Epiphany and Baptism of Jesus
TEXTS: Matthew 2:1-12 and Matthew 3:13-17
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Today’s first gospel reading is, of course, the familiar reading for Epiphany Day (which was Friday, January 6). It’s the story of the “three kings” who “traverse afar” to visit the baby Jesus in his rude manger in the stable in Bethlehem. Except, of course, if we read the Scripture text carefully, we see that they are not referred to there as kings, it does not say there were three of them, and they visited Jesus in “a house,” not a stable.
No matter. However many of them there were, they did visit Jesus, they did bring him gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they did travel a long distance to see him. These “wise men” (or Magi) were most likely from Persia, and might have been on the road for as long as two years before they got to Jesus, who almost certainly was not an infant any longer by the time they saw him.
Then there’s our other gospel text for this morning, which is Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)
This second reading the assigned gospel text for the First Sunday After the Epiphany, which is known in the church calendar as “Baptism of Christ Sunday.”
So, is there a reason for using both texts today? (I mean, besides wanting to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”)
Yes, there is. In fact, there are a couple of good reasons. First, both Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ are important festival days in the church year. Epiphany is held in such esteem that many Christians celebrate it with a church service and a family celebration, no matter what day of the week it happens to fall on.
And as for the Baptism of Christ—well, there is an ancient tradition (still emphasized by the eastern church) which says that it was at the moment of his baptism that Jesus finally understood who he was.
Do you see what I mean? It was at the moment of his baptism that Jesus the carpenter’s son finally got it—finally understood, in a flash of brilliant clarity, just who he was in the eyes of God! Understood his vocation. Understood what God was calling him to do.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (as the heavenly voice says in Mark 1:11).
It is in relation to this flash of insight—this revelation—that we come to the second reason for celebrating both days in this one blog. For it is the idea of revelation—of revealing or illuminating or uncovering something—which connects Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ.
The word epiphany means “a revealing,” or “an illumination.” In the story of the Magi’s visit to Jesus, a whole bunch of things get revealed. Traditionally, the big thing that happens is that Christ is made known to the gentiles—because, of course, the wise men were not Jews. But a whole lot of other things come to light, too.
First, the Magi—who have come to the royal court in Jerusalem because that seems like a logical place to look for a newborn king—find out that the incumbent king has no idea what they’re talking about. And so it’s up to the scribes to inform King Herod, who is none too pleased to discover that God is about to overthrow his dynasty. Nevertheless, Herod points the wise men toward Bethlehem, secretly hoping they will lead him to the child so he can destroy it.
The Magi make their way to Jesus, and must have been surprised to discover him in relatively humble surroundings (which ought to have revealed to them that when God makes a King, he doesn’t throw in a royal palace or an earthly throne). I think Mary and Joseph must have been surprised, too; it’s not every day that an ordinary person gets a chest of gold at a baby shower!
Of course, the final revelation to the wise men comes in the form of a divine warning delivered in a dream: “Don’t go back to King Herod—the guy is bad news!”
Now, fast-forward about 30 years. John the Baptist, a charismatic preacher and desert mystic, has been moving about the Judean countryside, stirring people up with his hellfire-and-brimstone sermons and baptizing them by immersion in the Jordan River.
The child whom the wise ones visited has now grown up. And the man Jesus, moved by the Baptist’s preaching, comes to the riverbank to be baptized. John obliges him, plunging him into the cold, running water. And then there is this amazing, dramatic moment when everything becomes clear as crystal. As Jesus comes up out of the water, he hears the voice of God, claiming his as His own Son.
Then, right away—at the beginning of chapter four—the next paragraph begins with the words: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). And Luke’s gospel tells us: “Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his work” (Luke 3:23).
“When he began his work.” He was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit so that he could begin his work—begin it by preparing himself for it through prayer and fasting and contemplation. The wilderness—because of its isolation—is a perfect place for that sort of thing.
He was already a grown man—and a quite mature person by the standards of his time. He had probably been earning a living for himself and his family since he was 13. Very likely, he had taken up Joseph’s trade, had been a carpenter, had been settled in it. Maybe he had a prospering business, was good at what he did, thought he knew where his life was going.
But then something happened. God happened. And in a flash, everything was different. His life was changed. His plans were changed. And everything he thought was important suddenly didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered now was following the path which lay before him, which God’s light had so brilliantly illuminated.
Have you ever had an experience like that? Have you ever had a moment of such life-changing clarity?
We can still expect such an encounter, because that’s what Epiphany is all about. It is like seeing the face of God, shown to us in the person of Jesus—first as a tiny infant, then as a grown man.
And there is something real and present about the love Jesus has for us—love so great that it led him to lay down his life for us. Such great love has to make an impression upon us, if we will just open ourselves up to it. And if we do, it will change us forever.
That’s a gift that’s better than gold, or frankincense, or myrrh—and it is offered freely, to anyone who wants it. My prayer this day—for every one of you—is that you shall come to want this gift, that you will accept it, and that you will cherish it, and be forever changed by it. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
And if you DO want to sing “We Three Kings” … check out this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0BJonwPCds