A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of Christ Church Greenwich
Delivered on Sunday, January 8, 2023
Today is the first Sunday of Epiphany, which is the church season that immediately follows the twelve days of Christmas. Most of us have taken down our Christmas decorations and packed up our creches. The baby Jesus is back in the attic.
But now things really begin to unfold. It all began with the private visit by an angel to a virgin named Mary and then the news was broadcast to shepherds watching over their flocks by night. The news came to an ever expanding audience with more and more witnesses until it finally came to us.
Some would even say that Epiphany is the most important season of the Church Year for it helps us to see Jesus. Preacher Peter Gomes said Epiphany “is like a stone that is dropped in the water, which sets off a series of concentric ripples that get bigger and bigger and bigger until the entire surface imperceptibly is witness to the initial movement of that stone.”
In some ways the story of Epiphany is greater than the story of Jesus’ birth for this story goes further and deeper. If we leave the story with Jesus as a baby and do not return to church until Easter, we miss what Jesus is all about. Fortunately, the season of Epiphany gives us three short stories – three clear lenses – to see what Jesus is all about.
The first lens is the most familiar. It is the story of the three kings, the Wise Men or magi. They come from Persia with pomp and circumstance to celebrate the birth of a new king, and not just any old king, but the King of Kings. This event is celebrated around the world on January 6 when the Eastern Church – the church of the Greeks, Ukrainians, Russians, and Armenians and countless Christians celebrate and exchange gifts on Epiphany, not Christmas, in honor of the magi who first brought gifts to the Christ child.
The Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem following a harrowing journey from Persia to see where Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity was built over the exact spot. Some of us will see it on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March. In the sixth century, the Persians invaded Palestine and destroyed every church that they found. But when they arrived at the Church of Nativity, they saw a mural of the magi dressed in Persian clothing and decided not to destroy this church. Thus, it remains the oldest church in Israel.
If we understand the magi correctly, then we understand that they are very much like ourselves. They made a journey, and they gave gifts, but it was the gift that they were given that brought them to their knees. God was made manifest to them in a manger. That is the first lens, and helps us to see God in ordinary things and start to have a relationship with Jesus.
The joy of Christianity comes from taking our faith seriously. There’s almost no joy in being a casual Christian. “I’m a member of Christ Church, but I never go.” Have you ever heard anyone say something like this enthusiastically? The joy of having a gym membership is using it. The joy of a golf club is swinging it. The joy of a fly fishing rod is not having it in the attic, but in standing in the middle of a stream surrounded by nature, watching water cascade over rocks, searching for a deep pool where the trout are hiding and casting the right fly to the right spot, and watching a trout rise and take it and swim for its life.
Likewise, the joy of Christianity comes when we make a journey like the Wise Men, when we pay a price and put some real effort into our spiritual journey like reading Scripture slowly and prayerfully each day or saying the Lord’s Prayer each morning and taking ten minutes to say it meditatively, or linking our finances to our faith and committing to giving just 1% of what is available to us each year to further the work that Jesus is doing through Christ Church. When we do this, every single expenditure takes on a spiritual significance as we realize that we don’t need to spend everything on me, me, me or my family, my family, my family. And if you’re already doing this, then ramp up to 2 or 3 or 5% or tithe what God has entrusted to you. These spiritual practices will bring you into a deeper relationship with Jesus.
The second lens through which we look at Epiphany is another lens of love. This is the story told in John’s Gospel about Jesus’ first miracle, which took place at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus surprised his hosts by crashing the wedding and bringing his thirsty friends, who drank all of the wine. So, Jesus saved the day by replenishing the wine.
He didn’t just turn water into wine. The biblical account tells us that it was not a vin ordinaire as the French call it, but something really superb – a vin extraordinaire, perhaps a stunning St. Estephe or a Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape or an Italian Barolo or Brunello. Jesus didn’t just replenish wine, he provided a much better wine, reversing the age old custom of serving the best wine first and saving the cheaper wine for after the guests were lubricated. Everyone raved about the fine wine that was served last.
But it’s much more than a story of alchemy or a great wine trick. It’s a story about learning how to see Jesus in our midst. As the magi who wandered from afar to see the birth of a king, this is a story about coming into relationship with Christ. The focus of this story is not the bridal party nor the wine. The focus is on how we can invite Jesus into our lives and trust that he will bless us.
The third lens of Epiphany is the baptism of Jesus, which we celebrate today. This is the Feast of Our Lord’s Baptism. It is the least public, most profound and accessible miracle to us. While we might not ride camels to Bethlehem or attend a wedding in Cana of Galilee and see Jesus turn water into wine, but most of us have been baptized and have witnessed many baptisms.
All four gospels recount this story, but they seem somewhat ill at ease with it. After all, the Jordan River was crowded that day with sinners – people who had made a mess of their lives, folks who were sorry, guilty, or who hoped against hope that John’s baptism would turn their lives around. The Bible makes it clear that baptism was to wash away sins. If Jesus had a PR team, they would have tried to dissuade him from going to the Jordan River that day. It was a bad photo opt – hanging out with sinners. But then Jesus showed up, and he got in line. We are told that he had no sin. So, he wouldn’t have needed to be baptized.
Matthew tells us that John tried to dissuade Jesus from being baptized. “I need to be baptized by you,” said John. But Jesus insisted. Suddenly, John realized that his ministry has been the prologue to a much greater story. The main act was set to begin. It is time for John to get off the stage. The long-awaited Messiah had arrived. So, John yielded, not because he was humble or graceful, but because this was God’s plan.
So, Jesus stepped into the Jordan not to wash away his sins, but to witness to his relationship with God. Study the life of any saint and you will find someone with a rich prayer life and spent lots of time hanging out with God – talking to God, listening to God, sharing concerns with God, asking God’s advice, reading God’s Word, and offering to serve God on any given day. “God, I have a few hours free today. What would you have me do to touch some other people’s lives today?” Jesus’ baptism was his witness that God had a claim on him. He no longer belonged first to his parents or to his work or even to the world. He belonged to God, and his work was just beginning.
Matthew therefore places Jesus’ baptism at the very beginning of his ministry. Before Jesus performed any miracle or taught any lesson about love, he was baptized. He entered the water as one thing and emerged as something entirely different. And so, each time we baptize someone, we graft that precious person into Jesus’ life and into his death. If we are baptized in Jesus and live our lives linked to his life, when we die, we will inherit eternal life with him. That’s our core Christian conviction.
It’s not magic – like saying, “I was baptized and now I can do anything that I want because God will protect me.” That’s not true. Rather, baptism is like a door. Once you are baptized, you can and are expected to enter in and go deeper into the Church, and that’s where the fun begins.
Each time we invite newcomers into the household of God, we recite the Baptismal Covenant so that they know what is expected of us. We ask, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” It’s when we live into this, when we go after a real relationship with the living God through Jesus, that life moves from the ordinary to the extraordinary or vin ordinaire to vin extraordinaire. We need to ask ourselves today, what am I doing to live out my Christian faith and make a difference in the world? Asking and pondering that question each day, will make our lives truly matter. And God will respond in a big way. That’s why Matthew tells us:
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water,
suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven
said, ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
God was at work in Jesus. Howard Thurman wrote:
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings are Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To teach the nations
To bring Christ to all
To make music in the heart.
Maybe, just maybe, this is the day where you will open that door and become a greater part of God’s work, God’s glory, God’s great epiphany. Amen.