Epiphany Sunday/Baptism of Christ
TEXTS: Matthew 2:1-12 and Luke 3:15-22
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.” (Matt. 2:1-2)
Today we are observing not one, but two important festivals from the calendar of the Christian church. And so we have not one, but two gospel readings.
The first one is prescribed for Epiphany Day (which was actually on January 6). It tells 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, or even further east. They might have been on the road for as long as two or three 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—also from Matthew’s gospel—which is the assigned text for “Baptism of Christ Sunday”:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
Did we have to use both texts today?
Well, no, we didn’t. We could have ignored Epiphany altogether and focused exclusively upon the Baptism of our Lord.
But I think that would have been a real shame. 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 (well-known in the eastern church), which says that—at the moment of his baptism—Jesus finally understood who he was.
At the moment of his baptism, the carpenter’s boy saw, in a flash of brilliant clarity, just who he was in relation to God. Understood his vocation. Understood what God was calling him to do.
It seems to me that both stories—about the visit of the Magi and about the baptism of Jesus … Both of these are stories about birth.
In the first instance, there is the literal birth of a child. Jesus is born to Mary and Joseph and is visited by the Magi.
In the second instance, there is a metaphorical birth—the turning point where a light switches on, and a new life begins.
And the idea of revelation—of revealing or illuminating or uncovering something—intimately connects Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ. After all, 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, also.
First, the Magi—who have approached the royal court in Jerusalem because that seems like a logical place to look for a newborn king …
Well, they 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.
Then, the Magi make their way to Jesus … and they must have been shocked to discover him in humble surroundings (which ought to have revealed to them that when God makes a King, he doesn’t necessarily throw in a royal palace or an earthly throne).
I think Mary and Joseph must have been shocked, too; it’s not every day that you get 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.
When Mark describes this same event, he has the voice from heaven speak directly to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
It is a moment of revelation—of epiphany—not only for those bystanders who heard the voice, but for Jesus, as well. In Matthew’s account, this is made quite explicit. Remember? It says:
“… when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matt. 3:16).
Notice that? “Suddenly the heavens were opened to him.”
A-ha! This was an “a-ha” moment for Jesus—and, according to that ancient tradition, this was the moment when the carpenter’s son from Nazareth finally got it. This was the moment when he understood—fully and completely—exactly what God was calling him to do, and to be.
This was Jesus’ own, personal, moment of epiphany. This was the moment, perhaps, when everything suddenly made sense. All those stories he’d heard from his mother about the angels and the shepherds and the visitors from far away—that’s what they were all about!
And this idea she had about God being his Father … it was way more than just a figure of speech!
Well, maybe those kinds of thoughts were running through Jesus’ head … the Bible doesn’t really tell us. But when the heavens were opened to him, something got revealed—something that shook him to his core.
As I said, that’s the ancient tradition—and that’s why the feast of the Epiphany is linked as closely to Jesus’ baptism as it is to Jesus’ birth.
This is profound stuff! Serious stuff.
Immediately following his baptism, the devil makes a last-ditch effort to throw Jesus off-course. In all three of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—Jesus moves directly from the river to the desert. As Matthew’s account tells us: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1).
Luke’s Gospel adds a detail, saying: “Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his work” (Luke 3:23).
“When he began his work.” He was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to face daunting challenges.
Why? 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 the perfect place to hear the “still-small voice” of God.
Jesus was by now a grown man—and a mature person by the standards of his time. He had most likely been earning a living since he was around 13.
Probably, 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 transformed. His plans were radically altered. And most everything he had considered important suddenly did not matter anymore. All that mattered now was following the path which lay before him, which God’s light had so brilliantly illuminated.
I wonder … Have you ever had an experience like that? An epiphany? Have you ever had a moment of such life-changing clarity?
We can still expect such encounters, 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.
Moreover, there truly is something real … and present … about the love Jesus has for us. A love so great that it led him to lay down his life for us. Such great love has to make an impression upon us, doesn’t it? If we will just open ourselves up to it. If we do, it will change us forever.
That is the gift of epiphany. It’s more precious than gold, much better than frankincense, or myrrh. And it is offered freely, to anyone who will accept it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.