We are in the season of Epiphany. The
word epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaino, which means to appear
or to give light. Thus an “epiphany” can be any appearance or
enlightenment. When someone says, “Aha, now I see the light,” that is
an “epiphany.” On the Christian calendar, Epiphany is the season that
acknowledges Christ as the revelation or the appearance of God in the
world and is symbolized by the star that guided the magi to the Christ
The Epiphany season extends from January
6th to the season of Lent. It is a season that invites us to reflect on
how Jesus appears in our lives and how the light of God shines in our
world today. One of the epiphany stories traditionally used on the first
Sunday of the Epiphany season is the story of the baptism of Jesus. In
the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we are introduced to John the
Baptist and his message. Then Luke tells us,
As the people were
filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their
hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
16John answered all of them by saying,
‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than
I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his
sandals. He will baptize you with*
the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His
winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor
and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he
will burn with unquenchable fire.’
with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to
the people. 19But Herod the ruler,
who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his
brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that
Herod had done, 20added to them all by
shutting up John in prison.
when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had
been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,
22and the Holy Spirit descended upon
him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from
heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;*
with you I am well pleased.’
Normally voices from heaven are taken as
Epiphany experiences. I know that whenever I hear a voice from above I
stop and listen, don’t you?
Four rabbis were engaged in an on-going,
theological debate and the rule was, majority wins. But it was always 3
against 1, the same 3 against the same 1. Poor Rabbi Jacob was always
on the losing side. He was certain that he understood the Torah and
that he understood God, but he could never win an argument.
So one day when he was absolutely certain
he was right, once again it was 3 to 1, he looked up to the heavens and
prayed fervently, “Oh God, give me a sign and show these stubborn,
ignorant colleagues of mine that I am right.” Sure enough, a dark cloud
formed over them. Jacob said to the others, “See?” They said, “So? We
have bad weather all of the time, what does that say?”
Jacob prayed again, “God, I need a bigger
sign!” Thunder rolled, lighting came down and struck a tree right next
to the four men. Half of the tree fell on one side of them and the
other half fell on the other side. Jacob said, “See?!” They said,
“So? Lighting strikes the earth thousands of times everyday, what does
Jacob prayed harder, “Lord, I need even a
bigger sign!.” The whole world went black, a voice thundered from the
heavens, “Jacob is right.” Immediately the cloud lifted and the sun
shone again. Jacob looked at the others and said, “See, I told you!”
They replied, “So? Now the vote is 3 to 2.”
The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus in
bodily form and a voice comes from the heaven, you’d think that would be
enough. That people everywhere would fall down and worship Jesus, would
see that here is the Messiah, crown him, take him to Jerusalem and put
him on the throne. Why doesn’t it happen?
The Gospel of Mark gives us a clue. In
chapter one of Mark we are told that Jesus saw the dove and heard the
voice. The implication is that it is a very personal, intimate
experience between Jesus and God, between Father and Son, between parent
and child. When Matthew tells the story, we think about 20 years later
than Mark, it is a little different. Instead of saying “You are my
son,” the voice from heaven says in chapter three of Matthew, “This is
my son.” A subtle but important change which suggests that the voice is
intended for others, not just for Jesus. But still, as in Mark, only
Jesus sees the descending dove.
When Luke tells the story, probably
writing about the same time as Matthew, Luke doesn’t change the
quotation from Mark’s gospel as does Matthew. Luke leaves it exactly the
same but leaves out any reference to who saw the descending dove.
Then Luke adds this significant detail the
story. He begins the baptism account by adding this very inclusive
phrase in verse 21: “when all the people were baptized…” Instead of
specifying who saw or heard what, Luke opens the possibility to a much
larger, communal experience.
In John’s gospel, likely the last of the
four gospels to be written, John goes even further. In the fourth
Gospel, John the Baptist is the one who sees the spirit descend upon
Jesus and hears the voice of God. John then, as the spokesperson for
God, says to the others in chapter one, “Here is the one for whom we
have been waiting, here is the Son of God.” Thus you see over time as
the story is told and re-told, a very personal, private encounter
becomes a public event for all to share and to participate in.
A second thing happens in this re-telling
of the story, and that is the significance of John the Baptist as the
one who baptizes Jesus decreases and his significance as one who points
to Jesus as the Christ increases. In Mark’s gospel Jesus comes to John
to be baptized and John baptizes him, no questions asked, no forms to
fill out, just come be baptized. In Matthew’s gospel, John protests. “I
am not worth to baptize you.” Jesus says, “Just do it, John.” And he
Now note carefully what happens in Luke.
Luke tells us that John is arrested before he tells us of the baptism.
Is Luke suggesting that John didn’t baptize Jesus because he was in
jail? No, I don’t think that is it at all, rather it is a literary
device to remove John from the scene symbolically as a way of saying to
us that it is not really important who baptized Jesus. And then John’s
gospel goes the furthest by leaving out any reference to the baptism
altogether and John simply tells us about the Spirit descending on him
like a dove.
Over time as the story is re-told there is
a shift in emphasis. What is going on here? Are the gospel writers
playing lose with the past? That’s not it. Rather, they are very
concerned with the truth. What is the truth they seek to convey? That
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
And each conveys it in his on way. Jesus
is not another prophet, he’s not a wise rabbi, he’s not a disciple of
John the Baptist, he is the One God has chosen to redeem the world.
Now here is the key for us: the blessing
that Jesus receives, the voice that he hears--and this is a point that
gets lost on us--the blessing he receives from God, “You are my Son,
with you I am well pleased,” is a blessing bestowed upon us in our
How can I say that? The movement suggests
it, this movement from a private event to a very public one. The reason
Jesus’ baptism becomes more public is because it has significance for
more than just Jesus. Paul proclaims to the Romans, we are buried with
Jesus by baptism so that “we will be united with him in a
resurrection.” His blessing is our blessing.
There is an ancient word for such a
blessing. It is called “sacrament”. Marcus Borg defines sacrament
simply as “something visible and physical whereby the Spirit becomes
present to us. A sacrament is a means of grace, a vehicle or vessel for
the Spirit.” [i]
That is precisely what baptism does.
Alexander Campbell, one of our founders, called baptism the “embodiment
of the Gospel… in a single act.” It is the very tangible, outward sign
of God’s grace and our acceptance of it. It is God’s way of saying to
us, you are part of the family, you are my child, with you I am pleased.
That is a message we all need to hear.
Heinz Kohut, a psychoanalyst, discovered
in the 60s that the deepest level of existential, emotional, spiritual
suffering comes as a result of inner vulnerabilities created in infancy
when the most basic needs of affirmation are not met. That discovery
has been reaffirmed in study after study since then. Kohut established
that every infant needs three critical types of blessing to develop a
First is the blessing of mirroring.
Mirroring is when you pick up a baby and the baby goes, “goo-goo”. What
do you do? You go, “goo-goo”! That’s right, you know how to do it to!
You affirm the child and so they learn and are encouraged by that to
seek appreciation and affirmation. When the baby goes, “ga-ga”, you say
“Did you hear that, the baby said “Da-Da”, she knows my name! That is
Secondly, is the soothing response,
walking with the child, rocking the baby to sleep, responding to the
child’s need for comfort and reassurance. From that the infant learns
that they can count on others at critical times to meet their needs,
that we are relational beings dependent on one another.
The third blessing is that of acceptance,
that says I am part of this family, I belong here, I am wanted.
A few years back I heard a report on NPR
radio of a study of childcare centers that said that most of the
childcare centers in this country do a good job of meeting the basic,
physical needs of infants. But only a few do a good job of meeting
those kind of emotional needs that I have just described, providing that
kind of positive response to the infant. The implications of that are
rather frightening. From the moment of our conception we are dependent
on the blessings of others, the key to raising healthy, human beings is
to bless them, over and over again with praise and adoration and love
Withhold those blessings and scars will be
deep and long-lasting. Our emotional, our spiritual, even our physical
health is dependent on the blessings we receive from others. The fewer
we receive as a child, the more we need as an adult. That is one of the
reasons it is so important to bless one another with genuine words of
warm welcome when we come into the midst here of the sanctuary of God.
Hear then the good news. God is not out
to judge us, to condemn us, to send us to hell. God is out to forgive
us, to bless us, to raise us to heaven.
If God is going to raise us as Mary and
Joseph did Jesus, will it not be with praise and blessing and goodness
and joy and love? When you are baptized, in the name of Jesus, God says
to you, “You are my child, with you I am pleased.”
I know some of you are thinking, “Who me?”
God might love me, but God can’t be pleased with me. So let’s set the
record straight here once and for all. Maybe God wasn’t pleased when
you hit Johnny in the nose in fourth grade because he called you a
pig-head. Yea, he had it coming but God probably did not smile upon you
then. Maybe God wasn’t pleased when you stole that magazine that you
were too young to read and were not supposed to have. Maybe God wasn’t
pleased when you partied a little bit too much as a youth or young adult
and hung around with the wrong crowd and got involved in the wrong
Maybe God wasn’t pleased when you were
feeling sorry for yourself and your marriage wasn’t quite what you hoped
and you sought out someone you shouldn’t have for companionship. Maybe
God is not pleased with every choice you make, with every decision. But
that is part of being human.
So all those things you would like to take
away, all those things you would like to forget all those poor
decisions, all those wrong turns, all those mistakes, that’s not you.
That’s the exterior, that’s the superficial. You can take that away,
take it all away. Strip it all away and you will find a person created
in the image of God, and that is the one I am talking about. Down to
the inner core, the essence of who you are, that’s the one to whom God
says, “You are my child, with you I am pleased.”
I want to do something to help everyone
experience the blessing of baptism again if you have been baptized or to
get a taste of it if you have not. This is completely optional. Some
folk really like these kind of mental exercises and others find them
trite so it is entirely up to you if you want to participate. Your
salvation does not depend on participating!
For those who are willing, take a moment
to imagine with me a place where you enjoy being alone. Close your eyes
if you like and picture it in your mind. It can be somewhere in the
wilderness far from civilization or in the quiet of your own home.
Wherever, put yourself in that place and take a deep breath as you just
enjoy the pleasure of being there. Quietly, as you take in your next
breath, say, “I am”, hold it for a moment, and as you exhale say, “a
child of God.” Go ahead, you can say it in a whisper or say it in
conversational tone, the person next to you won’t mind, or if they do,
With the next breath, repeat after me, “I
am” and hold it, then exhale, “created in God’s image.”
Again, inhale, “I am” … exhale, and a
little louder if you please, “the apple of God’s eye.” Did you smile
when you said that, even laugh? That’s good to do.
Again, “I am,” … say like you mean it
“loved by God.” Because you are. Feel God love you as you take that
This next one may be hard for some, but
all the more important that you say it and feel it. Breathe in, “I am,”
… breathe out, “forgiven by God.” We all need to hear that and feel
that forgiveness at some time in our lives.
One more. Call to mind all the good
things of life you have received or enjoy. Feel the goodness of being
alive, of being here in this moment. Breathe in, “I am,” … and out,
“blessed by God.” In, “I am,” and out, “blessed by God.” Again, “I am…
blessed by God.”
Open your eyes, if you had them closed,
hear, know and feel this baptism blessing: with you, child of God, with
you, God is well pleased.
[i] Borg, The Heart
of Christianity, p. 14.