From Epiphany to Baptism

Isaiah 42:1-9
1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. 5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

The reading from Isaiah is one of the several “Servant Songs.” In the original context, the Servant of the Lord was a king who would bring about justice. The identity of the Servant seems to vary from song to song, and has been a source of ongoing scholarly speculation both in Judaism and in Christianity. Some of the servant songs even name Cyrus, the King of Persia who released the Judeans from exile in Babylon, as that servant. Today, however, we read this text, understanding it as early Christians did as a reference to Jesus, the Messiah.
From this point of view, the prophecy helps us understand what Jesus declares in our gospel text about “fulfilling all righteousness” (or “justice” as in verse 1 of Isaiah 42—the word in Greek can be translated either way). The way this servant brings about justice is unprecedented—a truly “new thing.” It is not by shouting down or forcing out the unjust. It is by supporting and raising up those who have been treated unjustly—the bruised reeds, dimly burning wicks, the blinded, and the imprisoned. The way of justice this servant establishes is the way of redeeming love.

Matthew 3:13-17 (RSV)
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 15 But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Today's topic is “From Epiphany to Baptism.” I would like to explore how these two events, Epiphany as represented by the visit of the wise men at Jesus birth which we celebrated last Sunday, and Jesus Baptism, this Sunday's celebration, are related and what they have to do with us, here and now.

Jesus baptism was recorded in all four of the gospel stories. The story in Matthew is almost identical to the one in Mark, which was the earliest written account. The baptism story is the first event of Jesus' life recorded by Mark. Only Matthew tells of the magi, the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth. Luke tells a little about the child Jesus before recounting Jesus encounter with John and the Baptism. John goes right from the poetic description of the Word made flesh to John and the baptism.

One meaning of the word epiphany is an appearance or manifestation of a divine being. The visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus’ was an epiphany because it was the first revelation of God as a human in Jesus and the first manifestation of Christ to the gentiles.

These two historical events, birth and baptism, place Jesus in history, with us and like us. Can we prove the authenticity of these events? NO, Not in an objective way. We cannot stand outside of space and time and know God or Jesus in any objective way. The foundation of Christian faith is that God came to live among us in human form. God is manifest, or made flesh, in Jesus. We only know God from the inside, through the human relationship with Jesus.

Matthew’s account of the Baptism is in two parts: John’s objection and the baptism itself. Each is important. Matthew is the only gospel writer to record the reluctance of John to baptize Jesus, though Mark and Luke hint at this when they have John say that he is not worthy to untie the sandals of the one who is coming. Matthew’s is also the only gospel that includes Jesus’ reply to John’s objection. “Let that go, now. This is the way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15).

Let what go? John’s objection was that it just wasn't the way things should be. Jesus ought to be baptizing him rather than the other way around (verse 14). Jesus was THE One, after all, and John just a messenger. Jesus insists not only that John should baptize him, but that he should let go of his objection, his vision of how things “should be,” and that such letting go was how both of them could “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is claiming the way of justice/righteousness described in Isaiah. In God’s kingdom, everything is upside down. The least are blessed above all. The least become the channel of blessing for all others. Glory is found in service. What is it that we need to let go of in order to receive the full blessing of our baptism? Is our limited vision of how things should be blocking us from being who God wants us to be, his beloved children? These are personal questions and also questions for our church.
The completion of Jesus' baptism generates an amazing response. The heavens are opened, a sign of significant revelation about to come. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove, an instrument of peace, not power. And a voice from heaven says, “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (verse 17).
There is no evidence that these signs were experience by anyone other than Jesus. Together, they show that God was beginning something dramatically new, and beginning it precisely in and through Jesus. The baptism of Jesus was itself another epiphany, a manifestation of God in our midst.
When we are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit, we, too, experience the beginning of something dramatically new in our lives – God becomes manifest in our life. Every time we celebrate the baptismal covenant, whether for baptism, confirmation, receiving new members, or reaffirming our baptismal vows, we ritually join what God did, said and made known in the baptism of Jesus: Heavens opening, Spirit pouring down, God’s voice speaking— “My beloved child with whom I am well pleased.”
But the word “epiphany” has a second, more common, meaning. An “epiphany” can also be a sudden realization or significant insight; a “moment of truth,” if you will.
Matthew clearly wants to communicate that Jesus baptism was a also personal epiphany. It was a sudden realization or deep insight, a moment of truth, for Jesus. Maybe Mary and Joseph knew, from the moment that Jesus was conceived, that he was God’s son. Maybe they knew he was the one whom God had sent to save the people of Israel. Maybe this was in the backs of their minds the whole time, and maybe they even brought Jesus up in the knowledge of his purpose and special relationship to God.
But as Matthew sees it, it was not until the moment of his baptism that Jesus realized the magnitude of it all – his epiphany.
How is this like the experience of growing up in a Methodist church? In the ordinary order of events, an infant is baptized; that is, marked as a child of God. At that moment, the parents and the entire church make a covenant to bring the child up in the ways of God. They vow to teach the child the holy Scriptures and bring the child to church where the child may be surrounded and nurtured by people of faith until, one day, that child decides to accept the way of Christ.
At a later time, maybe after confirmation class, or maybe on some other occasion, the person who was marked as God’s child from infancy accepts the grace of God shown in Jesus and in the body of Christ. The person makes that decision known by being confirmed or joining with the church on profession of faith. Hopefully, when a person reaches such a decision, it is a moment of truth.
Matthew’s account of what happened to Jesus at his baptism is also similar to the experience of growing up in the anabaptist tradition. In that theology, people do not receive baptism until they reach what is called the “age of accountability.” A day comes when a person in this tradition is moved to go forward to the front of the church and profess faith in Jesus. The person is immersed in a pool of water, and when the person comes up from the water, he or she becomes one of those who has died to the individual self and been born again as a member of Christ’s body.
Such a dramatic event may be a moment of truth. Surely all of those churches who practice this form of baptism intend this to be a watershed time in a person’s spiritual life.
But of course, an epiphany may also come in a person’s life at a time other than confirmation, profession of faith, or baptism by immersion. Some people talk about a time, perhaps after hearing a really powerful speaker, or experiencing what they consider to be a miracle, that they have in that moment a deep insight in which they come to a moment of truth.
In that moment, the person knows unmistakably in the depths of the heart that he or she is a beloved child of God, even without the external trappings of any ceremony or ritual, whether coming forward to join a church or be confirmed or be immersed or anything else visible to the outside world, but rather, from the feeling itself.
Consider the case of John Wesley. He was:
  • Baptized as an infant
  • Confirmed as a young adult
  • Disciplined by a regular prayer life and Bible study
  • Educated in theology
  • Ordained as a priest, and
  • Sent to serve as a pastor at a local church and overseas as a missionary.
Yet, even after all of this, John did not have his “moment of truth,” or epiphany, until one night in London. At a place called Aldersgate Road, John listened as a Moravian read from Martin Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans about how a person could not save himself by any righteous act, or work, but that it was only by the grace of God alone that any were saved; and in that grace a person must put his faith. After hearing those words, John Wesley said that he “felt his heart strangely warmed.”
Clearly it was not his baptism, or confirmation, or rigorous prayer life, or education, or ordination, or service as a clergy-person, or even being a missionary, but rather that MOMENT at Aldersgate Road that was, for John Wesley, an epiphany.
Can you think about a time in your life, one moment that stands out above all the rest, in which you might say “This, above all others, was the definitive watershed, the moment of truth for my entire life?”
Some people can name such a moment. Many, maybe you included, cannot, no matter how much they think about it or wish it were true. Maybe this is because there have been many moments, so that no one stands out above the rest. Or maybe we have not yet opened our hearts to God's epiphany.
Clearly, though, the baptism of Jesus was a defining MOMENT. It was a moment that was so powerful for him that he could actually SEE the Holy Spirit coming down from heaven to light upon his heart as gently as a dove. It was a moment so powerful that he could hear the actual breath of God speaking to him, saying, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
What an experience that all must have been for Jesus! To realize, “This is it! The moment has come! I am the servant of the Lord who must suffer to bring justice. I am the covenant to the people, the light to the nations. I am the one who must open the eyes that are blind and bring prisoners out of the darkness!”
No wonder he saw the Holy Sprit in that moment!
We can’t ever quite comprehend what an epiphany that must have been for Jesus. But we can see that from that moment on, he was fully engaged in the work of his heavenly father. He gave himself over completely to teaching people how to live, to responding to people with compassion, to healing them, forgiving them, and calling forth their faith. He never wavered, even to his death.
None of us can completely know or comprehend another Christian’s personal, particular epiphany. But we can see the results of those moments. Even though John Wesley said the moment of truth came to him on Aldersgate Road, the results of that experience were seen in the way he lived out his life in faith. And the same is true for each of us. The result of our personal, particular epiphany is seen in how we live out our lives!
So as we consider our own baptism experience and our personal epiphany, I send you home with two questions.
What would you be willing to do to hear the voice of God whisper, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased”?
How is your personal baptism and epiphany lived out in your relationships with your brothers and sisters of this congregation?

Let us pray:
Loving God, just as a little child seeks the loving approval of a parent, we long to hear you say “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” Through the example of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, enable us to let go of our old ways of thinking that stand in the way of a full relationship with you. Open our hearts to experience our own moment of epiphany or help us remember its defining promise. Empower us to live out the covenant of our baptism. In Jesus name and for his sake we pray, AMEN.

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