Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you have attended any of our celebrations of the Holy Eucharist that take place on major feasts on weekdays, or if you have tuned into them online, you will have noticed that I’ve gotten into the habit of reading an excerpt of a sermon or commentary written by the church fathers instead of a sermon of my own. In case you were interested, these come from a book which provides readings for every day of the year called Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, edited by one of my seminary Church History professors–the late, great Canon J. Robert Wright.

On Friday, the Feast of the Epiphany, if you were there or if you were livestreaming the liturgy, and if you were really paying attention, you might have either been confused or assumed that I had made a mistake. While the Gospel which we invariably read on the Epiphany was what you’d expect–the visit of the three wise men–the homily, written by Gregory Nazianzus, the Fourth Century theologian and Archbishop of Constantinople, had nothing to do with the magi following yonder star and presenting gold frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child and slipping past wicked Herod on their trip back home. Instead, it commented on the theme we encounter today–namely, Christ’s Baptism.

This was not a mistake, though. It was, no doubt, a choice the editor (my old instructor) made to focus on the Eastern rather than the Western Christian focus of Epiphany –unsurprising, since he had done a great deal of work in laying the historical and theological foundations for contemporary ecumenical dialogue between the Anglican and Russian Orthodox Churches. You see, among the Orthodox and other Eastern Rite Churches, the focus of Epiphany (or Theophany as they’d call it) is not on the Magi but on the Baptism.

Epiphany, meaning manifestation, and Theophany, meaning God’s (self-)revelation, are themes which both of these events from Christ’s life highlight. The magi and their gifts point both to the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles and his tripartite status as prophet, priest, and king. Thirty years later in Jesus’ life (though only separated by two days in our liturgical calendar this year) we see an even more profound example of God’s self-revelation–the fact that Christ himself was and is a person of the Triune Godhead. Here we see the Spirit of God made physically present in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father made audibly manifest. Such a clear, literal manifestation of the Holy Trinity would only occur once more in the Gospel accounts, at the Transfiguration which is quite appropriately the Gospel we’ll hear on the last Sunday of the Epiphany season in six weeks’ time.

The point here; the message of the Magi and of the Baptism and of the Transfiguration; the Good News of this season of the Church’s year, is that we have a God who desires to be known. We have a God who has no desire to hide himself or his purpose.

Do not let the fact that sometimes the work of theology and biblical interpretation can be difficult give the impression that the Truth of God’s word is intentionally vague or veiled. Christianity is not a religion which should have any time or tolerance for the proposition that there is secret knowledge meant only for insiders. Religions which make such claims have a name, and that name is cult. This is true of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which claimed one had to attain knowledge of God through a personal mystical communication. It is also true of modern cults, which might either explicitly withhold certain doctrinal claims until one has paid enough money to advance in the group or implicitly, say by instructing the young men who come knocking at your door to carefully elide more bizarre claims, like getting your own planet and harem at the resurrection if you’re a dude (let the listener understand).

Christianity has no secrets, because we believe God’s greatest desire is to be known. Because knowing God, we know love and can make love known to all. Our great privilege is the opportunity to do the same–to open ourselves to the fullness of God and then to turn round and help others come to know him, too. We can do so clearly, gently, without prevarication, with utter transparency and gratitude, because God himself did it first–in Bethlehem and at the Jordan and on the Mount of Transfiguration and to all he met after his glorious Resurrection. And he comes to us still–in our hearts, in his Word, in the Sacrament, and in this great fellowship into which we have ourselves been baptized and made a part of his own Body to be a light to the world he came to save.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.