Epiphany

Epiphany icon

In the Western church, the season of Epiphany (with a Big ‘E’) commemorates the adoration of the infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men who had come from the East. In Eastern church, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus. In the Anglican tradition, we walk the fence, as usual, and celebrate both. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means to appear or to show oneself. When we use the term ‘to have an epiphany’ we mean that God has revealed himself or something important to us.
Between the three Wise Men bearing their gifts to the Christ child in last Wednesday’s gospel and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan in this week’s gospel, there appears to be about a thirty-year gap. We know little or nothing about the life of Jesus outside of his three years of ministry recorded in the gospels. We know he grew up as a carpenter under Joseph’s instruction. But we have little knowledge of his schooling, his teen years, his birthdays, his likes or his dislikes. There was once an additional text called The Gospel of St. Thomas that described some of this life, but it was discounted by the church fathers a long time ago as myth.
There are many church teachers who believe that Jesus had no idea that he was the Son of God until the voice from heaven revealed it on the day he was baptized. They believe that this miracle caused his epiphany, and that his ministry began at this word from heaven. Others believe that Jesus always was aware of his true identity from birth and that the voice was manifested to confirm it, not to Jesus, but; to others like John and his disciples, standing by. They believe the voice of confirmation caused John to have an epiphany of his own and confirmed his role as the ‘Preparer of the Way’, which also lead to his eventual execution by Herod. And there are still others that believe that this story was included in the gospels to confirm to you, the listener, that indeed this man Jesus, is the Son of God. In this way, and through hearing this Gospel, you too might have an epiphany of your own and believe.
Life changing religious experiences come in many forms and in many ways. But, unlike Jesus in today’s story, it seems least likely to occur for us at baptism (because we are usually just children when we are baptized). Last Sunday, one of the ladies at our co-church here found out that my wife Barbara was a former Baptist. Apparently this lady was also a former Baptist and asked Barbara when she was baptized. To which, after thinking about the reason she was asked, said “eighteen” – which is the standard age of baptism in the Baptist Church. However, Barbara and her twin sister, Linda, were born premature and were baptized in the hospital inextremist – just in case they didn’t make it. So which one is the correct baptism, since according to the Nicene Creed there can be only one baptism in which to believe? The fact of the matter is that baptism is the initiating state of a life full of grace. The Spirit does not come just once to a new Christian but many times throughout our lives. Though only one baptism is necessary for salvation, we are required to grow in grace throughout our lives adding grace upon grace as we try our best to reach spiritual maturity.
So what, you may ask, is the difference between baptism with water and baptism in the Spirit which is described for us in the Epistle reading today where we read – “When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
To understand the difference you should know that the teaching of Pentecostal churches, and of many people in the charismatic or neo-pentecostal movement, is that we receive the ‘gift’ of the Spirit when we first believe, but then need a second and subsequent experience called the ‘baptism’ of the Spirit, usually evidenced by ‘speaking in tongues’. What the New Testament teaches, however, is not a stereotype of two stages, but rather it is the initial blessing of regeneration by the Spirit though the waters of Baptism, followed by a process of growth into maturity, during which we may indeed be granted many deeper and richer experiences of God not always available to us as infants. These occurances often bring a fresh experience of the reality of God and a more vivid awareness of his love into our lives. But they should not really be called ‘the baptism of the Spirit’. The expression to be ‘baptized with the Spirit’ occurs only seven times in the New Testament. Six of them are quotations of John the Baptist’s words ‘I baptize with water, but he will baptize with the Spirit’, a promise which was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. The seventh (in 1Cor12:13) emphasizes that all of us have been ‘baptized’ with the Spirit and been made to ‘drink’ of the Spirit – two graphic pictures of our having received him.
So, what are the marks of a person filled with the Spirit of God today? There can be no doubt that the chief evidence is moral and not miraculous, and lies in the fruit of the Holy Spirit and not the Holy Spirit’s many gifts.
John Stott teaches us that throughout their writings, the apostles urge upon us ethical conduct, often in considerable detail. They appeal to us to live out in the concrete realities of daily life what God has already done for us in Christ. They command us to grow in faith, love, knowledge and holiness. They warn us of judgment and challenge us with the expectation of the Lord’s return. Meanwhile, they beg us not to grieve the Spirit, but rather to walk in the Spirit and to go on being filled with the Spirit . . . But never, not once, do they exhort and instruct us to ‘be baptized with the Spirit’. There can be only one explanation of this, namely that they are writing to Christians, and Christians have already been baptized with the Holy Spirit upon their initiation by water into the Church of Jesus Christ.
As Christians mature and grow into the the faith, the Holy Spirit of God may lead us into life changing experiences in order to test our resolve and to strengthen our witness to the truth. And I would tell you that the closer you come to the realization of the working of the Spirit in your life, the harder the test, but the greater the reward.
Life changing experiences may come in times of sickness or distress. It is at those times in our lives that God has our full attention. It is at those times that we are most vulnerable to him and most open to his spirit, especially if we want to live. It should come as no surprise that God would reveal himself at our most weakest moments – for it is in our weakness that his strength is made visible for all to see.
But, there are other times . . . times of God’s own choosing, when he reveals himself in those mountain top experiences that we hear about that cause a 180 degree turn in the way we live. It might come from a confirmation class, or through a hearing a sermon, or watching the news, or through something as simple as a photograph in a magazine. God uses all methods in trying to continually communicate to us, but it is up to each of us to keep our spiritual eyes and ears open in order to be aware of his presence among us.
I believe that, in the case of Jesus, Jesus must have grown up like any normal adolescent. I can’t be sure of that, of course, but the Bible always mentions that he was a person, a human, just like us, who lived as a man and was tempted as a man, so that he would know us and know all of our faults. And if he did this, if he truly lived like one of us, then he too, must have had his own epiphanies, perhaps one that drove him out to see John his cousin, to take on the baptism of repentance and new life that John offered his followers. Because, it was directly after this baptism that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan. Perhaps it was part of this epiphany or perhaps he planned it all along, no one knows for sure. But it was at this pivotal event that his life was changed and that his ministry began. And because of His epiphany, many millions of believers experienced their own epiphany and came to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
But that’s not where it ends . . . not in a long shot. God continues to reveal himself to all people, in all generations, so that we might inherit the story of his redemption and his love. Because, just like ripples in a pond, all of us throughout all generations affect the generation from which we came and the future generations that are yet to be born. We do this through our own individual epiphanies of celebration in the power of God to change lives. For in this way God acts and is revealed from one generation to another.
And that is why we pray today that all who are baptized into His name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. For in this way, the story will continue until his coming again. Amen