Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sermon, Epiphany 1B, Gen. 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11, Matt. 2:1-12

Today we are reminded that this is a time of beginnings. This might compel you to remember Advent, the beginning of the Church year and the beginning of our preparation for the arrival of Jesus. Or maybe you are thinking back ten days ago to the birth of 2009 and any New Year's resolutions you may have made, beginning the new year with a hopeful start. Or maybe you are looking forward to the inauguration of our new president and the new beginning that promises.

Whatever you may be thinking, let me point out that today is the beginning of something else. Today, I think, we see and experience the beginning of life.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . . God said, "Let there be light." Light is essential for life as we know it, which is why it was the first thing God created. Plants need light to grow. We need sunlight to stay warm. Light has a positive effect on people who suffer from seasonal depression. And I bet nobody can think of the song, "Here comes the sun" and not smile. Even the animals living at the bottom of the ocean have evolved to generate light.

God spoke and the foundations of physical life, cosmic and terrestrial, were laid.

In today's gospel, we hear once again the story of the beginning of Jesus' ministry; which, in itself, is a two-part beginning. First, we have John the Baptist out in the wilderness preaching fire and brimstone and repentance. If you truly want to get right with God, he says, then you must acknowledge and confess your sins, truly repent, and walk a new path -- the path of new life.

Second, he points to another who is to come after him who will continue the baptismal process with a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Some people see this as a visible and dynamic baptism that may include speaking in tongues, prophetic utterances and the ever-popular "slain in the spirit," accompanied by much noise, gyrations and convultions. While that may or may not take place, it certainly isn't a requirement for being baptized with the Holy Spirit.

John prepared people for the Messiah through confession, repentance and baptism. That act of baptism allows us to participate in and with the Body of Christ. Jesus takes that a step further and uses that foundation to draw us in, to test us, try us and lead us into contact with the Holy Spirit. And having been put in contact with the Spirit, we become evermore ready for the coming fruition of God's kingdom.

The baptism of Jesus, then, was the catalyst and beginning of his minitsry. He did not become God at this point, for he always is. But his baptism by John was the point in which we see him in contact with the Spirit and leads him to show us what God's kingdom can look like right here, right now.

It is through baptism that Jesus' ministry begins. It is through our baptism by water and the Spirit that our new life in Christ begins.

And as a final example of beginnings, think back to the Epiphany gospel. Even if you weren't here for the Twelfth Night Party, it should be familiar: Wise men from the East followed a star and upon entering the house, they worshiped the child and offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Other than presenting gifts, what did the wise men do upon meeting Jesus? They worshiped him. These weren't Jewish sages or prophets, but men from the generic East, Gentiles who had no experience, as far as we can tell, with the Living God. These wise men followed a star, a light in the darkness, and they were the first Gentiles to recognize Jesus for who he is. We should make a bigger deal out of Epiphany than we do because of these men. This was the beginning of the recognition that Jesus came for the whole world -- not just for a select few. This was the beginning of a new life for all those who chose to accept it.

So this is a Sunday of beginnings. And although varied in style and far removed from each other in time, all these stories have a couple of things in common. The first is that of voice. And God said, "Let there be light." John preached repentance. God said, "You are my Son." The wise men asked, "Where is the child?" and they worshiped him.

The beginning of life, the beginning of repentance, the beginning of mission, the beginning of worship is with the voice. The first thing we do as a worshiping community is to sing. We give voice to our worship. We proclaim, and will proclaim, with our voice our allegiance to Christ.

The second thing these passages have in common is action. God said, "Let there be light," and there was. John followed up his preaching with baptisms. The heavens opened and the Spirit descended. The wise men offered gifts. We sing, pray and read, and we participate in the heavenly banquet of Holy Communion.

This is, in effect, putting your money where your mouth is. If this is what we proclaim, then our actions should follow our words. And that is the beginning of our transformation. What we proclaim on a regular basis is probably how we will act on a regular basis. Our proclamations and actions ultimately lead us to new life.

This is a Sunday of words and actions and beginnings. Let there be light. Repent. Be baptized. Worship. This isn't just for in here. God lit up the entire cosmos, not some small planet. John preached out in public, not just in the temple. Jesus came for the entire world, not just a select, righteous few. And the wise men traveled great distances, they didn't wait for him to show up on their doorstep.

Words and actions and beginnings -- how will you proclaim the gospel out there? How will your words inform your actions on a daily basis? When we renew our baptismal vows, will you see that as a beginning, or as just another service?

May you leave here today with a sense of new life and new beginnings, and may that inform your words and actions for the rest of your life.


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