1st Sunday after Epiphany

January 10, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 43:1-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 29
Reading 3: 
Acts 8:14-17
Reading 4: 
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
By Bruce G. Epperly

Epiphany is the season of revealing. Epiphany is the time of the Christian year when we focus on God’s surprising revelations – in the magi from another land and faith tradition, in Gentile converts, in strangers and enemies, and, most unexpectedly, in our own lives. The message of Epiphany is that you are God’s beloved child and that God is moving in and through your life to bless the world. Epiphany shouts: “Arise, your light has come,” and that healing light is emerging from your life and experience. Epiphany affirms: “The wind [of God’s spirit] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Accordingly, the season of Epiphany is no “ordinary time,” but the time of surprising inspiration and lively revelation and the reminder that the ordinary is extraordinary for those persons who pause and awaken to God’s presence.

This “democracy of revelation,” characteristic of Epiphany, is good news for the preacher – he or she does not preach to a godless zone, but addresses persons who are always being touched by God, but don’t often know it. “Wake up. Open your eyes. Remember your baptism. See the gold, frankincense, and myrrh strewn across your path. Behold, God is with you and in your life.”

The first Sunday of Advent celebrates the baptism of Jesus  In earlier times, virtually everyone in church was baptized; today, pilgrims and seekers, what Kent Ira Groff describes as “spiritual orphans,” know little or nothing about rituals that pastors and cradle Christians take for granted. The realities of our time confront us with the question: How can we preach about baptism in a way that includes rather than excludes, and that proclaims the mystery of the sacraments without creating an esoteric circle? We cannot give spiritual orphans a sense of meaning that they aren’t yet looking for, but we can open the door to an adventurous pathway of mutual growth and inspiration. We can share with people for whom the Christian message is unfamiliar, and who do not sense that they need what Christ has to offer, a message that transforms all of us, within and beyond the church, “you are loved; you matter; you are more than you can imagine, and so is everyone else.” Shared with humility, this is good news for congregants and seekers alike.

Isaiah 43 presents words of comfort and companionship. The one who creates us is our most intimate companion in times of trial.  The one who calls us by name is our fellow pilgrim as we pass through life-threatening situations. This word is addressed both to individuals and communities. God is here with us, and we will make it through life’s trials, whether we are facing serious illness, bereavement, relational alienation, congregational conflict, or budget deficits.

These comforting words, however, don’t always fit our immediate life experience. There are no guarantees that God’s beloved will be spared death from a terminal illness, the impact of post-traumatic or secondary stress, depression, or the unexpected death of loved ones. Many die feeling utterly alone or live day to day with no sense of presence, and this must be acknowledged, if we are to speak an honest word of comfort. We must affirm both absence and presence, the apophatic and kataphatic, and dryness and abundance. Preachers would do well to read and reflect on Renita Weems’ Listening for God as a testimony to spiritual endurance in a time in which author experienced God as absent from her life. Weems keeps preaching and teaching, lured by the hope, sometimes barely visible, that God will become real again for her.

Psalm 29 balances intimacy with grandeur. God’s voice – the divine vibration, the energy of the universe – moves through all things, giving them life, direction, and beauty. Awe, wonder, and glory are appropriate responses for those who behold the amazing reality of the microcosm and the macrocosm. God’s word is much more than orthodox doctrine or the words of a text or sermon, it is the energy of life and love, that brings forth emerging galaxies, evolving planets, and growing embryos, and this energy flows in all things non-coercively but persistently seeking the upward movement of life.

Acts 8:14-17 describes this cosmic and creative energy in terms of human spiritual experiences. Peter and John pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit among the Samaritans. God’s Spirit flows beyond orthodoxy and ethnicity to embrace those who previously considered heterodox outsiders. “Saved” by their baptism, the Samaritans still lack a vibrant sense of God’s presence.  They are inspired, but don’t yet know it. While we don’t know what these new believers experienced, we can imagine that they felt the breath of God breathing within them, shaping their words, and emotions, and opening them to a world of unexpected spiritual gifts.

The disciples lay hands on them, revealing the power of healthy touch to transform bodies, minds, and spirits.  As a practitioner and teacher of Reiki healing touch, I see this passage as an open door to bringing healing touch back to church.  A disembodied church is ultimately a dead church. God may transform us through energetic preaching and energetic touch, and ideally both in tandem with our reaching out to touch the world beyond the church.  Did these first Samaritan Christians need a quantum leap of spiritual energy that could only be mediated by life-transforming touch?  Does the ritual of “laying on of hands” mediate God’s Spirit in ways that complement and complete the words we say in preaching, worship, and spiritual direction? (For more on Christian Reiki, see Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus, Northstone Books)

John the Baptist’s words from Luke 3 are opaque and mysterious in their contrast of water and fire. John’s baptism is life-transforming and calls persons to life. But, something more lies ahead for those who take the first steps in belonging to God’s coming realm. Could John’s words point to what some describe as the interplay of justification and sanctification, the sense that you are beloved by God and the actual experience of God’s intimacy and call to vocation, and the energy that enables us to experience what we believe?

Luke describes Jesus’ experience the Holy Spirit in an embodied way, like a dove descending. Jesus needs the touch of the Spirit as confirmation of his calling and medium of new and creative divine energies. God’s spirit must take flesh to be transformative in our lives; we must breathe it in and share with others. The word becomes flesh, and our faith embraces head, heart, and hands. 
On the Baptism of Jesus Sunday, we celebrate and affirm God’s deep love for each of us and all of us.  We celebrate the touch of waters, the vibrations of God’s word, healthy, embodied “laying on of hands,” and the gifts of the Spirit that embrace and enliven our whole persons (body, mind, and spirit) and our communities of faith.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.