Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th, is the celebration of the revealing of Jesus as Messiah to the gentiles, the non-Jewish believers. According to Matthew, the first gentiles to acknowledge Christ as Lord were the magi, the philosopher kings who came from the east. That’s why we eat lots of gallettes des roi on Epiphany!
Just in time, a new book came out this week entitled, All Things Shining, by Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly of Harvard. Their book is a succinct summary of western philosophy. They observe that the most real things in life “well up and take us over.” They call this experience, “whooshing up.” Whooshing up happens at a sports arena, at a political rally or magical moments while out in nature...(1)
As we begin a new year, we read about one of the whooshing up moments at the beginning of Jesus ministry, his baptism. Although short and sweet, our gospel text records an epiphany filled with fascination and questions. For instance, have you ever wondered why Jesus chose to be baptized? The Messiah, very God of very God, came to be baptized. And we know that John's baptisms were for the forgiveness of sins, because John called for repentance with such intensity and consistency. Yet the Scriptures teach us that though he was tempted, Jesus was without sin.
Why was Jesus baptized? It's puzzling isn't it? And not just to us. Remember John the Baptists' first words to him? "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" In other words, John says, "What's going on here? Why are you doing this?"
Jesus' cousin, John, came from the desert wilderness into the world around Jerusalem, preaching repentance. He said that the social and spiritual integrity of God's chosen was going downhill, from bad to worse. He called people to turn their lives around and he clinched it with a call to rid themselves of their former ways and start with a clean slate. He ritualized his call with the dramatic action of baptism: calling people into the Jordan river to be washed clean so they could start anew. From the Gospel reports, John was effective and people were being baptized. People were repenting. And then Jesus walked 75 miles from Galilee to the Jordan were John was baptizing and asked John for baptism. But why baptism? Why this ceremonial rite for Jesus?
The answer, I believe, is two-fold. By this act of going to John to be baptized, by this act of joining with the people who were acknowledging their lives were empty, messed up, uncertain, and needing a fresh start, Jesus publicly demonstrates the meaning of the Incarnation. God has come to us. God has joined with us in our world, in our condition, in our predicament. God knows what life is really like for you and me. What a humbling experience for God to take on the form of our broken humanity. Jesus came to us as a humble servant, to enter into a new beginning with us; to call us to a new life.
In a sense, Jesus was not experiencing a “whooshing up,” but a “whooshing down…” And that’s what I’d like for you to consider as the goal of discipleship as we begin a new year together. The movement downward did not change for Jesus upon his baptism. He lowered himself all the way, so that we might be raised with him to new life. God shows intentional love for us by entering into the chaos and uncertainty of our world, even to the point of sharing in the death of our old ways and the fresh start of our new life in Baptism. Jesus went down into the waters of baptism as way of illustrating the way of God’s salvation: it requires even God to assume a servant posture of humility.
But the second aspect of why Jesus was baptized is revealed in the heavenly response. While Jesus is and can identify with the struggles of being human, Jesus is also divine. God made it perfectly clear, in a very direct and dramatic way. God, in a voice from heaven, said, "This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased!" Powerfully and without any doubt, it is declared that this Jesus of Nazareth is of God and that God took great pleasure in who he is and in what he is about! This happened a few times in the Biblical narrative of Jesus' life. The angels in the birth announcement stated: 'This is the one!" And at the end of this Epiphany season, we will commemorate the Transfiguration, where on a mountaintop, God announced to Peter, James and John, "Hear well, you disciples, This is the One!" And on this day of Jesus' baptism, there is no room for doubt, the Spirit of God reached down, the voice boomed over the desert: "This is the One!" Baptism, going into the watery chaos of our world and lives, was a way of fulfilling all righteousness for Jesus, God of gods! It was an act of love for humanity. God did not remain aloof, or distant, but plunged down into the mysterious waters of life and death, revealing “he is the one.”
But there remains a crucial concern for us as we face this new year as a faith community: Is Jesus the one for us? Is Jesus' baptism and his ministry for us? For Jesus, the heavens were opened, the Spirit of God descended, and a voice from heaven was heard! That probably didn't happen to you in 2010, and I suspect it may not in 2011. So many of us try to weigh our options and make resolutions about how we will be more responsible, more healthy, more peaceful people, but after a few weeks of predictable frustration and rationalization, we turn back to our old ways. We don’t experience enough of the “whooshing up” moments of life, and so feel as though we need something else…
My invitation to each one of you here this morning is to re-orient your life around Christ, the one who came as a humble servant and shows us that the path of greatness is through humble service, through “whooshing down” moments, if you will. This is the one who, Paul writes, "humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!" That doesn't mean re-orienting around a list of I-need-to-do's for the year resolutions, or even proposals, but simply focusing our hearts and minds on the love Jesus shows toward us, his grace and his compassion for all people. That means not looking so much for “whooshing up” experiences, but rather looking for opportunities to get on our knees and pray and serve…
I was reading through the pastoral epistles over the holidays, those letters to Timothy and Titus. The author uses a beautiful greeting: “Grace, mercy and peace…” While we focused on grace last year, I feel called to focus on mercy this year. Mercy, if you will, emerges from grace and moves us toward peace, toward the healing and wholeness that God desires for us and all creation. Perhaps we can begin to reflect on how God’s grace leads us to live in ways that reveal more of God’s mercy to the world? Especially during a time when we read about how Christian communities are being singled out for attack in some countries around the world, wouldn’t it be wonderful to celebrate Epiphany in ways that reflect the glory of God’s mercy, not just to our friends but even to our enemies?
When you were baptized or confirmed, you were asked questions like, "Who is your Lord and Savior?", and "Do you trust in him?" and "Will you obey his word and show his love?" When I suggest that we re-orient around Christ, it means that we reaffirm him as Lord and Savior in our lives, that we trust him with our futures, and that we will seek to obey him and show his love in this New Year. But I wander if we might need to redefine what it means to give our lives to Christ anew, to repent, to “change our minds” about what Jesus’ Lordship should produce in our lives? May I suggest that very simply, if our obedience doesn’t produce more mercy, then I think we are still in need of repentance…
I was visiting the Shakespeare and Company book store with Kim and my parents this week… I came across a book whose title made me pick it up and start reading. It’s called, Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schultz, and explores how wonderful it is to be right, but how often times we are wrong about so many things. Perhaps one way that we can begin to show mercy is to recognize that many of our assumptions about other people are, if not wrong, in need of some questioning. Maybe we need to reconsider how we’ve understood what it means to follow Jesus, to be confessing Christians, to be those who cry out “Lord, Lord!” I would suggest to you that the prophets all conclude that if our lives do not manifest mercy and compassion, it is likely that we are dead wrong, even if we get all the words about faith technically correct… This is worth sober reflection.
Spending time with my family this week, I was reminded of my grandfather Mosemann. He was an interesting fellow who I may have mentioned before. He was an earnest Christian man, the son of a bishop… but got kicked out of the Mennonite church in Lancaster, because he spent too much time with the “fancy,” as opposed to the “plain” people of the community. He just wanted to share the gospel with anyone who would listen, and so he spent time with people who were very different from those people in the church. And for that he was thrown out.
But what is most amazing to me is how my grandfather showed mercy to strangers. One story is striking. My grandfather’s brother had just stopped in on his way home to Virginia to visit, and while they were talking, they heard a knock at the front door. An African man, a Zimbabwean, appeared and said that his car had broken down. He was on his way to pick up his family at the airport, and he needed help. This was in the early 1960’s in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. My grandfather gave him his car to use. The man returned with his family, and over the coming years they became friends. Some people might have said he was wrong to do what he did… But he was merciful.
That’s the surprising invitation of this season of Epiphany. We are called to reveal the grace, mercy and peace of Jesus Christ for the world to see. We are called to be an epiphany people, a light to the nations! Jesus invites all those who are looking for a new beginning to follow him - to go on the journey of life with him. But he doesn’t promise whooshing up moments, as much as he calls us to follow him into the whooshing down moments of humble service. The Lord invites us to go low and enter the waters of Baptism, to re-orient around his love and obedient example. The Lord invites you to renewal of life as epiphany people who shine forth in creative ways the tender mercy of God.
In the name of the One who was and is and is to come: the Light of the World. Amen.
(1) David Brooks, “The Arena Culture,” The International Herald Tribune (Monday, January 3, 2011).