January 8, 2023

January 8, 2023: The First Sunday after the Epiphany
“The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ”
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

From this morning’s Collect, “Grant that all who are baptized into (your Beloved son’s) Name
may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior” I speak to
you in the name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustaining Sanctifier. Amen.

One of the things I love about the story of the Epiphany which was celebrated this past
Friday and means “manifestation,” is that I can see myself as a participant in the story of the
three Magi, the three wise men. Perhaps, you do, too. In that particular story, the promises of
God’s redemption were revealed in the plain sight of the people but, as John’s Gospel says so
well, the people “knew him not” (John 1:11). The Epiphany reminds me (and I hope all of us)
how very often God, indeed, reveals or manifests God’s-self in and through those around us
and yet, we do not perceive these works of God, or even more significant, we choose not to
recognize the reality that God always does the unexpected. Such is the story of the Epiphany
and, I think, the story of many who seek to follow the Christ.
Scripture tells us that for over 500 years the people of Israel pleaded for God to send the
promised Messiah, to free them from the tyranny of their oppressors, to save them from sin,
and restore their nation as God had promised to do. That day came and it came in the most
unusual way. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us about three wise men, three
Magi, who chose to follow the path of a bright star convinced that some incredible work of God
was about to unfold. These learned men have studied the ancient scriptures of the Hebrew
people but, they are outsiders. They are Gentiles and many in ancient Israel, especially her
religious leaders, were convinced that God could not possibly be at work among any other
nation but their own. Nevertheless and undeterred, these three men come to Jerusalem and
tell King Herod all they have seen and heard. They ask Herod, “Where is he that is to be born
King of the Jews.” And, like most people confronted with theological questions, Herod turns to,
in this case, the Sanhedrin - the ultra-religious - for the answer. They respond that, according
to the prophets, the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, the King of the Jews, will be
born at Bethlehem. So the wise men head on their way and meet the Christ face to face. And
that meeting changes their lives forever. The Gospels tell us that after presenting Jesus with
gifts – the very richest their countries could offer – these men “returned to their countries by
another road.” I find that statement a metaphor: Those who encounter the Christ often choose
to live differently and choose to walk a different path, another way. They are changed and
therein, we find the irony of the Epiphany story.
See, it’s ironic because for a people that pleaded for God to save them, for a religious
community that prayed fervently for God to send the Messiah and restore their land, the
scriptures give no indication that any of them, in fact anyone at all, chose to accompany those
men on their journey to Bethlehem. Perhaps, no one believed that God might actually answer
their prayers in their own lifetime. Ever feel that way? Such seems to be a part of our human
nature. We can become so wrapped up in praying for something that we grow complacent
waiting for it to happen. And in our complacency, become oblivious to God’s reconciling work
of mercy and grace when it unfolds right in front of us. And that’s what I believe happened in
Herod’s court. Those present, just like we tend to do, expected God to act a certain way – our
way – and yet, the scriptures tell us time and again, God always does the unexpected. Such is
the Epiphany story just as it is the Christmas story. God did the incredible and unexpected
when God was born among us in the person of Jesus. And here’s something else unexpected:
That birth was proclaimed not to the movers and shakers of society, nor to the religious as we
might expect, but to simple shepherds on a hillside. And now, with the arrival of these Gentiles
at Bethlehem, God reveals that the Christ has come not just to redeem Israel, but more
wonderful, Christ has come to redeem all who will believe. And Herod and all those leaders and
religious couldn’t – didn’t - see it. They expected God to do things their way.
This is what Peter is speaking about in today’s reading from Acts. The Epiphany
demonstrates that God shows no partiality, but rather, as Peter says, “in every nation anyone
who fears (God) and does what is right is acceptable to (God).” Peter, a witness to the
resurrected Christ, is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth – this babe at Bethlehem - is God
incarnate, the promised Messiah about whom, Peter declares, “All the prophets testify … and
everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” As Isaiah
prophesied in today’s Old Testament lesson, “The former things have (indeed) come to pass,
and new things I now declare.” God always does the unexpected.
In today’s gospel lesson, God once again does the unexpected. About 30 years have passed
since those days at Bethlehem. And now, Jesus comes to John to be baptized not for the
forgiveness of sins, but rather, as Matthew makes very clear, in order to fulfill the scriptures.
In submitting himself for baptism, Jesus chose to identify with the whole human race not just
as “one with us”, but as “one of us” – one who understands our nature, our foibles, and our
fears. And as Jesus is baptized, a voice sounds from the heavens. Remember the Psalmist
described God’s voice as powerful and filled with splendor. Well, Matthew says that same voice
proclaimed the words heard this morning from Isaiah, “This is my Servant; this is my Son, the
Beloved, my chosen one, with whom I am well pleased.” Just like at Bethlehem long ago, God
has done the unexpected: God has revealed himself in new ways and done so within the sight
and hearing of God’s people. And therein we find the challenge of Christmas, the Epiphany, our
Lord’s baptism, and our own contemporary lives.
See, every character in the gospels are folks like you and me. Some have prayed their
entire lives for deliverance while others have lost hope such will ever happen. Some wonder if
our Lord will ever return. Some wonder if God even cares anymore. But, Christmas, the
Epiphany, our Lord’s baptism and, in fact, every gospel story reveals that God is forever
present doing the unexpected. God is forever inviting, including, redeeming, and restoring all
who will choose to believe, all who will choose to respond, all who will choose to watch as
countless surprising Epiphanies unfold all around us as hearts and minds are changed and
restored to wholeness – even minds and hearts like ours.
In so many ways, the Epiphany story of old is our continuing story today. We can choose to
be like those good people of Herod’s court – prayerful, but complacent and perhaps even afraid
to move forward into God’s grace, or we can join with the Magi, those wise men, commit to
continue the journey of faith, and not only watch for God’s new and on-going work in and
around us, but welcome it and embrace it. That’s what we did when we were baptized. We
promised to continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the
prayers. We promised to persevere in resisting evil and not if, but when we sin, to repent and
return to the Lord. We promised to proclaim by word example the Good News of God in Christ.
We promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And we
promised to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every
human being. And those choices friends as affirmed throughout scripture, are always ours
alone to make, just like those Magi who chose to continue to seek and find the Christ. To that
end, as you come forward to make your Communion this morning, I invite you to dip your
fingers into this baptismal font, and making the sign of the cross, remember and recommit
yourself to the promises made at your baptism.
Friends, as offered so eloquently in this morning’s collect, may God grant us the will to live
into our covenant promises with God, to be Christ’s light and God’s continuing presence of
redemption and reconciliation in this world. We know that we cannot do this on our own, but
beloved, in those timeless words of our Baptismal Covenant Promises, we can, and we will,
with God’s help! And by God’s grace may it be so. Amen.