The First Sunday after The Epiphany
The Rev. George Pejakovich
Matthew 3:13-17

TODAY IS THE FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD, WHICH IS PRETTY OBVIOUS FROM THE GOSPEL READING. THIS PARTICULAR FEAST DAY ENTERED THE LITURGICAL CALENDAR IN 1955, WHEN POPE PIOUS XII ESTABLISHED THIS SUNDAY IN THE EPIPHANY SEASON TO COMMEMORATE THE BAPTISM OF JESUS. UP UNTIL 1955, THERE WAS SOME CONFUSION IN THE CHURCH’S CELEBRATION OF THE EPIPHANY, WHICH MEANS THE MANIFESTATION, OVER WHETHER WE WERE CELEBRATING THE MANIFESTATION OF JESUS TO THE GENTILES, REPRESENTED BY THE VISIT OF THE THREE MAGI, OR THE MANIFESTATION OF JESUS AS THE TRUE SON OF GOD, REPRESENTED BY THIS ACCOUNT OF HIS BAPTISM IN THE JORDAN RIVER BY JOHN. BOTH GOSPEL READINGS WERE USED TO MARK THE EPIPHANY, AS WELL AS THE STORY OF THE WEDDING AT CANA, AND, FROM THE EARLIEST DAYS OF THE CHURCH, THEOLOGIANS ARGUED OVER WHICH EVENT OUGHT TO BE COMMEMORATED AS THE EPIPHANY. PIOUS XII SETTLED THE DISPUTE BY ESTABLISHING THE FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD, WHICH WE CELEBRATE TODAY.

MARTIN LUTHER (I THOUGHT THAT SINCE THE DEAN IS NOT HERE I SHOULD GET YOUR YEAR STARTED OFF RIGHT), NEVER ONE TO BE SHY ABOUT HIS OPINIONS, MAINTAINED THAT THE PROPER CELEBRATION OF THE EPIPHANY IS THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD, AND, WHILE THE STORY OF THE MAGI AND BABY JESUS IS A GOOD ONE, IT PALES IN COMPARISON TO THE POWER AND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STORY OF THE BAPTISM OF JESUS. HE WAS IN ACCORD WITH THE EASTERN CHURCH, WHICH STILL HOLDS THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD AS THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY, WHILE THE WESTERN CHURCHES ALL SEPARATE THE EPIPHANY FROM THE BAPTISM. IT WILL COME AS NO SHOCK TO YOU THAT I THINK LUTHER WAS RIGHT AND POPE PIOUS WAS WRONG; BUT I WILL GET TO THAT LATER.

ON OUR TRIP TO ISRAEL, WE WERE ABLE TO GET TO THE ACTUAL SITE OF THE BAPTISM OF JESUS; JUST ABOVE WHERE THE JORDAN SPILLS INTO THE DEAD SEA. WE KNOW THIS IS THE PLACE BECAUSE THE CAVE OF JOHN THE BAPTIST HAS BEEN FOUND ON THE JORDANIAN SIDE OF THE RIVER. AS WE APPROACHED THE WATER, WE SAW A SQUAD OF ISRAELI SOLDIERS SPLASHING IN THE WATER TO ESCAPE THE HEAT. WHEN THEY SAW OUR GROUP, THEY GOT OUT OF THE WATER TO ALLOW US TO REVERENTLY ENTER THE RIVER. I WAS STRUCK SILENT BY THE DICHOTOMY BETWEEN THE ATTITUDE OF THE SOLDIERS AND OUR GROUP. TO THEM, IT WAS JUST A COOL RIVER ON THE BORDER OF THEIR LAND; TO US, IT WAS A PLACE OF AWESOME SPIRITUALITY WHERE THE SON OF GOD WAS MADE MANIFEST TO THE WORLD.

WHEN JESUS STOOD BEFORE JOHN TO BE BAPTIZED, WAITING HIS TURN IN LINE WITH EVERYONE ELSE, JOHN WAS SHOCKED; HERE WAS THE ONE HE WAS WAITING FOR, THE ONE WHOSE SANDAL JOHN WAS UNWORTHY TO UNTIE. HOW COULD HE, JOHN, BAPTIZE THE ONE WHO HAD NO NEED FOR FORGIVENESS AND WHO HAD NOTHING TO REPENT? WHEN JESUS TOLD JOHN, “IT IS PROPER FOR US IN THIS WAY TO FULFILL ALL RIGHTEOUSNESS,” JOHN CONSENTED AND BAPTIZED JESUS. THEN, THE SPIRIT OF GOD DESCENDED UPON HIM LIKE A DOVE, THE MOST GENTLE OF CREATURES, AND THE VOICE OF GOD SPOKE, “THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED, WITH WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED.” THUS, THE SON OF GOD WAS MADE MANIFEST TO THE WORLD BY THE FATHER AND THE HOLY SPIRIT.

SURELY GOD SPEAKS TO MEN AND WOMEN, GIVING THEM THE BURDEN OF HIS WORD IN PROPHESY, IN THE WRITING OF HOLY SCRIPTURE, IN THE MOVING OF THEIR HEARTS AND MINDS TO DO HIS WILL. HERE, AT THE START OF JESUS’ MINISTRY, GOD SPOKE IN SUCH A WAY THAT CAN NOT BE MISUNDERSTOOD, “THIS IS MY SON;” AND ANOINTED HIM FOR HIS MISSION TO HIS PEOPLE. ONE OTHER TIME GOD SPOKE IN THIS WAY, USING THE SAME WORDS, ON THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION, WHEN HE ANOINTED JESUS FOR HIS COMING DEATH ON THE CROSS. GOD, HIMSELF, TIES THE BAPTISM OF JESUS TO HIS DEATH ON THE CROSS, THUS, THE BAPTISM OF JESUS IS CENTRAL TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE GRACE OF GOD IN JESUS OUR LORD.

WHEN JESUS WAS BAPTIZED, HE, WHO KNEW NO SIN, WAS BEING PREPARED TO TAKE ON THE SINS OF THE WORLD; AND WHEN WE ARE BAPTIZED, GOD HIMSELF TIES US BY THE WATER AND THE WORD TO HIS ONLY SON, CLAIMING US AND MARKING US FOREVER AS HIS OWN SONS AND DAUGHTERS. BAPTISM IS NOT JUST SPLASHING AROUND IN THE WATER, NOR IS IT A CEREMONY FOR CHURCH MEMBERSHIP, OR A QUAINT CUSTOM. WHEN THE WATER IS POURED ON OUR HEADS IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT, THE FULNESS OF THE MANIFESTATION OF GOD IS PRESENT IN THAT MOMENT, AND THE POWER AND THE GRACE OF GOD SEALS US TO HIM IN CHRIST FOREVER. THUS WE ARE MARKED WITH THE SIGN OF THE CROSS ON OUR FOREHEAD; AN INVISIBLE MARK WHICH BECOMES VISIBLE TO THE WORLD ONLY IN SO FAR AS WE LIVE THE LIFE OF THE BAPTIZED.

BAPTISM IS NOT A ONCE IN A LIFETIME EVENT; ALTHOUGH IT HAPPENS ONLY ONCE. IT IS A DAILY LIVING OUT OF THE BAPTISMAL COVENANT, IN WHICH GOD CLAIMS US AS HIS OWN, AND WE DEDICATE OUR LIFE, AS DID OUR LORD, IN LOVE FOR GOD AND OUR NEIGHBOR PROCLAIMING THE KINGSHIP OF OUR GOD. EVERY TIME WE MAKE THE SIGN OF THE CROSS ON OUR BODIES, WE ARE REAFFIRMING OUR BAPTISM, AND PROCLAIMING TO ALL THAT WE BELONG TO GOD. ALL THIS IS POSSIBLE, NOT BECAUSE OF ANYTHING WE HAVE DONE, BUT BECAUSE OF WHAT GOD DID FOR US IN JESUS. HE WAS BAPTIZED FOR US SO THAT HE COULD DIE FOR US, AND WE ARE BAPTIZED SO THAT WE MIGHT DIE TO OURSELVES AND LIVE FOR HIM.

SO POWERFUL IS THE BAPTISM OF JESUS, AND SO CENTRAL TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF HIM AND OF OURSELVES, THAT WHEN HE CAME UP OUT OF THE WATER OF THE JORDAN THOSE RADICALLY RELIGIOUS JEWS WHO WERE SEEKING THE MESSIAH CAME TO HIS CALL. THOSE MEN AND WOMEN, WHO WOULD NOT TOLERATE ANY IDOLS OR WORSHIP ANYONE OR ANY THING OTHER THAN THE ONE INVISIBLE ALMIGHTY GOD, LOOKED UPON JESUS AND BEGAN TO CALL HIM “LORD.” THEY CAME TO UNDERSTAND THAT THIS ONE CALLED JESUS WAS “THE ONE ORDAINED BY GOD AS JUDGE OF THE LIVING AND THE DEAD,” AND THAT “EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM RECEIVES FORGIVENESS OF SINS THROUGH HIS NAME.”

SO LUTHER WAS RIGHT IN THE 16TH CENTURY AND POPE PIOUS WAS WRONG IN THE 20TH CENTURY; THE REAL EPIPHANY WAS AT THE BAPTISM OF JESUS. IT IS A FINE THING TO HAVE A FEAST DAY CELEBRATING THE COMING OF THE MAGI; IT IS A GOOD STORY AND PROVIDES A WONDERFUL EXCUSE TO GET THE KIDDIES DRESSED UP AS LAMBS AND COWS AND DONKEYS, AND WE CAN ALL LAUGH AT THEIR ANTICS ON THE SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS. IT ALSO HELPS WITH CHURCH ATTENDANCE BY GETTING ALL THE PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS TO COME SEE THE KIDS. IT IS IN THE WATERS OF THE JORDAN, HOWEVER, WHERE THE OVERWHELMING LOVE AND GRACE OF GOD WAS REVEALED AS THE FATHER AND THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT TOGETHER TOLD US WHO THIS JESUS WAS AND IS. IT IS IN THE WATERS OF OUR BAPTISM WHERE THE FATHER AND THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT REVEAL TO US THAT JESUS IS THE SON OF GOD, AND THAT OUR LOVE, WORSHIP, AND OBEDIENCE TO HIM IS OUR LOVE, WORSHIP, AND OBEDIENCE TO OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN. SO, HAPPY EPIPHANY; IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.
AMEN

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