Sermon: Epiphany I
The Season of Making Jesus Known
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
• Isaiah 42:1-3
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 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.”
• Matthew 3:13-17
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On the Christian calendar, we have emerged from the Christmas season and are now in a season called Epiphany and the time after Epiphany.
The word Epiphany means “a revelation,” a bright, surprising pulling back of the curtain to reveal something new and wonderful. Epiphany in the Christian sense refers to how God revealed his love for the world through his son Jesus Christ.
The stories in this season emphasize how God made himself known through Jesus.
- Friday was Epiphany day itself and the Gospel was the story about how God guided the magi through the star of Bethlehem to worship the newborn King.
- Today we read the account of Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens opened, the Spirit descended like a dove upon Jesus, and God’s voice was heard from heaven, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” In that event, Jesus was revealed to Israel and his ministry among them began.
- Next Sunday we will hear another text from the story of Jesus’ baptism from John’s Gospel, which describes how some of Jesus’ first disciples began to follow him when he was revealed to them through the testimony of John the Baptist.
- Then, for the rest of this year’s Epiphany season, we will be focusing on how Jesus was revealed through his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.
- This season ends with Transfiguration Sunday, when Jesus revealed his glory to his disciples on the mountain.
The point in all of these stories and throughout this season is that God has revealed his grace, truth, mercy, and love to the world through Jesus. Another point is that God is still doing that today, and that he wants to reveal Jesus to the world through people like you and me. Epiphany is the time for making Jesus known, for telling his stories, for passing on his teachings, and most of all, for laying down our lives to bless others the way Jesus did.
Epiphany is one of the most missional seasons of the church, a time when we look to shine the light of Jesus out beyond ourselves to others. Not in patronizing ways. Not in moralistic and preachy ways. Not in ways that suggest we are better than others or are part of some insider club that people have to learn a secret handshake and password to enter. Rather, as ordinary human beings, as humble people who realize we don’t have all the answers or solutions to every problem, as common people who in many ways are just as messed up as anyone else, we extend ourselves to serve our neighbors with the same consideration and kindness by which God served us in Jesus.
Today’s readings contain some of these themes.
For example, in our OT reading the prophet Isaiah introduces us to God’s servant Israel, called to be a light to the nations. Here is how the text describes this servant:
He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…
Isaiah describes a servant who is quiet, humble, gentle, and yet persistent in seeking justice for others. He goes to say this:
I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
This is a servant who is called and secure in a relationship with God, who is especially sensitive and active in bringing help and healing to those who find themselves in places of great need.
Israel never fulfilled her calling, but Jesus the Messiah did what Israel failed to do. Jesus is the ultimate Servant described by Isaiah here. He is the one we see in today’s Gospel being baptized by John, being affirmed as God’s beloved Son, arising out of the water to begin his ministry of setting the captives free.
Jesus was faithful to the end in his ministry of bringing salvation and hope to Israel and the world. Now, as those who are in Jesus, we have been given this same servant ministry to those around us.
This past week I did a funeral service for a woman named Judy. About five years ago we had buried her husband Carl. They and the people around them made a great impression upon me. They showed me the power of love and neighborliness, of serving one another and blessing each other. It all came back to me as I conversed with Judy’s family.
Back when I did Carl’s service, as I stood in front of his casket and greeted the mourners as they filed by, I noticed a flower arrangement behind me with an interesting note on it: “From your friends at XYZ Campground.” It was striking to me that owners of a campground would send such a lush bouquet and that it would be displayed so prominently, close to the casket.
I discovered that Carl and Judy had spent twenty summers at that campground with their family and friends. It was as much their community as the neighborhood in which they lived. Most of the pictures pinned on the display boards around the funeral home showed them enjoying activities there.
Just then, a man and woman passed by me, extending their hands. “Hi, we’re Joe and Marie from XYZ Campground. Thanks so much for the service today. Carl and Judy have been good friends for many years.”
“I knew they enjoyed camping,” said the chaplain, “but I never knew how much until today. And you came! I’m sure it means the world to them.”
I was astounded that they would come all that way to honor someone who had come to their campground.
A few moments, later, another man shook his hand and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m the restaurant on Washington Street you talked about today.”
Carl and Judy had gone to lunch there several times a week, even when it became difficult for him to get out. The folks at the restaurant were like their extended family. They raved about how the owner and staff treated them. I told him that.
The man wiped a tear from his eye and tried to say something, but the words didn’t come. “Thanks for coming,” I said. “I know they appreciate it.”
Let me give a little background. Carl’s first wife had died of cancer as a young woman. Then he met Judy, a divorcee, and they hit it off. He worked in one of the auto plants, she cleaned houses, and they blended their families together the best they could. Soon they were all spending time together each summer at the campground. It was like an extended family reunion down there.
And Carl was obviously one of the leaders. All the children wanted to be around Uncle Carl. He would take them fishing, give them an endless supply of quarters for the game room, hand out candy all day long, join them in various games at the campsite, and make sure they got their marshmallows and S’mores at night. When the young ones were snug in their sleeping bags, he and the other adults would sit around the campfire, which he tended, until the wee hours, telling stories. It was his habit to bring a large piece of wood — almost a stump — and throw it on the fire the first night they arrived so it would keep burning for days and days. Like that never-ending campfire, Carls heart glowed with joy at the campground. He was in his element.
He thought about retiring early so they could spend more time there. But then the bad news came: Carl, who had been feeling strangely weak at times, learned he had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. He quit work, however, it wasn’t on his terms as he had hoped. Even worse was the fact that the terrible disease would take his life, probably within a couple of years. Soon he was confined to a wheelchair, but to his credit, Carl never stopped trying to stay active, never diminished in his desire to be around family and friends, and never lost his sense of humor.
That’s when the restaurant became even more important as a place of fellowship and encouragement. He and Judy would go every day for lunch, until that became too hard, and then it was maybe two or three times a week. One of their nephews who was tall and strong moved into help them, and whenever Carl gave the word, he would load the power chair into the trunk and accompany Uncle Carl and Aunt Judy to the restaurant.
The owner and staff learned to watch for them coming. Since they came around the same time each day, one of the servers would keep an eye out to spot their car pulling into the parking lot. She’d give the signal, and they’d get a table set up for them that Carl could get to easily. They’d put out Carl’s salad and drink and make sure the cracker basket had the kinds in it that he liked. Someone would go hold the door for them, welcome them, and usher them to their table. Sometimes they stayed for two hours, catching up with the regulars and staff, laughing together through lots of stories and jokes and teasing conversations. They were able to go one last time the week Carl died.
After the funeral, the whole family, many neighbors, and friends from church were invited to the house for food and fellowship. It was an unusually warm day for the time of year, bright and dry. The gathering spilled out of the little house onto the small front porch and into the backyard. Then some cars pulled up. The restaurant owner had one of his servers deliver several boxes of food and drink for the gathering. If he had been there, Carl would have loved it and would have taken over as the life of the party. It seemed so funny not to hear his voice, they said. The children didn’t know who to ask for candy.
As time stretched on toward evening. Judy heard a commotion out in the backyard and went out to see what was happening. She saw a large circle of people huddled together, a plume of smoke rising from the midst of them. The next door neighbor had brought over his fire pit and started a blazing fire. Someone produced some sticks and marshmallows. Another was handing out graham crackers and chocolate from a grocery bag. The younger kids squealed with delight and the older ones steadied their hands and showed them how to hold a stick over the fire. The adults were waiting for a pot of camp coffee on the fire to start steaming. Conversation and laughter filled the air. It was about as fitting a tribute to Carl and to the power of neighborly love as I’ve ever witnessed.
Soon after Carl died, Judy developed Alzheimer’s disease and has been living with her daughter for the past few years. This past week she joined Carl in the care of God. We shared those memories at her funeral this week, and I was reminded of the power of simple, down-to-earth love shared among family, friends, and neighbors.
Our scriptures today lead us into Epiphany by reminding us of a Savior who was beloved by God and who loved others, who was humble, gentle, quiet, and yet persistent in living to bless us.
May he grant us the faith, hope, and love to do the same, in this season and in every season to come. Amen.
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Photo by Barbara Friedman at Flickr. Creative Commons License