A sermon preached on January 9th, 2022 based upon Luke 3:21-22 and Matthew 2:1-12 entitled “The Epiphanies that Reveal Our Deep Connection.”
All four Gospel writers tell us that Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan. Clearly, they are challenged a bit by the story. In Jesus’ day there followers of John who were distinct from those who followed Jesus, and from the conventional way of thinking, did the fact that Jesus submitted to John’s baptism mean Team John was superior to Team Jesus?
As you will hear, Luke sort of skates over the story, barely mentioning it. He places Jesus’ experience of receiving the Holy Spirit and hearing God’s loving words after the actual baptism in the time afterwards when Jesus was praying.
Listen for the Word of the Lord.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Luke 3:21-22)
We are in the season of Epiphany. An epiphany is a sudden insight into deeper meaning and truth – in the context of Christianity – the truth of Christ. This insight typically comes as an experience which can be hard to express in words.
Jesus himself has an epiphany as he undergoes the experience we just heard described – an insight regarding the path God is calling him to follow. He comes to the riverside and witnesses all these broken, messed up, sinful people lining up to be dunked by John in a full immersion baptism. What should he do?
There was a common understanding in those days expressed by the Pharisees – an understanding commonly held today as well – that “holiness” is found in separating oneself from people tainted with sin. Should Jesus keep his distance from the mass of humanity struggling under their bondage to the destructive powers of sin?
Evidently Jesus felt a nudge from God to humble himself – to enter the waters of baptism with all of us suffering from the destructive powers at work in our lives. He chooses to embrace our experience of baptism. It must have been frightening for Jesus to submit himself to the dunking of John which expressed a kind of death. Jesus must have sensed in making this choice he was opening himself up to the ocean of pain that comes with the human condition. Holiness, he sensed is found not in separating but in connecting in solidarity.
We can attempt to withdraw from sinners, but nonetheless the power of sin still assaults us from within.
So here at the outset of the story of his ministry the choice Jesus makes will determine all that follows. Throwing his lot in with all of us in humility, his path opens him up to attack from the Pharisees. In the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel we hear how Jesus’ decision to share the dinner table with people whose sin was well known is the basis of their criticism. A truly holy man wouldn’t keep such company!
It is in response to their criticisms that Jesus tells a couple of his most famous parables: of a shepherd who cares so deeply for one lost sheep, going to great lengths to find him and bring him back into the fold; of a father who never gives up on his son who wounds him terribly, wandering away to the far country in bondage to sin – a father who amazingly throws a great feast for his beloved son upon his return. This, Jesus said it what God is like.
Another parable that Jesus told that is very familiar is the one about the “good” Samaritan. The story Jesus told involved this fundamental conflict about the path to true holiness. The priest and the Levite avoid the man half dead at the side of the road because his fate suggests his is a sinner who has received the condemnation his life deserves. The Samaritan – one easily written off as a someone playing on another religion’s “team” – proves to be the man expressing true holiness through acts of simple compassion.
So, the choice to enter the waters of John’s baptism proves to be an “epiphany” for Jesus – one expressed in the mystery of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God calling him the beloved – a voice he hears in response to his movement towards the suffering of humanity.
And as you and I ponder Jesus making this movement, an epiphany is possible for us as well.
I’d like to turn now to the story most associated with the season of Epiphany, and that is the one about the Wisemen following the star from the east to come and worship the Christ-child. Unlike Jesus, they weren’t Jews yet they perceived a truth Jesus’ own people generally missed. You can’t really say the wisemen were Christians in the usual sense of the word. They knew nothing of the teachings the child would grow up to give, nor of the sacrificial death and resurrection he would experience.
They didn’t know these things and yet somehow they sensed in the baby the truth that in God we are all connected.
The great religions of the world all begin with certain inspired people having profound spiritual experiences/epiphanies: Moses at the burning bush, Mohammed in his cave in the wilderness, Buddha under his tree. In the midst of these epiphanies there is that same intuition of our great connection to one another through the God who gave us all life.
Christianity is rooted in the epiphanies – powerful spiritual experiences – including the one Jesus underwent at his baptism, the experience of the disciples as they went through a similar movement confronting their brokenness at Jesus’s crucifixion and then the mystery of their rebirth in his resurrection.
At their best the religions that arise from these epiphanies help the people who practice them to get in touch with the experiences and insights of the founders. As Christians hopefully the practice of our religion helps us to catch hold of the “way” of Jesus expressed in that initial move in which Jesus humbled himself in solidarity with all people.
Unfortunately, often religions end doing something quite different. They harden into dogma that put up walls that see some as “holy” – belonging to the “in” crowd, the winning “team”, and condemning others as “unholy” belonging to the wrong, losing team.
We are including the Christmas season in which we often hear the phrase, “keep Christ in Christmas.” At its best these words remind us to not lose the way of Jesus in our celebration of Christmas – to remember that it’s not about the frantic and often irritable buying frenzy we can turn it into but rather a call to embody the love Jesus embodied. At its worst, it means we’re on Team Jesus and our job is to beat down those other religious teams with which we competing against. (I don’t think this is really Jesus’ way at all.)
Here in Parsippany we live in one of the most religiously diverse communities in the world. Is this a problem, or an opportunity?
What if we saw it as an opportunity?
Last summer I got an email from our district superintendent calling my attention to a $1000 grant given out by the United Methodist Bishops for projects that encourage interfaith dialogue. Knowing the religious diversity of Parsippany, she suggested we apply. I thought to myself, I’m way to busy for this.
But over time this vision began to take shape in my mind of a dinner party like the sort Jesus liked to be a part of in which ten Jews, ten Christians, ten Moslems and ten Hindus would gather around tables over dinner to make friendships and learn about one another’s traditions.
I applied for a grant, and lo and behold the proposal succeeded. So hopefully if the pandemic doesn’t get in the way we will host such a dinner sometime in May.
My hope is that the dinner can be the occasion for epiphanies – for those who participate – as well as for those who hear about this event. It can reveal that ancient truth that on the deepest level we really are all in this together – that God has connected us in the depths of our being and wants us to love one another – to celebrate our different ways of perceiving the deep truth of God and wondrous love that holds us all together. It would be an epiphany that would convey hope in a world that is tempted to despair regarding the divisions that tear us apart.
In a little while we will be sharing Holy Communion. We remember a dinner party that Jesus hosted. Its important to remember that the disciples who attended that first Holy Communion dinner party didn’t earn their right to sit at the table because they believe the right things – that they had made the cut to be on Team Jesus. No, at that first Holy Communion there was a deepening awareness among the disciples that they were there purely by virtue of divine grace. In short order they would be denying Jesus and fleeing in terror.
The graciousness revealed in that holy meal is offered to all of humanity, in all our varied ways of being broken. This graciousness is the good news we have to offer.