implications of this epiphany, all kinds of other things that had never made sense suddenly made perfect sense. And more than that, I knew that—however things turned out—my son was going to be all right, and so was I, and so was Iris.

Not long after that, I made the decision to pursue accountable ministry as a career. Or, to be more honest about it, I finally understood that I really had been hearing a call to ministry for a long time … and I’d been resisting it.

Someone else I know had his “a-ha” moment—his epiphany—sitting in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, across the table from someone he really did not care for very much. But on this day, sitting at this table, my friend was telling his own sad story of addiction—confessing the depths to which alcohol had plunged him—and he was finding it hard to do, because he felt so ashamed.

But then, he told me, he looked up, and he caught the gaze of this fellow sitting across from him—this person he did not like—and in the man’s eyes he saw something amazing, something that caught him up short, and stunned him for a moment. As my friend described it to me, what he saw in this man’s eyes was “the loving and compassionate gaze of Christ.”

All at once he realized that—whether or not he approved of this fellow, or was willing to accept him—the man across the table accepted him completely. In his look, there was no judgment, no condemnation. There was only unconditional love.

For my friend, that was his turning point. At that moment, something inside him was changed, forever. Until that day, his struggle to break alcohol’s grip on his life had been unsuccessful—yet, since that day, he has remained sober. He can’t explain exactly why, except to say that he met Christ sitting across from him at that A.A. table—and Christ’s love healed him.

Epiphanies. We don’t always understand them. Perhaps we never quite expect them. But I believe we all have them. They are evidence of God’s grace toward us. They provide us with hope for the future, and strength for the present—and I think they also, always, challenge us somehow.

Through this church season of Epiphany—which, this year, is going to last for over a month—I urge you to take some time to remember the “a-ha” moments in your own spiritual lives. And—if you feel able to—I hope you share them with one another. I hope you share them with me. Leave a comment. I’d love to hear your “epiphany” stories, because, my friends, sharing them is a way of sharing the good news of Christ. Thank God we have them! Amen.

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