Sermon preached on January 7, 2018, Baptism of Our Lord
It Happened to Be Epiphany
So we begin again, each New Year – a new beginning of sorts. In the Church year, we have just celebrated the birth of the Christ child, the incarnation of God’s self, the most amazing event – and that gives us hope, for all things are possible with God. And if all things are possible on a grand scale, then all things are possible on a smaller scale, right? Though we know the story of the birth happens on a small scale, on a human scale, that’s the whole point. We are the whole point. And now, after the celebration we begin in earnest to ask – what does that look like? It looks like hope, and new beginnings and everyday moments that matter. Because our lives matter.
And our lives are made up of little moments, much more than grand gestures. Our lives are formed, composed, assembled, and ultimately defined by all the little things really. Life made is in the living of it. As Annie Dillard writes: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”1
So while those Christmas letters we get are nice – you know the ones, the lists of all we’ve done, exotic places we’ve been, things accomplished over the year, they can’t really reflect the lives we live.
Honestly, our family card is always a New Year’s Card (for obvious reasons), and often goes without the letter, though sometimes I get time to at least explain the photos. This year our card has a gorgeous image of Spring Point Lighthouse taken by Ken in the evening as he left work. With Christmas lights and a lobster boat, for me it captures coastal Maine’s Winter beauty. Our card also has the requisite family photo of the four of us – this time taken on Thanksgiving at my mother in law’s new farm outside of Bethel. She’s lived in Bethel for 45 years, but this place is new to her: there are changes even the steadiness of our lives. We included two other images on the card as well – both from our family trip this summer to Quebec. The Old City is a special place for us, we went there on our honeymoon 25 years ago (this August). This past summer we were there to take the girls to see music mega-superstar and gifted artist Ed Sheeran.
What I found interesting about Sheeran’s performance is the way he creates each song. Standing completely alone on stage, (in some of the largest music venues in the world) with just his guitar and foot pedals, he lays down all the tracks of the music while the audience watches. He then loops the different tracks into the song when he begins the song in earnest. So that each song is assembled from the pieces he has created, forming the fully embodied song.
I realize that’s how songs always come together, it’s just really interesting to hear it happen piece by piece, as each element is laid down, and then appreciate the whole as it comes together right before you.
Isn’t that how it works with life in general? We lay down all these bits and pieces, all these moments, little happenings every day, with the rhythm that carries them along – some things are steady – providing the rhythmic bass, some things less expected, the colorful, the lift, then there are heart-wrenching soulful parts – which give depth and meaning to the whole; all of it coming together, pieces over time, to create a rich and textured body of music; a rich and textured life.
Life that is shaped and formed in the smaller moments, the day in and day out tracks laid down to create the everyday fabric that holds together the bigger events, the ones we think of as life defining and worth noting in our memoirs. (Or at least our Christmas letters.) I’ve spent so much of my life working with youth, reminding them that contrary to their worst fears, a single event will not define their whole lives… and I believe that’s true. But then, we run into this morning’s Gospel story – which comes as close as you get!
The text here in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel opens with a list of events – not unlike one of those Christmas letters we were talking about. In the Greek, Egeneto, “it happened.” While our particular translation chooses to mix it up a bit, the Greek is pretty repetitive – it happened: John happened, Jesus happened, a voice happened.
These are remarkable events – and Mark opens his Gospel, this account of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, with this moment here in the wilderness at the edge of river Jordan. This is when we meet both John and Jesus for the first time in Mark’s Gospel. John happened – he, who is the messenger, the one preparing the way, baptizes all who will come to him, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And Jesus happened – he shows up here to receive this baptism by John. “Jesus of Nazareth of Galilee” his first introduction in Mark’s Gospel. And as he is baptized, the narrator tells us that Jesus sees “the heavens torn open and the spirit descending in the form of a dove” and a voice happens from heaven saying, “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
In Mark, Jesus has no backstory and no pedigree, because there is no birth story in this Gospel. It’s here at Jesus’ baptism that God “claims” Jesus as his own. This is quite the happening…! We could call it a radical, life defining moment.
The heavens are torn open and the Spirit descended. “Torn open,” from the same verb used when the curtain of the Temple is torn in two during the crucifixion. (schizo)2
From the very beginning, Mark is clear about the direct connection between the baptism and crucifixion. When we say that we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ… we are being honest. We are baptized into the whole of it, an unbridged life with Christ; and God is with us throughout all our lives as well, not just the easy events. Not just the events we would put on the glossy Christmas cards or list in the letter – not even close.
Keep in mind that the very next “it happened” for Jesus will be his being thrown into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted. Which is why we begin our Baptismal liturgy with our own renunciation of evil before our active choice. I renounce Satan and the forces of evil; I choose to follow Jesus, to be baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and all that means as I live my life. A radical defining moment of our own.
All of this, because today, out in the midst of wilderness at the edge of the Jordan, among crowds of ordinary sinners like us, it happened that the Son of God showed up for us. An Epiphany, an appearance of God that we had never witnessed before…. the heavens were torn open and everything changed. All that we thought separated us from God was torn away as God’s own son waded into the water alongside us, as one of us. God would split open the grave as well, tearing it open, so that death will never separate us from God, or one another either. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. This is the moment when that becomes truly embodied for us for the first time, when love walks into the river for us, and we get our first taste of it – our first drenching in God’s love. Friends, remember your baptism… renew your trust in God’s strength and love, in God’s power to forgive, get in the river, be forgiven, healed, redeemed, beloved. Feel yourself get soaked again.
This is the moment of God’s epiphany – for us and the whole world. As we consider our own Baptisms today, let’s do better than just remembering them as past events. Moments of “Eh, it happened.” On this day of both Baptism and Epiphany – can we be epiphanies ourselves? Walking embodiments of this event? Can we help tear open the heavens and let some of God’s grace pour through into the places most in need of it? Can we be people who tear apart the barriers that keep people from experiencing God’s love?3
Are there people we know who are in desperate need of real connection, and community? In need of people with whom they can be truly themselves? Do we know of people who live in darkness – who need the light we share with one another? Who just need someone to pay attention to them; someone to listen; someone to see them?
This season of epiphany, let’s live out our Baptism seeing how we can be God’s epiphany to and for others. God’s light, God’s breaking in, God’s tearing open to find ways to reach us, with remarkable, life-changing grace.
- Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, Harper Perennial, 2013.
- Portions of the background information on the Gospel text are drawn from commentary by Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Dean, President and Professor of New Testament, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas; as published in Working Preacher, January 7, 2018.
- Inspired by Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis’ post, Epiphany Preaching, for Dear Working Preacher for January 7, 2018. Lewis is Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minn.