Sermon from January 3: The Epiphany Bird

The Epiphany Bird
Epiphany of the Lord; January 3, 2021
Matthew 3

How deep into the weeds should we go this week? Oh, not very. Most of us, I expect, are feeling upbeat and light-hearted, certain that 2021 is going to be a much better year than 2020 was, and so cutting our way through weeds would not be helpful. But I need to impress upon you a few things this week.

Our congregation has just started the Year of the Bible, an adventure in reading the entire Bible in one year. If you haven’t started yet, you may still join us; and if you are not part of our congregation, but you want to be part of this adventure, you are welcome. Listen to my notes at the end of the service for more.

I first read the Bible all the way through when I was a teenager, although I had read lots of parts of the Bible before that. I love reading the Bible, because it has the most fascinating stories. It also has long stretches of grinding boredom, sort of like driving across Kansas. “Are we there yet?” If you persist, there will be at least two rewards.

First, you will have a great sense of accomplishment. I feel that way whenever I go out to run on a day when I don’t feel like it; after I finish, I feel good about myself. Folks, there is nothing wrong with that. When you do something extraordinary, such as read through the entire Bible in a year, you are entitled to pat yourself on the back. Or celebrate in some other way. I certainly intend for us to celebrate at the end of the year.

Second, you will make wonderful discoveries. “I didn’t know that was there!” “Who would dream that God would use someone like that?” “I am so upset that he wrote that; I wonder what I should do with it?” This will be a spiritual experience and an emotional experience. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the helps I intend to provide, so won’t repeat myself here, but I will say this: enjoy the words and savor the stories. If something bothers you or excites you, you should probably think about it. If something puzzles you – you just don’t know what it means – you can look for help or ask me for help or simply don’t sweat it. You’ve read it, which was the goal; if you don’t get everything you read, that’s alright. I’ve been reading the Bible for over fifty years and I still don’t get everything. But I keep reading.

Every Sunday this year I will preach from a chapter that is assigned for that day, either the New Testament or the Psalm. Usually I will pick one idea out of that chapter to preach on, which will mean neglecting a lot. The one idea today relates to the holiday we celebrate today: Epiphany. Epiphany was one of the first holidays in the Christian calendar, much earlier than Christmas. “Epiphany” means “showing” or “manifestation;” that is, in Jesus Christ, we have seen God. Or as one child put it, “Jesus is God’s show-and-tell.”

One of the stories we traditionally read at Epiphany time happens to be part of the chapter assigned for today: the Baptism of Jesus. Can you see why we would read about Jesus’ Baptism at Epiphany? If you were here in the room with me, I would make that a real question and would look for answers. Or if we had rigged up the live feed so that I could ask for responses right now from those of you watching this live I would do so. Instead, I’ll tell you what I think. I think we read about the Baptism of Jesus at Epiphany because at his Baptism Jesus saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and people heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In other words, at Jesus’ Baptism, God showed Jesus and God showed the people around him who Jesus was: the Promised One, the One who has the Spirit of God. They saw that he was the One in whom they should find God, who would manifest God to them.

In the last couple of decades, there has been a massive turning away from the Church in our society, and I think that’s because of what we’ve done to Jesus. Now, it may be true that people just aren’t interested in God, but I’m not convinced of that. I think people, for the most part, still want some sense of the eternal, some sense that there is a larger pattern to all this, some sense that our life on earth is not a random occurrence but that it means something. So people would like to have a connection with God. And those who have known Jesus know that Jesus is the one who brings God to us, the one in whom we can know God and know we are loved by God.

But a lot of folks in the Church have never really known Jesus. We know other people in the Church, we know the emotional experiences we like, but we don’t know Jesus. And since folks are looking for God, if they don’t find God in the Church they will look somewhere else. So I hope that by reading the Bible together for a year, we will come to know Jesus better. There is a whole lot more we may learn, for sure, but I don’t want this to be merely an academic exercise in gaining a set of facts about this old book. I pray that the Church will know Jesus, the one on who the Epiphany bird settled and of whom the Voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” I hope you will have some feelings about what you read, positive and negative, and that you will allow yourself to have those feelings and that you will accept those feelings. And that they will help give you a more complete picture of the God whom Jesus manifests.

I remember running across a thought from Martin Luther that I will share with you, and recently I found the source and I was surprised. Luther was writing about why we should read and understand that Old Testament, and said that we should set aside our preformed opinions and think of it as a mine: go deep into the caverns, looking for gems, and know that you will never fully explore it. Anyway, this is the line I was looking for, and which he said: “Here you will find the swaddling clothes and the manger in which Christ lies” (Prefaces to the Old Testament, 236). As this Christmas of 2020-2021 comes to a close, look for Christ in the manger of the Scriptures, the Holy Bible, and there you will find the One of whom the Voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska