St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00 a.m.
Isaiah 43:1-7 Psalm 29 Acts 8:14-17 Luke 3:15-17,21-22
“I baptize you with water, but . . . he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Well, we’re coming off Christmas, and I guess we’re mostly done with it. How many of you have taken down your decorations at home? No, we haven’t either. We normally leave everything up through the full twelve days of Christmas, that is, through the Epiphany, and we were going to take the decorations down yesterday, but we decided to go see Rosenkavalier in HD instead, which was a much better decision. I’m always a little sad at heart when, as I did this year when I went down to the post office the day after Christmas, and there on the curb were a couple of Christmas trees to be hauled away. On the other hand, we noticed last night that there were still a lot of trees still up in people’s living rooms, and most of the outdoor lighting displays were still up. But then, who wants to go take down outdoor Christmas lights in weather like what we’ve been having for the past three weeks? So we’re okay with the fact that our Christmas tree is still up. We can still use a little quiet time with the lights like little stars in the evening.
Christmas is kind of an inward-looking celebration. (That’s not a criticism!) Christmas is a time of peace and goodwill, a time for caring about others, a time of generosity. But at its heart, as we mostly experience it, Christmas is a “homey” festival, a domestic celebration. Our own homes and families are important, even central, aspects of it. After all the hustle and bustle and busyness of the preparations, all the shopping, the parties, the celebrations (not really what Advent is meant to be like!), but then Christmas itself is kind of quiet. The central story of Christmas has about it the hush of the nursery. For many people, the favorite Christmas carol is still “Silent Night” by candlelight.
The Church in her wisdom lets us enjoy that for a while, but not too long; Christmas is followed by the Epiphany. And the Epiphany represents the world breaking in upon the quiet romance of the manger. In the Gospel appointed for the Day of the Epiphany itself, which was Wednesday, the Wise Men come from a far-off land to see the Christ-Child, bringing rich, and mysterious, and foreboding gifts. In their wake, and at their unwitting guidance, a paranoid tyrant comes a-murdering, and the Holy Family must take the Child and flee the rustic quiet of the Judean hills and lose themselves as refugees in the turmoil of the second city of the Empire, Alexandria in Egypt.
But the visit of the Wise Men is but the beginning of the Epiphany, of the Appearance of Christ to the world. Today we celebrate the next moment in the Epiphany, perhaps a more central moment (and indeed so in the observances of the early Church): The Baptism of Jesus, the visible attestation of his anointing by God as Messiah, and the beginning of his public ministry.
“I baptize you with water,” says John Baptist the forerunner; “but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
And here, maybe still in the warmth of the quiet joy of Christmas, we are brought to a turn, a turn back to the world. For the Epiphany is not a cozy domestic celebration. The Epiphany is about the mission of Christ in the world. If Christmas is something of a Sabbath and a Lord’s Day, Epiphany is a Monday morning: it’s time to go back to work.
But we go back, not as we so often come to a Monday morning, our tails still dragging! Or at least we need not and ought not! We go back renewed. We go back empowered. We go back glowing, burning, with the good news of God and of God’s gracious Reign.
For all that we enjoy the Christmas season and its family celebrations and its quiet relaxations—and it is right and needful that we should do so—we also now shift our gears and get going again, and it is right and needful that we do this too. The Epiphany, the Appearance of Christ to the world—not just the Wise Men, but the Baptism, the Power and Love of the Cana Wedding, the Proclaiming of God’s Reign Now at the Nazareth Synagogue, the Calling of the Disciples, culminating in the Transfiguration on the Holy Mountain — all the ways the Messiah shows himself to God’s broken world that we will hear in the Gospel in the coming weeks — the Epiphany of Christ calls us to our mission as Christians. As Jesus began his public mission at his baptism, sealed in power by the Holy Spirit, so we take our commission (our com-mission, our mission together with him) from our baptism into Christ, likewise sealed in power by the Holy Spirit, kindled aflame by God’s love for us and for God’s world.
And in acceptance of our commission, and I hope with your forgiveness for breaking with the line printed in the bulletin, for this Sunday in place of the Nicene Creed, I ask you please to rise now and turn in your Prayer Books to page 292:
As our Lord Jesus Christ at his baptism was shown to be filled with the Holy Spirit, so we too, in him, are baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. I call upon you, therefore, now as we enter upon this Epiphany season, to renew the solemn promises and vows of Holy Baptism, by which we once renounced Satan and all his works, promised to serve God faithfully, and committed ourselves to the mission of his Holy Catholic Church.The Renewal of Baptismal Vows, BCP 292