January 7, 2018 Sermon

First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 7, 2018, Lectionary B


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                      Scripture: Mark 1:4-11


“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30




Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to encourage us to turn toward Jesus through whom we will receive our own epiphany in the Holy Spirit.  This we ask through Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.  


Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany.  If you look up the word, epiphany, its meaning is described as a revelatory manifestation of a divine being, and secondly as a spiritual event in which the essence of a given object or manifestation appears to a person, as in a sudden flash of recognition.  Of course, we hear people say, “Oh, I had a sudden epiphany,” which in that context is a secular sort of revelation, which really is more akin to a sudden insight.  In other words, from a spiritual perspective in an epiphany it is God, the divine being, who is manifesting Himself to a person or persons.  Epiphany and theophany are very similar in meaning.  We, obviously hear in the word, theophany “theo,’ referring to God.  Regardless in an epiphany or theophany it is God who is the subject.  He is doing the acting; He is revealing Himself to us humans.


Yesterday was the actual day of Epiphany, which always occurs on January 6.  It is the day when we celebrate the coming of the wise men from the east to see the infant Jesus.  It is important in that for the first time God in Jesus reveals Himself to the Gentile world.  On Christmas day He was revealed to the Jewish world.  In yesterday’s gospel reading for the day of Epiphany we would have heard from Matthew’s gospel in part the following:


Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” [. . .] And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.” On what is known as Epiphany God in Jesus revealed Himself to the three magi or wise men.  He did the revealing and not the three men.


On this the day after the Epiphany we again witness God revealing Himself at Jesus’ baptism.  We heard, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Again, it is God taking the initiative, manifesting Himself.  No one did anything or said anything to make God show up.  He came on His own and appeared, manifested as the third person of the Trinity in the shape of a dove.  We have heard this about the Spirit many times before, curious about the Spirit coming shaped as a dove.  Is that the form He usually takes?


If we take a good look at our three scripture readings for this morning—Genesis, Acts, and, of course, Mark, we will discover that the Holy Spirit is present in all three, significantly and essential present.  It is less obvious in our Genesis reading because the translator of the NRSV Bible, contrary to most other translations, determined to define the Hebrew word, ruwach, as wind rather than Spirit.  Most translations read, “and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.”  Yes, politics even enters into biblical translation.  Regardless, using the tried and true translation of the word, ruwach, we find that the Holy Spirit is central to each of the three readings.


In the Acts reading we heard, “Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”  Later in the reading we then heard, “When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”


Putting all three Holy Spirit manifestations together (remember the Spirit is equally God therefore His manifestations are equally an epiphany or a theophany event) we observe that when God the Spirit manifested Himself there was transformation.  In Genesis when the Spirit moved over the surface of the water, God said let there be light and there was light.  Darkness was transformed into light when the Spirit moved and God spoke.  Of course, the rest of creation would then unfold.  I understand that some of you may have doubts about this narrative or explanation of creation, but it is not inconsistent with what we hear next.


In Mark’s gospel we heard that when the Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove God again spoke except this time He said, “You are my Son; with you I am well pleased.”  What is the transformation here?  Well, there is a past and present tense to that answer.  If we look at John’s gospel, we will recall these words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  The Word is something spoken and this Word is Jesus.  Subsequently, John tells us this about Jesus: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”   The very light spoken into being at creation was Jesus.  The light and the Word are one in the same.  They are Jesus.  This is the transformation of the past—the world being created.


The transformation of the present is when God in Jesus, anointed by the Spirit at His baptism, has come to earth to transform the lives of men and women, to recreate those lives if you will.  What God created in the first place, He now offers to recreate through His Son, Jesus.  We read in Luke 7:20-22: “John the Baptist has sent us to You, saying, ‘Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?'” 21 At that very time He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He granted sight to many who were blind. 22 And He answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them.


In other words through Jesus, God was “theophanizing”, if you will all over the place.  When He showed up, manifested Himself, all kinds of miraculous, transforming things happened to people, places, and things—wine to water for example.  This does not, however, stop with Jesus, but continues with His disciples.  The Book of Acts records any number of transformations, including people being raised from the dead by the Spirit as He worked through St. Peter and St. Paul. In this morning’s reading from Acts we heard that when the Spirit came upon (manifested Himself) to the twelve believers in Ephesus they were suddenly transformed and consequently “spoke in tongues and prophesied.”  Note there is the “word” again, the word spoken through tongues and prophecy.  This is the same Word and Spirit that brought about creation and anointed Jesus for His earthly ministry.


Of course, the Spirit had His big epiphany moment, when He manifested Himself on the Day of Pentecost. Did He come in the shape of a dove, as He had with Jesus at His baptism?  We read in Acts 2:2-4 “And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues.”  There is no dove, rather wind and fire.  These images might remind us of the Genesis account—the Spirit as wind moving over the face of the deep.  As well, the fire image might remind us of the burning bush of Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai.


More importantly, we discover a consistent pattern or law.  When the Spirit moves, the Word or language subsequently follows.  They go hand in hand. In Genesis we heard that when the Spirit moved at creation, God then said let there be light.  When the Spirited descended upon Jesus at His Baptism, the voice of God was heard to say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  And, now at Pentecost when the Spirit manifested Himself to the disciples, they spoke with other tongues.


There is another point to consider here.  Is the shape in which the Holy Spirit appears (wind, fire, a dove) somehow suggestive of His mission or ministry at the time of that manifestation?  Take the dove, for example.  The Hebrew word for dove is yonah or in English, Jonah.  Jonah as we know was in the belly of a large fish for three days.  Jesus was in the belly of the earth for three days.  Ultimately perhaps, the Spirit coming upon Jesus in the shape of a dove, yonah, was empowerment for Jesus’ most important mission, which was to overcome sin and death through the resurrection.


Have I bored or confused you enough?  Let’s try to fix that because none this religious mumbo jumbo (i.e., words) means much at all if we can’t see how it fits into our lives, does it?  We could care less.  I might just as well be talking about nuclear physics.  Unless we happened to be employed at one of the nuclear power plants, worked on a nuclear submarine, flew a B1 bomber, or served in a silo, then who cares, right?  That number of those people is very few.


Let me put it this way.  Epiphanies and theophanies, (God manifesting Himself) are still occurring today. The lynchpin, the conduit, the means, the way of those manifestations is the same as it always has been.  We traced it when looking at the Genesis, Mark, and Acts reading.  We heard it identified in the Acts reading in this way:  Then (Paul) said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them.”   


So, as the Spirit moved through Jesus at creation, so too does the Spirit move, manifest Himself through Jesus today.  Come to Jesus and we get the Spirit, we get an Epiphany, God manifesting Himself.  This, of course, is exactly what we heard St. Peter tell the gathered crowd on the day of Pentecost. “They said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 “For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself” (Act 2:37b-39).


One of the beauties as well as challenges of our Episcopal tradition, which the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox share, is in respect to infant baptism.  While infant baptism is certainly a powerful example of grace (that child has done nothing to deserve God’s favor) it also is a time in one’s life about which we recall little if anything at all.  Who here that was baptized as infant (I was only four months old) recalls that occasion?  Well, the answer is that none of us does.   As a result, that most crucial opportunity for us to have an epiphany, an encounter with God, is not necessarily denied, but missed.  Of course, confirmation is supposed to correct or re-affirm those baptismal vows.  Even so, we have the lost, I am certain, the expectation that God the Spirit will show up, will manifest Himself at that re-offered opportunity.


The Acts reading we heard this morning, where the twelve believers spoke in tongues and prophesied did not stop with that generation.  Let me be clear about something.  The emphasis I making here is not that we should all speak in tongues or prophesy, though that along with the rest of the gifts of the Spirit would be biblical. Rather, my emphasis, my hope, my wish is for all of us to have a divine encounter through God the Spirit—to have our own epiphany, our own theophany.  Subsequently, the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit will follow.


How will this divine encounter, manifestation happen? We have already answered that question, but, to be clear, it will happen through us inviting Jesus into our lives and by giving ourselves to Him.  God has, is, and will always manifest Himself through Jesus.  There is no other way.  Oh, I know that does not sound fair or inclusive or whatever in this pluralistic world in which we live, but the facts are the facts.  Jesus’ own words speak to that.  In John 14:6 He tells us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.”  This is why we pray in Jesus’ name.  It is through Jesus that God hears our prayers and it is through Jesus that God sends the Holy Spirit to comfort, heal, correct, and guide us.  If we want a divine encounter, if we want an epiphany, then we go to Jesus.


Now, if we think this is a snap your fingers kind of thing, think again.  We need to remember the repentance dynamic.  Peter said to the crowd, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Oh, I know that when we hear that word, “repent”, we think, “Oh darn, here we go talking about sin.”  Sin, whatever behavior you might include, usually sexual, is really a matter of misplaced trust.  Shall I say that again?  Sin is really a matter of misplaced trust, meaning trusting something or someone other than God—what He expects and has planned for us.


Do we have to have perfectly repented?  No, I don’t think so.  Repentance is a lifelong process; call it sanctification if you like.  It is turning to Jesus that opens us to receiving God the Holy Spirit—that epiphany.  It is as simple and as profound as that.  Do we want an encounter with God, then turn to Jesus and He will send us the Holy Spirit; that same Spirit in the shape of a dove, who descended upon Jesus at His baptism.  What more can I say?


So, there you have it.  What then will you do with what I have shared with you this morning?  You could ask afresh or for the first time Jesus to come into your life this morning.  You see how personal this gets.  No one is closer to us than Jesus Himself.  He is more personal to us than we are to ourselves.  You know what I mean.   There are aspects to ourselves which we avoid.  We don’t like to be near certain feelings which are chambered in our hearts.  Those feelings make us uncomfortable.  We may not approve of them. You know what I mean.  Whether we do approve or not, Jesus is there.  He knows what those feelings are.


In some respects, therefore, accepting Jesus into our lives is also accepting ourselves, that part of us we don’t like to make public to others or ourselves, but, it is okay.  Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit is the great transformer.  So maybe, you can take what I have said this morning home with you.  Think about it in the days, weeks, perhaps months to come.  And, when you are ready or perhaps feeling a little bolder, or more in need, ask Him to come into your life for the first time, the second time, the third, or maybe to come with more power.  I dare you.  What have you got to lose?  This very moment is a perfect opportunity.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.