epiphany & baptism

A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 9, 2022

I come to you in the name of one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today we honor the Baptism of Our Lord.

Today, we also honor the Feast of the Epiphany.

There’s a lot of debate in church circles about when we should celebrate Epiphany.

Do you celebrate it on the Sunday before it falls? But then you would never read the story of the Holy Family fleeing Herod’s authoritative rule and decision to engage in unfathomable violence, to commit a genocide.

Do you celebrate it on the Sunday after? But then you would skip the Baptism of Our Lord, a pivotal moment that truly marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry amongst creation, and an acknowledgement by God, that in Jesus, creation can realize its good-ness once more.

The formal rules dictate that it be celebrated on Epiphany proper, the 6th of January, neither moved before or after, but simply existing, like Christmas Day, every year on January 6.

January 6 marks the close of the 12 Days of Christmas, that season of Christmastide where we hold in our hearts the hopes and fears of all the years that are met in Bethlehem on that fateful night of Jesus’ birth.

January 6 marks our celebration of the arrival of the Wise Men. This group of Wise Men, perhaps sages, perhaps mystics, perhaps scholars or astronomical observers, recognize the sign of a star appearing over the region as a symbol that something grand has happened, recognizing that the promise of the ancient scriptures and prophets is being fulfilled (even as the religious scholars in Herod’s court have themselves not noticed this symbol in their own backyard). When we hear the story of Herod ordering the massacre of the innocents, we know that some period of time (up to two years) has passed between the arrival of the symbol and when the Wise Men appear in Bethlehem to pay homage, and so we hold this space of birth and this particular arrival in harmony with our own honoring of space and the passage of time before we jump into celebrating their presence.

I think this is why the formal directions ask us to honor January 6 as the Epiphany and not to move it to the nearest convenient Sunday.

But, that’s hard.

We don’t have the same tradition around Epiphany that is present in other Christian cultures, where Epiphany marks the celebration of gifts and family that we celebrate on Christmas Day (or if you are in the Arminian Church, you celebrate Christmas itself on January 6).

So, while we feel it is important to honor it in our churches, we don’t have that traditional tie to the date itself, unless we attend a parish that established long ago deep liturgical traditions around the whole of Christmastide and the celebration of Epiphany (or even Candlemas for those who look even further back into our traditions).

And, even with all of that, we still want to celebrate Epiphany.

It marks an important event, particularly for us as followers of Christ, because it is a recognition by people (Gentiles) from outside the chosen people of God of Christ’s importance in this world, and creates for us our entry point to connect with Christ from his very birth.

Perhaps this year, or in years past, you’ve honored this day by chalking your door with a blessing, marking the year and the letters C, M, B, to honor both the traditional names of the Wise Men, and a latin phrase of blessing meaning “May Christ bless this dwelling!”

We have this pull to honor Epiphany because it is an important event, even if we don’t honor it in the same way we mark our other Holy days. We want to honor the recognition of the Wise Men, because it means that our own recognition of Jesus as Lord is a welcome gift to God made incarnate.

In honoring the Epiphany, we are also called today to recognize the Baptism of Our Lord.

As I stated earlier, this is a pivotal moment in Jesus’ life for it marks the beginning of his ministry amongst this creation.

As Jesus steps forward, he takes on the mantle that John has been prophesying about at the river. Jesus steps forward as the one whom John is not worthy to even stoop down before. John even balks at the idea that he himself would baptize Jesus, but Jesus assures him that this is the way it is to be done.

It is in the baptism of Jesus, by John, that not only has Jesus accepted his call to live into his reality as the Word of God made incarnate, but that God recognizes Christ this moment, anointing Christ with the Holy Spirit descending from Heaven like a dove, and making the declaration: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus will change the understanding of relationship between God and creation. Jesus creates an avenue, a connection, between God and creation that is based on a sense of relationship that exists between one another, rather than being quite as one-directional as it had been in the past. This access to God through Jesus is made possible right here, as Jesus begins his ministry, because God claims Jesus as God’s Son, and in claiming God’s Son, who is part of this creation, God also declares that in Jesus, “I am well pleased.”

This echoes the very beginning of creation.

Where each day, God would create, and each day God would look at this creation and declare it: good.

We ourselves struggle with this reality of the goodness of creation.

We struggle through our own exercise of free will, our attempts and often failures to live a righteous and just life, our giving up to the “ways of the world” that are not built upon the ideals of God, that do not reflect the way of love that Jesus left for us to follow, because it can be hard to see the goodness in creation, because it can be hard to honor the goodness of creation when our society actively works to lessen others, to dehumanize and in dehumanizing attempt to remove from creation others. And yet, creation is good. 

It is in baptism that this goodness is promised to us as we follow the path of Jesus, as we commit ourselves to following the way of love, as we commit to living into the example that Jesus will leave for us, beginning right here in his own baptism.

In honor of Jesus’ baptism, we will honor our own baptisms in just a moment.

If you have not been baptized before, or perhaps you were baptized many (many) years ago to where you don’t remember the event itself, I invite you to say these words today as a meditation on our faith and what we promise to do in our life in faith, and then come see me after worship today to talk about what it would look like to seek baptism here at St. Stephen’s, or to seek confirmation or the reaffirmation of your baptismal covenant with our Bishop in the upcoming year.

If you are baptized, and especially if you have gone through confirmation, we renew our Baptismal Vows today as a reminder of what has been promised for us, as what we have promised to live into ourselves, as what we have promised to help every single person who has been baptized in our community learn and grow and live into in their journey of faith.

We honor Jesus’ baptism today in addition to honoring the Epiphany, because these moments in Jesus’ life mean the beginning of a changing reality for the relationship between God and creation. We honor Jesus’ baptism today in addition to honoring the Epiphany, because they give us hope while also reminding us what we promise when we call ourselves Christians, when we commit to walking in the way of love that is following Jesus Christ, born a baby in a stable, laid sleeping in a manger, honored by Wise Men from afar, baptized by his cousin who knew that something, someone greater was coming to change the world forever.

Let us now honor this reality-shaking event as we renew the solemn promises and vows of Holy Baptism, by which we once renounced Satan and all his works, and promised to serve God faithfully in his holy Catholic Church:

The Renewal of Baptismal Vows

Celebrant Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and
renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
People I do.

Celebrant Do you believe in God the Father?
People I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

Celebrant Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People I believe inJesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Celebrant Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
prayers?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people,
and respect the dignity of every human being?
People I will, with God’s help.

The Celebrant concludes the Renewal of Vows as follows

May Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who
has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and
bestowed upon us the forgiveness of sins, keep us in eternal
life by his grace, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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