Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Epiphany 1, The Baptism of Our Lord
Happy New Year! Did you have a good Christmas break? Were you able to participate in Twelfth Night activities at the Gardner House Museum for the end of the Christmas season? I had a great Christmas and New Year’s. Jon worked the whole time, but I read and made puzzles and worked a little and colored and cooked and partied and slept and worked a little more. Now that is what I call a Christmas Break!
We have moved quickly from Advent through Christmas and into Epiphany, anticipating the coming of the Messiah and the birth of Jesus the Messiah to his manifestation as the savior of all nations. The Gospel of Matthew has been careful to let us know that Jesus comes from a good Jewish family, is a descendent of King David and a descendent of Abraham. Joseph has been hesitant to commit to his pregnant fiancée Mary, but Joseph listens to and is obedient to God and marries Mary. In the Jewish tradition the baby is circumcised and Joseph names him Jesus, legally accepting Jesus as his own son.
Matthew is concerned that we believe that Jesus’ birth is a fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah. Jesus is not just any Jewish child, but is the Son of God, the Messiah, the long hoped for savior of the Jewish nation and even more, Jesus is the savior of all nations. God had promised Abraham that through his son Isaac his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore and not only that, but that they would be a blessing for all the nations of the earth. Matthew is the only gospel that tells of the visit of the Magi, the wise men, the three kings from the East. The manifestation of the Christ to the Magi is Matthew’s proof that God has fulfilled his promise to Abraham that his offspring will be a blessing to all people, that God is the God of the Jews and of the Gentiles, that Jesus is the savior for all nations. This idea is reinforced in today’s reading from Acts when Peter says: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” (Acts 10:34) Just before Peter’s visit to Cornelius, Peter had a vision of a sheet lowered from heaven full of four-legged creatures, reptiles and birds and God had shown Peter that he should not call anyone profane or unclean, that he Peter should be willing to share the Good News with Jews and Gentiles, Jews and non-Jews.
This is what Epiphany means; the Epiphany is God’s revelation of himself in his son Jesus Christ to the Gentiles; the self-revelation of the divine to all people, Jew and Gentile, man and woman, child and aged, rich and poor, shepherd and king, black and white, family and foreigner, to all people. God had revealed himself to Mary and Joseph, to shepherds and finally to kings, not the Jewish king Herod, but to Gentile kings from far away.
Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany and the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ by John the Baptist. Jesus’ baptism is another manifestation of God to the whole world through God’s Son Jesus Christ. Jesus was immersed in the River Jordan. As Jesus rose from the water, symbolically washed clean of his sin, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The stories of Jesus’ baptism by John are very similar in Matthew, Mark and Luke and the wording is almost identical. In Mark and Luke the voice from heaven tells Jesus “You are my Son”, but in Matthew God says “This is my Son”. God has revealed himself to the world and told all people that Jesus is God’s beloved Son with whom God is well pleased. God’s appearance in Matthew is not for Jesus’ benefit, but for the benefit of the world.
This message was very hard for the Jewish leaders to hear. That God would reveal himself through a poor carpenter’s son was unbelievable! When King Herod heard the Wise Men’s story, he was so protective of his throne for his own progeny that he was willing to order the murder of all children two years old and under who lived in and around Bethlehem. As an adult the leaders were still not willing to accept that Jesus the son of Mary was the Messiah. In their jealousy for their version of the story of the Messiah and for their role as religious leaders, they orchestrated Jesus’ execution. They were unwilling to see the manifestation of God in a peasant, a carpenter’s son. This was hard to accept even by Jesus’ own disciples, people who had followed him for several years in his ministry in Jerusalem, Galilee and in Gentile territory. Peter had to be shown again and again what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah and that the Spirit of God was available to all people.
In our own baptism we were adopted as sons and daughters of God and the Spirit of God was given to each of us. At our confirmation this Spirit was stirred and awakened so that we might be strengthened in our work of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to all people and our commission to feed the hungry, to offer drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to cloth the naked, to care for the sick and to visit the prisoner. (Matthew 25:31-46) Just to be clear the Spirit of God is not with us because of what we do, but through the grace and mercy and love of God.
Like King Herod and Saint Peter, we continue to find it difficult to see the Spirit of God in the other. This past week Jon and I went to see the Movie “Hidden Figures”. I recommend it. In the words of the trailer, this is
The incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation's confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.
These colored computers faced the barriers of a society that had no protocol for including women in high level strategic planning discussions, who had no respect for the intelligence of African-American women, who did not expect women to understand the new IBM machine even though the men did not either. Can you imagine having to run half a mile to use the toilet or your peers being unwilling to accept you pouring coffee from the same pot or being called by your first name when others are referred to as Mrs. Michael or having to petition the courts for permission to take courses at the local all-white high school so you could study to be an engineer or being refused the right to buy a copy of a Fortran book because it was unavailable in the black section. This was 1961, only fifteen years before I studied FORTRAN at the University of Waterloo. In the mid-80’s I was still a token female as a computer programmer in a man’s world. Four years ago I was called as your first female priest, a role that some still find hard to accept even within our own church.
Albion College is a prestigious, private Midwestern college founded in 1835 and affiliated with the United Methodist Church and yet when a group of students of color were invited to attend they met with resistance and ugly racism from peers and faculty who were unable to see the Spirit of God in these students.
Exclusivism is not a sin of the first century or even the 60’s or 80’s, it still exists today. We continue to differentiate between us and them, failing to see the Spirit of God in the other and this will probably be true for a long time. As Christians we are called to search our own response to the other, to work to change this mindset, to understand, to believe and to share the Good News that God chose to reveal himself to the whole world through his Son Jesus Christ. Amen.