We See Jesus Baptized and Are Made Agents of His Grace
When it comes to daily life, sometimes it seems like we’re going nowhere on Interstate 95 for 24 hours with thousands of other travelers hoping not to starve to death before the ice melts, or we’re zipping along at 95 miles an hour on California’s 405 praying fervently that no one suddenly hits the brakes. Christmas is the holiday 405; Epiphany is more of a going nowhere slowly experience. I hear now the sound and fury of pastors and lay folk who love the season of light that is Epiphany, and that is all well and good for you who understand the season and its purpose. That is not the case for a lot of people whose sense of the season is that time between the over the top glories of Christmas and the purplish austerities of Lent.
So, let us begin at the beginning, so to speak, meaning the whys and wherefores of the Church year. Or, to put it more simply, why bother? After all, those evangelical and Pentecostal churches don’t do the Church year so why should we? Well, guess what, evangelical and Pentecostal churches and others like them with informal liturgies do indeed “do” the Church year; they just do a more attenuated version of it, focusing on the birth of Christ and His death and resurrection. The Church year is not some sort of waste your time falderol that bored churchmen thought up over time. Literally, we follow the Church year to follow Christ. Believers are disciples of Jesus Christ, meaning we are students and followers of He who is the incarnate Son of God. We “do” the Church year to follow Jesus, because we cannot literally follow in His footsteps like the original disciples did. We instead follow Him through His Word from infancy to ascension so that His nature and His work on our behalf and the Father’s are revealed to us.
The word epiphany in fact means revelation or manifestation. The day of Epiphany and the season of Epiphany together constitute one long string of revelations, each telling us more and more about Jesus and the events of His life, both earthly and heavenly, all of which lead to our salvation and the creation’s redemption. What God is doing for us is laid out for us to see, not only that we might know and discern the will of God, but also that we might ourselves participate in the Light that is Christ Jesus.
Light is the instrument by which we are led through the mysteries of God’s work in His Son. The light radiating from the angelic hosts, the light of the star that led the Wise Men to the small country hosting the holy Child, the Light Himself, sent into the sin-stained darkness of the world, all of this reveals to us what God is about, and why He is about it.
We missed the first of these light-soaked revelations, Epiphany Day itself, which is on January 6. This is not a day the observance of which really transfers well to the next available Sunday. That’s clearer in other lands, where the day of Epiphany has always been celebrated with enthusiasm and joy. In those other lands, Epiphany is often called Three Kings Day, for Scripture’s telling of the journey of the kings or magi or wise men, whatever their true number, to find the long prophesied infant King. Under the light of the singular star that shone over Jesus’ crib in Bethlehem, they journeyed far and long from what is now Iran so that they might worship the child king and savior, and leave their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrhh.
In latter days faithful men and women scanned the quadrants of the skies for information about that singular star that we might better understand the revelations of Epiphany. Others, instead, spent their efforts mining the biblical texts and other supporting witnesses for what the star meant. These days, some academics are all about denying the existence of such a singular beacon and subverting what it teaches us. But we are not world-weary academics or cultured despisers of Christianity. So, we believe that star shone above a lowly stable in a small town in a country that garnered little to no respect from the citizens of large and wealthy cities and nation. We believe it, and we want to know what the light of that singular star reveals about our Redeemer and we want to walk as disciples of Jesus Christ the path lit by that singular star.
We begin our walk and our lessons today with the story of the Baptism of Jesus. The holy Child has grown up, matured in years and wisdom and faith as the last lines of last week’s Gospel reading asserted would happen, and now His ministry begins. It begins for Jesus as it begins for us, with Baptism. Not that Jesus, the Incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity requires Baptism for His salvation. Having never sinned there is nothing for His heavenly Father to forgive Him, and as God the Father claims Jesus as His beloved Son in Whom He is well pleased, we know that, having come from the Father, Jesus will return to the Father when His earthly role in our salvation is complete. So, Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordon River did nothing for Jesus. He had no need to signify any regret for His sin nor any need for mercy from God or from humanity. But it did marvelous, wondrous, gracious things for us, who are sinners and desperate with it.
For His Baptism, in wondrous fashion, encompasses our own, for sinners such as ourselves, who are baptized generations later, are gathered by way of Word washed water and joined with Jesus in His death and resurrection. Remembering that Jesus was crucified, that might seem an unpleasant experience. But what it means that we whose lives are bounded by death are freed from death’s dark chains by Christ’s own marvelous Light. Listen to this longish quote from St. Paul in today’s Epistle reading from Romans 6. “For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. 6We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. 10For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
This is really clear for St. Paul, whose love of long imbedded phrases makes him a bit difficult to read sometimes. It is basically this, united with Jesus in His death, we have died to sin, for the dead do not sin. But, we are also united to Jesus in the resurrection that followed His death, meaning we, too, are alive to God in Christ Jesus. Note that Paul puts Christ before Jesus’ given name. He does that to emphasize what Jesus does for us. He is our Christ, and Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah, meaning Redeemer. Death no longer puts an end to us.
In fact, Paul says from the beginning that baptism is for us a new beginning, “for just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Even now, long we hope before death fails in claiming us, we may live daily in the light of that singular star that shone over Jesus’ crib, experiencing in the everyday events of life the grace of God poured out upon us. And then, share that grace with others. Remember, the Prayer of the Day says this of us, that we be sent out as agents of grace in God’s world. Grace is not merely God’s gift to us, but through us, God’s gift to His creation. Think yourself small, unimportant, a cog in some sort of cosmic machine? Oh no, you are, as are all the baptized, a means by which Christ reveals His presence in God’s creation. If Christ be our Light, then we are His flashlight, shining a path to hope for those still trapped in darkness, the despairing, the needy, the lonely, the anxious.