An Epiphany Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Today we hear the familiar story of the Three Kings from the Orient who followed a star to Bethlehem, to be in the presence of God and make an offering of their gifts. Sometimes these travelers are called Wise Men, and their Wisdom explains the joy they experience. When we follow their lead, where do we go to be in the presence of God? What offerings do we bring with us? And do we share the joy the Wise Men felt, at seeing God?
I have been told that Christians endlessly repeat unpersuasive accounts of their faith; innovation is wanted, to engage the mind. Keeping in mind our three questions, I will try to address this objection.
First, we observe that teachings of the faith aim at two ends: conversion, and the strengthening of faith. We are not, I think, disrespectful of others, when we seek to be changed and are guided in our effort. Specifically, Christians believe that the circumstances and conditions of our lives require a deliberate shift in attention from being to givenness. God is the showing of itself as person in revelation and in presence. Strictly speaking, gift rather than being is the analogy for the showing of God. The experience of givenness lays the groundwork for holy living.
As we see, our teachings present immediate difficulties. Christian doctrine is articulated in the church, a kingdom set among kingdoms, and its wisdom needs to be translated for the world, which speaks a different language. When we don’t learn the language of the church, our understanding is based on translations and the interpretation of translations. As we become more alienated from the church, we have less opportunity for hearing its doctrine; instead, we end up re-interpreting interpretations, and yes, we repeat ourselves, in narrower and narrower circles. We lose the ability to engage the original teachings of tradition.
I do not intend to be harsh. When our doctrine is false, we lose the understanding of the sacraments and deny ourselves access to their channels of gift. Christian teachings discipline us to change our heart and mind. We can do this in two ways: by addressing the heart through habits of devotion and the mind through scholarly study. Devotion and study are paths laid down for the church, by the power of Christ’s resurrection. They are means for perfecting discipline, to the exclusion of much else. And they depend upon participation in the sacramental life of the church.
Let us return to the original objection. We see that shortcomings arise when Christians talk about their faith, because they fail to engage the tradition of the church, which consequently becomes progressively more obscure. Would innovation remedy the situation?
The church, we understand, has Christ as its head and his Spirit within it, guiding us through the briefness of our lives and creation through the centuries of history. The church safeguards the treasure of its teachings. One way it does so is by engaging in a constant process of refinement: doctrine achieves greater clarity and luminosity over time, and the real appearance of the church, when we glimpse this, leaves us awestruck. Our experience, however, is not due to innovation, but to wisdom, for we acquire wisdom along with our acquisition of the Holy Spirit, when we are baptized.
On the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we recall our baptism, remembering we are empowered as God’s beloved children to share in the healing and reconciling work of Christ. This work is what we see manifested at the Jordon, when Jesus himself was baptized: healing and reconciliation.
What can we say about this baptism that we haven’t said before? Do we not see, as John does, the heavens opened, and “the Spirit of God descending like a dove” and alighting on Jesus? Do we not hear “a voice from heaven” saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” If so, let us ask: how can we bear this sight and these words? Do we not comprehend the terrifying certainty that these proclaim?
At the Baptism of Our Lord we see and hear God the Father accept the worthiness of his Son as a holy, reasonable and living sacrifice for the sin of the world. There will be no reprieve, as there was with the binding of Isaac. Only after Jesus has been designated “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” that is, once his death has been sealed, does Jesus begin his public ministry.
The harshness of this picture is inescapable; what we overlook, perhaps, is our continuing reliance on the trauma it provokes. Every time we sin, we rely on the sacrificial death of Jesus to make us whole. We extend his suffering, because we remain helplessly unchanged.
How proud and arrogant we are to think we can do without God’s help. How blind we are to the trauma we perpetuate.
This is the view from our side of things; what about the obverse? Epiphany has another dimension: the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem, at the barn where Jesus sleeps in a trough. In the presence of Jesus, the Wise Men adore him. His feet and hands move in the dimly lit shadows. Gold, myrrh and frankincense are exchanged in the divine infant’s givenness.
Let us return to the three questions under consideration: where do we go to be in the presence of God? What offerings do we bring with us? And do we share the joy the Wise Men felt, at seeing God? At the declension of a star, the infant Jesus appears to the Three Kings, as later he appears to us, first at his Baptism, and then at ours. In his presence, at the Jordon, where the Father speaks through light, fanned by the wings of a dove, we are immersed in his presence, that we might be delivered unto life. We are filled with joy.
The divine presence of Jesus turns our hearts and minds; his divine presence converts us, strengthens our faith, and sanctifies us. In the presence of Jesus, we make an offering of our very selves, and are healing begins; the sin of the world is forgiven, and we are reconciled with our Creator.
Do we not repeat ourselves? The habits of our former lives don’t go away unbidden. Quite the opposite: a deliberate shift in attention from being to givenness requires discipline. Gradually, our original face, the image of God, is restored to us, and we are made whole. This is the backwards promise of the three: cross, baptism, and nativity.
When we follow the lead of the Three Kings, how do we find our way into the presence of God? The church must be our first, our daily, site of pilgrimage. We will draw no nourishment from the translations and re-interpretations of its treasures that the world would have us claim in its place. When we bring ourselves to church, we offer God our willingness to live as God intends for us to live. Then we experience the joy the Wise Men felt, at seeing God, for we too will see God.
We can choose from many disciplines that we that will aid us to discover the presence of God in all areas of our life. Prayer, study and communion requires commitment and perseverance, but they work: our hearts and minds are changed. Engaging the spiritual practices the church has taught for centuries, we will be made anew and offer others an example of the Christian life. Let us dedicate this Epiphany season to searching the night skies for the star – the practice of the presence of God – that will lead us to the perfection of our being and the fullness of joy.
And all the people said, Amen.