January 13, 2008 First Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 42: 1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10: 34-43; Matthew 3: 13-17
In the Book of Exodus God’s divine presence, this great Hebrew word, “shekinah,” his “glory,” is described as going on ahead of Moses and the people as they travelled through the Sinai, a “pillar of cloud” in the daylight, and, by night, as a “pillar of flame.” In the Pentecost story at the beginning of the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit rushes into the Upper Room and rests as a “tongue of fire” over the head of each of the disciples, and here in this morning’s story from Matthew Jesus comes up out of the baptismal waters of the Jordan to see that “suddenly the heavens were opened to him,” and then “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” And then of course hearing that voice rumbling, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Very much parallel to the word on the Mount of Transfiguration, which we hear in our lectionary a few weeks from now, on the last Sunday of this season, just before the beginning of Lent, “This is my Beloved Son, listen to him.”
Most of the time we all can seem to muddle along as cool and cerebral Episcopalians. As I say so often, I am descended from a long line of Northern European introverted males,” and even for those among us whose ethnic heritage isn’t quite so defining, there certainly is something in that recipe that speaks pretty deeply of our heritage in this cultural corner of the Christian family. Thinking about the story of the American Baptist woman who attended Choral Evensong at one of the English Cathedrals, and who, after a particularly moving Magnificat leapt out of her seat clapping her hands and shouting, “Amen, Amen, Amen!” Quickly one of the sidesmen approached her to quiet her down. She said in reply, “But man, I’ve got the Spirit!” And of course his reply, “That may be, madam, but you certainly didn’t get it here.” Or as someone else once told me, Presbyterians believe that religion, I guess along with politics, is not an appropriate topic for dinner-table conversations. I’m told Episcopalians often think it’s not an appropriate topic for conversation at church either.
But anyway, these lessons in Epiphany don’t play well in this context. I think of the Collect for the Feast of the Epiphany, which we read and prayed last Sunday. O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest Thy only-begotten Son to the peoples of the earth, lead us, who know Thee now by faith, to Thy presence, where we may behold Thy glory face to face.” This is a prayer, this a season, in which we are invited again and again, and as we speak these words and as we reflect on these great gospel stories—in which we are invited to become ourselves mystics and visionaries. Mystics and Visionaries. Invited not to an experience of God in some remote, abstract, theoretical way, but “face to face.” The sky cracking open, the Spirit swooping down and sweeping over us, lifting us into the very presence of God himself. The Divine Voice filling our ears and our lives with the deep and pervasive announcement of victory. Here he is! This is the moment, this the hour. “That we may behold Thy glory—face to face.”
I’ll tell you, I’ve spent a lot of my life in a focused effort to avoid this kind of thing. My whole childhood spent being told to lower my voice, not to get too excited—to stay calm. Even in my early twenties I tried to follow in my father’s footsteps and like so many of my tweedy college professors to smoke a pipe. Something about that, a sign of reflective withdrawal. I’ll be in my study, quietly translating my Greek, if anyone needs me.
But this Epiphany thing keeps catching me, and honestly I think over time I’ve found myself more drawn to it, even as in those earlier years maybe I was afraid of it. Open the mind, open the heart, to the power of the presence of Christ. The personal encounter. And it just seemed like such a risk. But the question more and more over these years: what am I afraid of, really? Who am I afraid of? Do I really want to be one who when God calls, I let the machine take the message? Who am I afraid of?
The great line from this reading from Isaiah this morning, at the end: “I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other.” And to see, beginning to see, half-way through my 6th decade of life, that this thing that I’ve been so nervous about, the glorious presence of God, this power, this powerful love, not as an enemy, but as a friend. As the one gift that can set things right in my life, in this world, as it seems on the verge of falling apart. “This is my Son, the beloved.” I remember going with a group to this great big evangelism rally many years ago, and as the great old hymns were ringing around the auditorium all my friends and all those hundreds and hundreds of people were standing in the aisles and waving their arms in the air as the music filled the space—and of course, my good Episcopalian hands were firmly, resolutely in my pockets the whole time. I would resist. And I did.
Anyway, I’m still not much of an arm-waver. Maybe I’ll never be, and that’s not really the point. I’m maybe drawn so much more temperamentally to the contemplative mystics rather than to the ecstatic. My soul in silence waits. The point isn’t whether it’s Contemporary American Christian praise music or 16th century English Christian praise music, or whether we’re waving our arms in the air or whether we’re gripping the hymnal tightly with both hands and keeping our feet firmly anchored to the ground. In a crowd, or in the silence of holy solitude. None of that matters at all. I was an introvert, I am an introvert, I suppose I will always be an introvert. There’s just way too much Norse and Swede and Dane and English and Scotsman in me, and actually so much of that heritage I have come to love. I am who I am. But this isn’t about me, or us, but about him, coming up out of the river that day, coming into our lives and our world that day and every day—every day—and the sky opening, and about knowing deep down at the very center of our life and our being that we are in his presence, alive in his glory and power. About personal encounter. About not keeping him at arm’s length. About not hiding from him.
We’re praying for it, all of us. Even if we’re not really deep down sure that we want it. Even if it scares us. Don’t frighten the horses. Don’t make a fuss. “Lead us, we pray, to thy presence, where we may behold thy glory face to face.” We’re praying for it, and not just when we’re on page 162 of the Book of Common Prayer. It’s the prayer actually that we were saying when we took our first breath on the day of our birth, the prayer the whole world is praying, too deep for words. And this moment of Epiphany, when the miracle of Christmas emerges from the quiet of the Bethlehem stable and is revealed to the world, and to us, this transforming moment, when he comes to us, for us, when he is born in us, and we in him. And as in the 8th verse of Psalm 29, “in the Temple of the LORD, all are crying ‘Glory!’” Inviting us to be with Mary, as she is in that lovely Annunciation panel in the Nativity Window by Clara Miller Burd here in our transept. The word of the Angel, not about a theological concept, but about a personal encounter, a personal relationship. And after that pause, the response that opens the rest of history, “Let it be to me, as you have said.” Let it happen. “That we may behold thy glory, face to face.”
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.