First United Methodist Church
January 7, 2024
Rev. Lauren Hall
Epiphany, Baptism and Beyond
Christmas is one of the few times during the year that we have the opportunity to understand and relate to Christ through something other than power. Jesus enters the world in a way that is at odds with the whole idea of power. Christ is not a source of power; he is a human child. He is subject to the laws of nature and subject to the whims of humankind. By entering the world as a child, he reveals himself as both vulnerable and weak.
I think we look forward to celebrating Epiphany because it gives us a chance to overlook the reality of this weakness. Jesus is still a baby, but important visitors from the east arrive with gifts – gifts that have great value. Gold is a gift that you give to a king. Frankincense is used in Hebrew worship, which means that they recognized his divinity. And myrrh is an agent that is used to prepare a person for burial. Why would you give Myrrh to an infant? Well, it was to recognize that he was human and that someday he would die. In fact, one thing we need to realize about the Wise Men is that they were Persians, and many Persians died in order to give the Jewish people their freedom. So when they gave Jesus Myrrh, in a way they were saying that now it was his turn to lose his life for their freedom. And that’s exactly what he did, and the Persians knew this because they understood the meaning of the Scripture even better than Herod did.
What we often lose in the busy-ness of the Christmas season and the holiday rush is the vulnerability and humility that is displayed in the beginning of each Gospel. While Matthew and Luke share some of the vulnerabilities Jesus experienced as a child, Mark begins by having Jesus humbly stand in line with everybody else as he awaits John’s baptism. And unlike John, who links Jesus directly to the divine Godhead as logos, Mark associates Jesus with the people who are coming to John the Baptist to be baptized.
I think a lot of people want to know why Jesus submitted to a purification baptism of repentance. While there are a lot of theories out there about that, we shouldn’t necessarily be asking why, but instead looking at the significance of it.
The Magi recognized God in Jesus. Simeon recognized God in Jesus. John recognized God in Jesus. The angels announced it. The shepherds responded. Up to this point, many human beings have affirmed God’s presence in this human child. Even Jesus identifies as God’s son in the Temple. At Jesus’ baptism, however, God affirms it. His next stop? Satan and temptation. And then Christ begins his ministry of establishing God’s reign on earth. The story is no longer about others announcing who Jesus is. Jesus lives into his own identity as the Messiah, and it is up to each one of us to see the God in Jesus.
In our Scripture, John explains that although he baptizes with water, the more powerful one coming after him, namely Jesus, will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus receives the Holy Spirit in his own baptism. Thus Jesus receives the Spirit which he will later share with others.
It’s important that we don’t look at our own Baptisms as a magical process that keeps sin out of our lives. We reject sin in our vows, and the ritual action points to God’s presence in the world and in our lives, and it becomes the vehicle for conveying our participation with God. Just like taking a bath is an important step in becoming clean, along with getting dressed and brushing our teeth and hair, Baptism is the beginning – faith and spiritual practices are also important – and it is a powerful channel through which God has chosen to make grace available to us.
Christ’s ministry demonstrates that everyone is worthy of God’s love, and Christ’s sacrifice purifies us so that the Holy Spirit can reside in us. God with us. God in us. This is where God’s plan for us comes to fruition. When we accept God’s grace and forgiveness and begin to live our lives as God intended us to live, we fully develop our human capabilities and we can embody, or incarnate, the gospel message of justice and peace the best way possible.
The early Christians realized that God’s plan for us is not to “fix” us as many of us would prefer, but instead to empower us to follow God’s plan, living to our fullest potential and joyfully embracing being a child of God. Although society tends to define us according to what we own or what we are worth, our real worth is measured by how true we are to living God’s plan. There are times when we follow God’s plan and still struggle to make available the resources needed for housing, food, clothing, health care and education and there are other times when we have these in abundance. Christ’s challenge for us is to live our lives in such a way that we are constantly able to share in some way, doing good things so that we are always generous and willing to share.
During the Great Depression the Ball family discovered that no one could afford to purchase their product, the canning jar. They realized that people still needed the jars but they didn’t have enough money to buy them. Rather than close the glass factory, which would have created even more poverty, they chose to keep the factory in Muncie open, paying the workers out of their savings, and they practically gave the jars away. Because of their generosity, hundreds of families in Muncie avoided the poverty experienced by the rest of the country. And many of the families in rural Indiana had affordable access to the Ball canning jars, enabling them to store food, which kept them from starving.
God calls for us to be generous. According to John Wesley, we cannot remain faithful unless our faith leads to hope for the world as we demonstrate our love for others and for the whole creation that God loves. Our generosity is an expression of our faith. When we place Christ in the center of our lives, we are able to recognize the needs of others and respond to them in some way. Christ demonstrated to us that the most precious gift that we have is our human life. Nothing is more valuable. We give glory to God when we accept God’s love and then take the time to share this love with others.
Each new year brings opportunity to move beyond our limitations…to find new beginnings and be better than we were before. We remember that the most basic transforming experiences of our faith — communion and baptism — are the starting points for life “beyond” our limitations. As we prepare to move back into our own Sanctuary, we have the opportunity to make this year one of amazing transformations — for our lives, for our church, for our community, and for our world!
As you leave the Sanctuary today, I invite you to go to the baptismal font and remember our link to new life through the waters of baptism. Whether or not you are baptized, or have any memory of your actual baptism, the waters can remind us that just as water is necessary for life, being renewed year by year, day by day, is necessary for a full life of hope and possibility. We are always invited to the abundance and fresh horizons in our journey of faith.
When you come to the water, you are invited to take a blue glass bead from the water — a reminder of renewal and the depths of love that accompany you in this new year.
Then take a gold glass bead — a reminder to look to the horizon where the dawn of this new day, this new year, is beckoning you to the heights — beyond your fears into new life. Amen.