First Sunday after the Epiphany
Genesis 1: 1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19: 1 - 7, Mark 1: 4-11
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I spent part of this weekend taking down Christmas decorations and removing an extremely dried out Christmas tree from our home. Everything, for the most part, is put back into boxes that will remain in our garage or various closets around the house for the better part of this year until it is time to get them out again in December. The beautiful poinsettias and greenery in the church from last week likewise are gone, signaling that Christmas is now behind.
As powerful as the story of Jesus' birth is, with the manger in Bethlehem, the shepherds, the wise men, it might seem a bit jarring that just two weeks after Christmas, we are now celebrating Christ's baptism, an event that occurred when he was around thirty years old. Equally jarring today might be the reading from the Gospel according to Mark, which omits the story of Christ's birth altogether, and doesn't begin the story of Jesus' life until his baptism, of which we hear today.
Many have been perplexed at the idea of Jesus' need for baptism in the first place. Think about it - if Jesus was the perfect Son of God, why would he have need for baptism, which was about purification and the forgiveness of sin? The vast majority of Christians believe that Jesus lived a life that was free of sin, so then why was he baptized?
This is a very good question, and it has generated a number of interesting and thoughtful answers. The one answer that I relate to most is that the baptism of Jesus wasn't about his need for forgiveness. It was about Epiphany. An epiphany is a big word that simply means a divine revelation in which the nature of God is made clear. The baptism of Jesus is an example of an epiphany, as when Jesus came up from the waters of the Jordan River, Mark says that the heavens were - literally torn apart, and the Spirit of God, like a dove, descended upon Jesus, and the voice of God proclaimed "you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Notice that this heavenly act happens outside the city walls of the Holy City Jerusalem, away from the prestigious temple.
The manifestation of Christ happened not amongst the priests and the overly pious, but rather among everyday people with their own problems. Jesus’ true identity was manifested amongst the impure sinners who had come to a muddy river for cleansing.
Celtic Christianity acknowledges the reality of "thin spaces" - such places where the separation between earth and heaven seems almost nonexistent. You have probably experienced such a "thin space" in your life. Baptism is such a place. Because at every baptism, the heavens are torn open, and the Spirit of God is uniquely present with us and we are afforded a beautiful opportunity to witness heaven and earth joining together in Baptism.
It is a thin space where the Spirit of God, like a dove, descends upon us. And with the spirit, there is a voice from heaven saying to you right now: "you are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
The God who tears open the heavens, who is unwilling to be confined to sacred spaces stuffed full with religious people, is manifest among us and God is on the loose. With dangerous wonder, look up, and you will see the heavens opened, and God – an Epiphany - in your midst.