January 7, 2024
The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Works of Newness
What with all of the talk about John the Baptist in our gospel reading, it might seem that we’ve slipped back into Advent! But no, today is actually the first Sunday after the Epiphany, which is always celebrated on January 6th and commemorates the story of the Three Magi or Three Kings or Three Wise Men who followed a Star in search of the Child born “King of the Jews.” You’ll see that our own “wise men” have traversed afar ‘cross rows of pews to reach the manger, marking the end of the twelve day season of Christmas.
We don’t know for certain who these ancient travelers were; they were perhaps Persians, Syrians, or Arabs; royal priests from an ancient religion, learned men of arcane teachings; physicians, philosophers, astronomers or astrologers; Gentiles who were not from the land of Israel nor of Jewish faith. They were outsiders. And this is the meaning of the Epiphany, that Jesus was born for all, and the Jewish Messiah came also for the salvation of Gentiles. The radiant promise of deep new life in Christ is meant for the whole world.
Somehow the Three Magi knew this, and brought the baby Jesus precious prophetic gifts: gold for Christ the King; frankincense for Christ the High Priest; and myrrh, a perfume used to anoint the dead, for Christ the Crucified. Theirs was a heroic quest, which as all true quests, was challenged by evil (Matthew 2:1-12). And so they also bore the gifts of of risk and courage, yearning and seeking, leaving and going, of discovery and transformation, and returning home changed by their encounter with Christ.
In our own journeys, there are many stars we could and may have followed: the blinding star of sin, pride, and ambition; the twinkling lights of temptation; or a star from the past and its faint glow of “better days”. Amidst the wonder and challenges, and the light and dark of our own lives, here we have arrived. For the next five weeks, our Sunday readings and gospels will focus on events that manifest and reveal the divinity of Jesus to the people; from his baptism in the river Jordan this morning to his light drenched transfiguration upon the mountain (Mark 9:2-9).
Epiphanytide is also a pre-Lenten season in that it carries us straight to Ash Wednesday, from where we follow Jesus into the desert and to the cross. Before facing the poverty of our own humanity during Lent, I think there is something essentially fortifying about coming to know Jesus’s divinity more fully, as we do in our gospel from Mark today: as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Or, in various translations: You are my Son, my Beloved; in you I am well pleased and find delight; You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness; or You are my Son; today I have fathered you.
The question has long been asked why Jesus, the Son of God, the Beloved in who God finds delight, would submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which is what his cousin John the Baptist preached and performed. Jesus’ birth, the Incarnation, was for all people; as was his baptism an act of God’s solidarity with all people; his baptism a descent into the fallenness of humanity, that repentance, change, and forgiveness, and a truly new beginning would be possible.
Jesus descends into the baptismal waters; a wind from God swept over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2); the Spirit dove descends; God’s voice descends from heaven; glory descends upon the whole creation and “God works a newness.”
The voice from heaven declares that Jesus is fully new and fully divine, as echoed in our psalm for the day. In but eleven verses, we hear the voice of the Lord and name of God repeated some twenty times—the Lord is at the center of all things—to which all of creation cries Glory! In the Greek, glory (doxa) also means judgment and decision; indeed, God voices judgment over the trees, the fire, the wilderness, Lebanon and Mount Hermon, Jesus. And when God speaks, there is always a response: the wilderness shakes, the oaks writhe, the fire flames, Lebanon and Mount Hermon skip, Jesus climbs out of the river Jordan and takes his first step towards his public ministry: to be led by the Spirit into the wilderness.
In the Greek, the word for baptism means immersion, to overwhelm, to make clean. As we see in Jesus’ baptism, this is an initiation into the mysteries of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that allows for purification through suffering and trial. In the sacrament of baptism today, infants, children, and adults alike are ritually and symbolically overwhelmed or drowned and buried in the baptismal waters with Christ, to emerge reborn and made clean in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
But baptism, or any sacrament for that matter is not magic. We must continue to participate in God’s spiritual graces and live into their realities. Shortly, we will renew our baptismal vows and recommit ourselves to Christ by first renouncing evil, confessing and knowing that we are ever tempted, if not to sin, to complacency. And so we daily pray: lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.
As I read in one commentary: What does it mean, when so many baptized Christians continue to be committed to the false forms of redemption through modern politics and economic systems, consumerism, racism, sexism or tribalism? (Stanley P. Saunders)
How do we respond to the promises, provision, and power of Christ now? Not to the memory of baptism, if we even have one, but to the movement of the Spirit and the voice of God now? What is our salvation for?
When Jesus is baptized and climbs out of the river onto the banks of the Jordan, water rolling off his body, he does so as one fully human and fully divine. He will heal the untouchables, preach to the hungering and restless crowds, teach the word of God to those who have ears to hear, and then die on a cross, all the while embodying in his flesh and in his spirit the deepest truth: that we too are God’s beloveds, chosen and marked by Love, in whom God finds happiness and delight. We too are human and divine, perhaps not fully, but in whom God is working a newness. We too are questing the Light.
During this [new] year, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote, all the paths from east to west, from morning until evening, lead on and on as far as the eye can see, through the deserts of life, with all its changes. But these paths can be turned into the blessed pilgrimage to the absolute, the journey to God. Set out, my heart, take up the journey! The star shines.
May we follow the star of God’s first light, infinitely shining, reflected and refracted throughout the creation. Let us take heart, for as the palmist sings: The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.
In closing, I’d like to share a poem called The Work of Christmas Begins by Michael Dougherty (which is a variation on Howard Thurman’s poem, When the Song of Angels is Stilled**).
The Work of Christmas Begins
When the carols have been stilled,
When the star-topped tree is taken down,
When the family and friends are gone home,
When we are back to our schedules,
The work of Christmas begins:
To welcome the refugee,
To heal a broken planet,
To feed the hungry,
To build bridges of trust not walls of fear,
To share our gifts,
To seek justice and peace for all people,
To bring Christ’s light to the world.
May it be so, amen.
**When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.