For many years, Joan and I have kept single white candles in the windows of our homes. When we moved to Vermont and we put a candle in the window of the manse in East Craftsbury. Within two weeks, the light literally became a gentle but effective beacon one frigid, snowy night. A knock at the door came around 2 A. M. the second Sunday we were in town.
I left my warm bed, threw on a robe, and met at the front door two shivering U. of Vermont students
whose car had broken down in that sub-zero darkness.
They had seen our candle, and asked to use the phone to call home for help.
While some folks may look at those candles and see only a quaint decoration,
eyes of faith can see a powerful expression of God’s love in the windows of our lives.
When even little signs bring saving light, they are known as epiphanies.
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The word "epiphany" has its roots in the Greek word for sunrise or dawn
and it's not difficult to understand the link between that sunrise
and the appearance of the Lord in the midst of humanity,
that is the coming of the one Micah called the "sun of righteousness".
The Bethlehem star the Magi followed and maybe three decades later
the baptism of Jesus were for the early church a clear and unmistakable sign
of God's Light and Love coming to those with whom God is pleased.
You see, signs, symbols, images, visions--epiphanies, things and experiences
that identify and point to and remind us of deeper meaning,
or that reveal some great truth or prove some cosmic point—
they are important things to people of faith. Always have been.
From the very beginning, when God said, "Let there be light";
and there was light (some 13 verses before God made the sun!)
The Christian year moves from the celebration of the advent and nativity of Jesus the Christ
to the festival of Epiphany, which centers first on the magi who follow a star (a celestial light)
to the infant.
And then, the scene shifts to the Jordan River.
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Imagine that day, the sun shone brightly overhead and flashed its reflection in the water
until Jesus' head plunged into the Jordan.
Instinctively, he had held his breath and closed his eyes under the water,
and the river had cut off his hearing as well.
Darkness and silence enshrouded him;
he could not see or hear or breathe immersed in John's baptism.
So much like death...
until he stood straight up, rose from the water, and heard again the noise of the crowd
and John's strong voice above the din.
Gasping for that initial breath and wiping the Jordan from his eyes,
Jesus felt exhilarated, cleansed, and renewed.
He was about to rub the water from his dripping hair when he was startled
by the flash of the brilliant sun on the surface of the water.
The sun's image was scattered in resplendent shards over the rippling surface,
as if it had exploded into a hundred dazzling daystars, as if the dome of the heavens had shattered, as if the sky had been ripped open and heaven's light burst again into Creation.
Jesus watched as the waters calmed and the scattered suns flowed together again,
and the last bit of light rode a gentle wavelet back into focus,
like a gleaming white dove floating from heaven to a waiting hand.
The voices around him came into focus as well.
He heard the Psalmist sing, "I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, `You are my Son; today I have begotten you.'" (Ps. 2:7)
He heard the voice of the prophet Isaiah announcing,
"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights." (Is. 42:1)
And again, Isaiah echoes, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down."
Voice and vision reveal, proclaim, affirm that John's baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is transformed into a baptism of water and spirit.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all saw this epiphany with different eyes.
The audio-visual special effects of voice and vision
are well known after centuries of Christian proclamation.
You heard Luke’s version read this morning. But here’s a curious thing:
for Mark, it was a secret epiphany, not a public sign.
For it was not the crowds or even John who saw the heavens open and heard the voice;
it was Jesus.
Others must discover the meaning of that moment by listening to what Jesus says
and watching what he does.
When we have heard him preach the advent of the Kingdom,
when we have heard him teach in conversation and confrontation,
when we have seen him work wonders and rail against injustice,
when we have witnessed his embracing the outcast and the stranger,
we begin to glimpse the meaning of Jesus’ baptism.
We understand it as a sign that validates the rite of baptism for future generations of his followers,
a sign that he comes to complete the law and reform it for those who heed his call.
The heavens open!...a sign that this baptism is of more than earthly significance.
(Lamar Williamson writes that) this ripping open of the heavens
points to the cosmic meaning of this moment.
What had been sealed is now suddenly flung open as if the answer Isaiah's plea:
O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down! (64:1)
Luke has Jesus praying, and then the heavens opening, and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove." The sign of the dove. A symbol of purity? Of divine life?
The Fourth Century Christian Gregory of Nyssa wrote,
"Jesus who is spirit and flesh comes to begin a new creation through spirit and water.
Jesus rises from the water and the world rises with him."
Then there is the voice from heaven, a voice signifying Jesus' uniqueness,
a sign to him that the baptism of Jesus establishes his identity.
And the baptism of Jesus' followers establishes our identity.
As Lamar Williamson puts it, Jesus is who God says he is, and we are who God says we are.
This epiphany is a sign of our true identity.
But it, too, may be a private epiphany unless our ministry in his name shatters a stormy world
with the Light of God's steadfast love enfleshed in our signs of compassion, mercy, and unselfish service to the least of our brothers and sisters.
In our baptism, we are given our Christian names,
but more, we take on our full identity as children of God.
Who we are is a secret until our identity is revealed with convincing power in the unfolding
of our life and death...and resurrection!
In words inspired by this story, one of my teachers, Neely McCarter prays,
"All this happened to you, Lord, while you stood dripping by the river,
surrounded by nondescript people and a fanatical preacher."
You give new hope to our lives, for because of you we also are children of God
and know God's favor.
This wonder-filled vision of heaven's opening and dove descending and voice proclaiming
is reminiscent of the calls of the prophets.
Like them, his ministry begins with an intense experience of the Spirit of God. (Marcus Borg)
To be sure, our baptisms are more subtle occasions of the Spirit's work,
but be assured: the Spirit is at work in our lives,
just as sure as the Spirit hovered over the face of the water at Creation,
and just as surely as the Spirit descended on Jesus and enflamed the church
with its vision and purpose.
A word of caution may be in order here.
In a book called The Gospel According to Jesus, Stephen Mitchell warns us
about getting too caught up in the wonder of this vision.
East and West, North and South, visions, revelations, and prophesies
occur in every religious tradition.
Experience the vision--or imagine it and examine its meaning for yourself—
read the signs, but beware!
After the vision fades, if we haven't seen to the source of all visions,
we take up our lives untransformed.
When he says the ordinary must become the miracle,
maybe he's saying the everyday must become the holy.
Like a candle in the window signals light in someone's heart;
like water, bread and wine become sacraments, outward, visible signs of inward, spiritual grace,
signs that God redeems the everyday and transforms even normal folk like us
into star-transfixed and following Magi, into witnesses to signs of new life and new beginnings
(even when it’s not the first week of the newest year),
into people who share the very light of Christ into lives we didn’t even know were enshadowed. Everyday people are transformed into the “saints in the light.” From “non-descript to indescribable.
Early on, I asked you to imagine the baptism of Jesus.
Now, imagine your own.
Maybe you were baptized as a youth or an adult, and you needn’t imagine: you can remember!
The church, the font, the water dripping or drenching, the people who were there, maybe even some of the vows that were spoken, promises you made.
But many of us were mere infants, some of us sleeping peacefully through the whole sacrament.
If we were awake, or awakened by the shock of water in the dabbing or dunking,
the memory has long dissolved.
The promises were made on our behalf.
But the act was accomplished, as a once-in-a-lifetime initiation into the life and teachings of Jesus.
I was baptized within just a few feet of this pulpit.
I doubt it was this font, but it might have been.
And more than once, I’ve tried to imagine what that scene was like.
I was born while my Dad was in the Philippines during World War 2, s
o my baptism was on hold for his return.
Rev. Hayes was the pastor then in the mid-1940s.
Mom and Dad were there,
and I can’t imagine my grandparents, Episcopalians on both sides, being absent.
Was it a “private” occasion as was possible back then?
Or, was the sacrament rightly performed in the midst of the whole congregation
one Sunday morning? I can only imagine.
I’m told there was a rose.
For some reason, the tradition was that a rose was dipped into the water in the font,
and gently applied to the infant’s head.
And the rose was given to the parents and in many cases was pressed into the family Bible
(or the baby book) as a keepsake.
I was one of many, many “war babies” baptized here.
There have been many baptisms here since, but many more previously.
Guess how many baptisms we’ve had here since 1819.
Oh, I have no idea; we can only guess, of course.
But there is no guessing at the influence of all those lives, generation upon generation.
Many of you here today are but one generation among many who have called this their church family.
Think now of all those for 200 years who have communed at this or a similar table.
Bread broken, wine poured…OK, not wine, but grape juice, “fruit of the vine” as we call it.
But the substance of the bread and contents of the cup are not as important as understanding
there is one loaf, one vine, unity as we commune, no matter our many differences –
we are one in Christ Jesus at this table.
We are one with those who put on pageants at the Elvin and Lyric Theaters.
One with Lois Saylor who played the organ for five services here every Sunday:
morning worship, Sunday School, Junior Endeavor, Christian Endeavor, and evening worship.
Oh, and a mid-week service too.
One with all the women whose many aid and missionary societies and fund-raisers more than once bailed out the budget.
One with that long line of ministers who served here, from John Manley, a scary-looking guy
who served our predecessor Dutch Reformed Church in 1791,
to Wilbur J. Kerr and Gerald Hertzog whose pastoral leadership led me to seminary,
to Rev. Pat Raube who begins her annual study break today and regrets not being here
to help kick off this Bicentennial year.
We are one even with the followers of Christ who see the light through different eyes,
such as the Baptists on Liberty Avenue a block away who claimed our previous church building
was hit by lightning because we had a pool table in the basement of the church.
In the coming year, we will hear lots of stories about who we’ve been
and how we’ve shared the Light of Christ here and around the world.
But through it all, please remember your baptism and be glad.
Let the Light shine in your life: starlight, a candle’s glow,
or Epiphanies so bright your joy, hope, and love will be talked about for generations to come!