Sermon for Sunday January 13th
During last Sunday’s Epiphany Day forum, we learned how some of the major church feast days, like Christmas, have fixed calendar dates. Others, like Easter and Pentecost, vary from year to year. For example, last year Easter was April 1st and Pentecost Sunday was May 20th. This year Easter will be April 21st and Pentecost will be June 9th.
This calendar variance affects the length of two of our liturgical seasons. There is this season after the Epiphany, which ends with the start of Lent. Then, there is the season after Pentecost which ends with the start of Advent. An early Easter means that our season after Epiphany is shortened and that additional Sundays lengthen the season after Pentecost. The opposite happens with a late Easter.
As last week’s forum ended, Bob and I were asked whether we preferred having more weeks between the Epiphany and the start of Lent, or, having more weeks between Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost) and the start of Advent.
Our answers were the same: we both preferred having additional Sundays during this season. This is more than just having extra weeks before working on the detailed planning for Lent and Holy Week. We both remarked how we value the liturgical meaning of this season after Epiphany.
The word Epiphany means ‘to manifest’ or ‘to make known’. This period of the church year emphasizes the many ways that God, in the person of Jesus, is revealed to us. It wasn’t enough that God became human in the birth of Jesus. It wasn’t enough that the celestial heralding of his birth attracted the attention of the wise men. There’s more! On this first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. This event marks the start of his ministry.
When he was around thirty years old, Jesus discerned a call taking him from the private world of family into the public realm of his Galilean surroundings. John the Baptist was proclaiming a time of spiritual renewal. Earlier Gospel verses describe the crowds coming to see John and receive baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus joins the many heeding John’s call.
Jesus’ baptism is about relationship; it is about being named and claimed as God’s own. Luke says that when Jesus came out the water, he heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The Roman Catholic spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, translates this Gospel text as “You are my beloved, my favorite one.” These words, expressing an intimate relationship with God, also apply to us. This is the Good News of the Gospels. We are loved with the same unconditional love as Christ himself. This forms the basis of our relationship with the divine. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, nothing can separate us from this love. Nothing can revoke or rescind our relationship as God’s beloved.
Over the course of church history, baptism has been viewed as a means of salvation. In the early church, it was common to postpone baptism until one was near death. This would be a hedge against receiving baptism and then falling away from one’s Christian commitments.
The story of Jesus’ baptism reveals something more…this passage is about intimacy with God. I believe that if we accept this statement of our God-given identity, we become less self-centered and more God-centered.
When we know that we are God’s Beloved, we willingly live out our faith. We know our efforts are sustained by God’s relationship with us.
The Lutheran pastor Roy Lloyd once interviewed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He said that one of his questions and one of her answers stood out as ‘”a bright sun burning in my mind.” He had asked her, “What’s the biggest problem in the world today?” And she answered, without hesitation, “The biggest problem in the world today is that we draw the circle of our family too small. We need to draw it larger every day.”
With all that was wrong in the world, especially with the seemingly endless barrage of news reports, it would be easy for us to answer Pastor Lloyd’s question with a hundred different specific items. “What’s the biggest problem in the world in the today?” What would be our answers?
There’s too much greed and not enough resources; there’s too much hate and not enough compassion; there’s too much apathy and not enough empathy. Those are the sorts of answers we would also expect from someone who saw first-hand the brutal effects of systemic poverty, need and neglect.
That’s what makes Mother Teresa’s response so surprising. She said that the problem is not so much with the world around us; the problem is fundamentally with us. We are to see more people in relationship with us, connected to us in the same way that we are connected with our families. This means removing the barriers that we naturally want to place between us and others. This is where our commitment as the beloved of God comes into the picture.
Our Collect for this Sunday asks that we might keep the covenant we have made. This refers to the promises made when we were baptized. We renew these promises every time a baptism or a confirmation is celebrated in the church.
Our baptismal covenant is a continuing invitation to faithfulness. It includes five questions regarding our ongoing participation in the public work of ministry.
The first and last questions ask our willingness to gather as a faithful community and strive for the betterment of others. We understand that spirituality isn’t just a private matter.
The second question and fourth questions guard against religious exclusivity. We acknowledge that we will fall short of our best intentions and we pledge to humbly return to our commitments. We also promise to serve Christ in all persons.
The third question reminds us that we preach the Gospel by our example, not just by our words. What we do has a greater impact than just what we say.
The response to each question is not just, “Yes”, or even, “I will.” The formal reply is, “I will, with God’s help.” We understand that our faithful response is grounded in our beloved relationship with God.
While we do not have baptisms today, after the sermon we will renew these promises as part of our liturgy. And, since this liturgical season continues for another seven Sundays, may I suggest a spiritual practice for us? Take today’s service bulletin home and intentionally read through these five baptismal promises at least weekly. And then, hold them in your heart as you reflect on their meaning in the context of your life circumstances.
We live out our identity as God’s beloved as we serve in ministry to others. The holy mystery is that God is revealed to us in a special way: as we tangibly express our divine Beloved-ness in our world. May all of us who are baptized into Jesus’ Name keep the covenant we have made. Amen.