Calendar weirdness. Is it Epiphany (technically Friday, January 6)? First Sunday after Epiphany? The Baptism of our Lord, which the Revised Common Lectionary calls for on the Sunday between January 7 and 13?
I love the Epiphany texts, especially Isaiah 60:1-6 and Ephesians 3:1-12, even a little more than the tired and sometimes corny Wise Men vignette (Matthew 2:1-12); at the bottom of this post, I will include a reflection on the magi I wrote a while back, if that’s your focus.
We are forging ahead with the Baptism of our Lord — partly because on the first big Sunday each year, we do a congregation-wide baptismal renewal service, which we love dearly. I love the art image from the St. John's Bible of the scene. The Isaiah 42 text works extraordinarily well for the Baptism and Epiphany, as it speaks of the Spirit descending on and empowering God’s servant — who then the “light to the nations” — and the verbiage about the “new creation,” perfect for what still feels like the New Year.
Matthew 3:13-17 is worth exploring, asking questions about the nature of Baptism and our ongoing life as baptized people. It’s about repentance, clearly, and the dawning presence of the Spirit. Jesus’ humility is just stunning. Why was he baptized?
I love Karl Barth’s assessment in the final partial volume of Church Dogmatics, that Jesus needed to be washed of sin — not his sin, but our sin: “He did not let these sins be theirs… but caused them to be His own… No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He.” Powerful. Mind you, Barth was opening a can of worms in CD IV by suggesting adult baptism might really be the more obedient response to Jesus' command that we baptize...
I might describe the Jordan River, as I’m fortunate enough to have been able to take groups there, and lead them in wading into the shallows and renewing their baptism. By the wonder of God’s grace, we all step into that same river of God’s bounty when we are baptized, when we were baptized, and today as we renew our baptism. (By the way, I'd love for you to come to Israel with me this May 16-26! If you're clergy, we might be able to find some financial help to enable you to go.)
I think about Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The River,” which tells of an itinerant preacher named Bevel and a young boy, Harry, who winds up drowning. Sounds dreadful, but the images of faith and immersion in water are powerful, and unforgettable. In the same depressing vein, I think of the moment in The Secret Life of Bees (book and movie) where May drowns in the river; the haunting “Song for Mia” (Lizz Wright) which accompanies this is so very moving. And of course, for the baptism, it’s always worth listening to or even having your music people try “Down to the River to Pray” (or just ask Alison Kraus to come…).
Baptism, like a new year, is a new beginning. But even the grittiest New Year’s resolutions will falter.It is the passivity of being washed, of the Spirit just showing up and descending on you — and on others — that will matter.
We move our font front and center and invite people to come forward and touch water to their foreheads, or to their mouths.Watch video of the sermon and the renewal in the second half: the overhead shots are incredible, showing ripples in the water! We don’t touch them, lest they think they are being re-baptized.Frankly, I don’t explain a lot of what it means.They just come, and the experience is always powerful.Some people seem joyful, others troubled, many almost desperate.Sure, some look bored or are checking their watches.But there is some healing power in that water we’ve blessed, I believe.
So for me, the sermon is more invitation than anything else.I might narrate my own Baptism, or tell about a man I baptized a few years back:45, dying of pancreatic cancer, housebound.We prayed, and when I touched his head with water, he began to tremble visibly, and then he wept.At length he looked up at me and said, “I feel lighter.”
If you're focusing on the magi and their journey, here's that meditation from my book, Why This Jubilee?
We Three Kings of Orient Are
“We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.” At the very thought of them, I barely stifle a chuckle. My mind rushes to the hilarious scene in the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, where the magi mistakenly show up at the wrong house; then it goes to John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen never liked “We Three Kings,” especially with its gory fourth stanza (“sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying”): “Doesn’t sound very Christmasy to me.”
Then there are the pageants we’ve all sat through. Three dads pressed into duty, wearing bathrobes and cardboard crowns you assume were giveaways at Burger King, squinting a little, gazing slightly upwards, nodding, trying to look wise and regal processing to the manger. I witnessed one pageant where the narrator reached the moment in the story when “they fell down and worshipped him” — and one of the magi slipped and fell flat on his face, his fake gold coins clattering across the floor.
Matthew tells us they came “from the east,” perhaps Persia or Arabia or the Syrian desert. The Bible does not tell us they were wise (as in “Wise men still seek him”). Traipsing off after a star seems rather foolish; I can only hope to be yet one more fool traipsing off after the Light of the world. They certainly were not kings, although all the mighty kings chronicled through history will one day bow down to this King of Kings.
They were magi, astrologers. There you have it: bawdy, theologically kooky humor at the very beginning of Jesus’ story! A Libra, a Pisces and a Taurus, gazing at their star charts, found Jesus, while Herod’s Bible scholars missed the Messiah entirely! How sobering: how many times I, too, have flipped through the Bible, holding truth in my hands, yet still missing the living Lord. I know quite a few Bible things, but am I personally acquainted with the real Jesus? Dante spoke of “the love that moves the stars.” How determined is God to be found? There are no measures God won’t try, even tomfoolery, to reach people.
What did they see? A supernova? Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction about that time; Halley’s comet passed not long before. Medieval writers believed the Magi saw a bright angel, which they mistook for a star. “The First Noel” seems to think the star was so bright it was visible even by day: “It gave great light, and so it continued both day and night.”
Bearing Gifts We Traverse Afar
During December I slip most easily into the roles the magi played. I bear gifts. I traverse afar. The magi popped in with their gifts, then departed. They didn’t stay close to the Lord Jesus like Joseph and Mary did. I wonder if I keep some distance but feel pretty good about it since, after all, I did give Jesus a few gifts. I paid my offering, said some prayers, read about the magi, took canned goods to the food collection, and then I go on my way.
I fume about the commercialism of Christmas, and I could even blame the magi for kickstarting the whole idea of gift-giving at Christmas. Jesus certainly didn’t remember their visit and command us, “Because I was born, you shall shop for each other on my birthday.”
Yet there must be something lovely in seizing upon this season of the Lord’s coming to traverse afar and be as generous as possible with those I love. Maybe the magi can teach us something about giving. What would a baby do with gold or incense, much less myrrh? Theologians have suggested the gifts symbolize Jesus’ royalty (gold), his divinity (frankincense), and his suffering (myrrh), but it’s hard to say this was the magi’s intent.
They brought gifts of immense value; they brought what was precious to themselves. They parted with what they adored to adore the Lord. We are not so wise in our giving. I traverse not far at all when I shop, as I do it online. Why? It’s “easier,” more “convenient” for me. Or convenient for the recipient — hence the bane of gift cards, which say a lot about the giver (who hasn’t bothered to be creative or to think through the other person’s life and snoop around to find something meaningful), and even more about our vapid culture. We give cards… why? “They should be able to get what they want.” Is life about what I want? What if I can’t get what I want, or if I get something I didn’t want? A friend ruefully told me about Christmas day with his grandchildren, who already owned much stuff before Christmas, unwrapping gift cards, swapping them like trading cards with cousins, and rushing over to the mall to purchase yet more unnecessary items.
I think of the times I have gone to considerable trouble to get just the right item, or times someone made something for me with her own hands. Not easy, not returnable, but profound. A few years back I got the idea of only giving things I already owned, and not old stuff I didn’t want any longer either. Precious things, to me, and then to my loved ones.
The best gift I ever received was a pocket knife from an 89-year-old friend; he had carried it around in his pocket for decades, and he wanted me to have it. I had never asked for or even wanted a pocket knife. It is precious to me, because it was precious to him. And he added some words: “Carry this around in your pocket. One day, you’ll be having a bad day, and when you do, feel that knife in your pocket and remember that somebody loves you.” What did the magi say when they gave their precious gifts to Jesus’ family?
This is the way God gives. God isn’t Santa, feverishly checking our requests list and sending the angels out to give what we ask for. God gives us much that is far better than our deepest desiring. God gives what all good gifts turn out to be: God gives God’s own self. Nobody asked for a baby in a cow stall. But that is what God wanted to give. God knew that alone would express the depths of love we need.
You wouldn't need to be warned in a dream not to revisit nasty king Herod! But God lovingly warns them, and “they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12). They took a different highway, but I imagine Matthew winking a little, hoping we’ll notice his subtle clue about what life is like once we’ve met Jesus. Nothing is the same. You find yourself going another way.
T.S. Eliot ended his poem imagining the thoughts of the magi: “We returned to our places... but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” Jesus does not make my life more comfortable; Jesus doesn’t help me fit in and succeed. We are no longer at ease in a world not committed to Jesus. A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path. But the road is going somewhere.
This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.