On 10 January, The First Sunday of Epiphany, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 29, Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.
Last Sunday we remembered the Magi arriving to worship Jesus and we marked that occasion by having them arrive at our garden stable. We have entered the Epiphany season of the Church Year and today is the First Sunday of Epiphany. The meaning of the word Epiphany is manifestation, revelation or showing. The Sundays in Epiphany have readings which are designed to show us important truths about Jesus. Therefore, we should expect to be shown something of the nature of Jesus in the verses we have been given to read today.
Although last week was Epiphany, we used the service as a New Year Covenant service. In that service we concluded by using the Methodist Covenant Prayer. Over the years that we have been using this form of service, I have had several people contact me to express just how uncomfortable they feel with that prayer. I think that shows just how seriously those people are examining the words. I always warn people that many of the statements in that prayer are challenging and that not everyone will feel able to make those statements. There is no point saying something you do not mean, particularly when making such profound promises.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the prayer here it is:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Use me as you choose;
rank me alongside whoever you choose;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
raised up for you, or brought down low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
with my whole heart I freely choose to yield all things to your ordering and approval.
So now, God of glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine, and I am your own.
If we do make this prayer our own at any time, we are following the example of Jesus, something Christians are called to do. After the flurry of activity around Jesus’ birth and a brief insight into his character as a twelve-year-old, Jesus is hidden from our sight until around the age of thirty. As far as we know he lived at the family home doing the work of a carpenter, being obedient to his parents according to Luke. In that time, Jesus ‘increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour’. Jesus had the choice to remain in comfortable obscurity and safety. Jesus chose to come out of the humdrum, predictable life of a carpenter and to offer himself to God in the act of baptism. In stepping into the river he was stepping out of obscurity and safety. He was taking the first step on the road that would end at Calvary. Like many of us said at our New Year service, he was saying to God: “I am no longer my own, but yours.” He was giving everything he had to God and pledging to do God’s will. He was making himself available to God.
Luke doesn’t tell us a lot about the actual baptism of Jesus. He’s more interested in what happened afterwards. Jesus was praying. We have no idea what his prayer contained but we do know how God responded. The divide between heaven and earth was set aside, and the Holy Spirit descended, taking a bodily form like a dove. Although the Holy Spirit had come upon other individuals before, it had never happened in this form in the past. This was a unique event, as all of Jesus’ life was unique in so many ways. Perhaps a wind, the common manifestation of the Holy Spirit, might have been misinterpreted as the breeze getting stronger. It would be hard to miss an actual dove descending.
Finally, the third member of the Holy Trinity played a part in this great drama. The voice from heaven could only have been that of the Father. The Son and the Holy Spirit were already present. The Father affirmed Jesus with a short sentence, full of meaning: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ For those familiar with the Hebrew scriptures there was plenty to be gleaned from what God said. For us, it’s necessary to work a little harder in order to understand what is revealed about Jesus.
In Psalm 2:7 it says: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” This psalm is a royal psalm and contains the coronation liturgy for the Messiah King. God’s words announce that Jesus is a King.
The second passage is Genesis 22 where the phrase ‘the Beloved’ comes from. At the beginning of that chapter God speaks to Abraham about his son Isaac: “‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…” (Genesis 22:1-2). Abraham is being asked by God to offer his only son, the son he loves deeply, as a sacrifice. Paul picks up this link in his letter to the Romans: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Romans 8:32). Not only is Jesus revealed as a king but as a victim ready to be sacrificed.
The third passage is Isaiah 42:1: “in whom my soul delights.” This is very close to “with you I am well pleased” and has been called the ordination liturgy of the Suffering Servant. In Isaiah 42, 49, 50 and 52/53 there are four servant songs which look forward to the coming of the Messiah and this phrase comes at the beginning of the first of those songs. In this song the servant speaks for God and ushers in justice. In Isaiah 53 the Servant suffers a dreadful death which will save the people.
In one short sentence, God reveals that Jesus is King, sacrifice and Suffering Servant. The tone of God’s sentence is one of approval and affirmation. It’s worth noticing that Jesus had not actually performed any miracles or taught anyone great truths about God at this point in his life, as far as we know. Only after a time of fasting and temptation in the wilderness would Jesus begin his ministry. Yet, God was showing his approval. It was enough that Jesus had made the choice to step into the limelight by offering himself for God’s purposes.
Like Jesus, we have the choice about whether we want to remain in obscurity and safety. Alternatively, we can choose to offer ourselves to God to do with as he wills. As happened to Jesus, once we do that Satan is likely to become very interested in us indeed. We will have set out on an uncomfortable journey which will be fraught with hazard. Like Jesus though, before we have done anything else, whether we achieve anything of note or not, we are assured of God’s unconditional love. We also have God’s promise that he will be with us whatever happens and will bring us through it:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Martin Luther told people to “Remember your baptism”. That isn’t possible for those of us who were baptised as babies. Perhaps something else he wrote clarifies what he meant: “A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued.” Every day we can remember that we are beloved children of God in whom he is well pleased.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor