First Sunday in Epiphany: Expectations, Experts, Experience

First Reading: Isaiah 43:1-7

1But now thus says the Lord,
  he who created you, O Jacob,
  he who formed you, O Israel:
 Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
  I have called you by name, you are mine.
2When 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.
3For I am the Lord your God,
  the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
 I give Egypt as your ransom,
  Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4Because you are precious in my sight,
  and honored, and I love you,
 I give people in return for you,
  nations in exchange for your life.
5Do not fear, for I am with you;
  I will bring your offspring from the east,
  and from the west I will gather you;
6I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
  and to the south, “Do not withhold;
 bring my sons from far away
  and my daughters from the end of the earth—
7everyone who is called by my name,
  whom I created for my glory,
  whom I formed and made.”

Psalm: Psalm 29

1Ascribe to the Lord, you gods,
  ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2Ascribe to the Lord the glory due God’s name;
  worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
3The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders;
  the Lord is upon the mighty waters.
4The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice;
  the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor. 
5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees;
  the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
6the Lord makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
  and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
7The voice of the Lord bursts forth in lightning flashes.
8The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
  the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 
9The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests          bare.
  And in the temple of the Lord all are crying, “Glory!”
10The Lord sits enthroned above the flood;
  the Lord sits enthroned as king forevermore.
11O Lord, give strength to your people;
  give them, O Lord, the blessings of peace.

Second Reading: Acts 8:14-17

14Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Gospel: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

  21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

CHILDREN’S SERMON:  An epiphany is a new thought, a new understanding, a new insight.  Turn to your neighbor and share something that has come to you as new insight.

         My experience happened while talking to a group of women in Kenya.  We talked about the different animals we might meet in the bush.  I asked what I should do if I met an elephant.  They all exclaimed that I need not worry that all I need to do is point to my bosom and say, “I nurse my babies just like you do.”  Elephants have breasts between their front two legs unlike cows or horses or camels.  I suddenly wondered if an Anglo was just another type of animal to them like an elephant but not truly in the same category as people!

Let us pray:  May the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Open our eyes so that we may see you in new ways in 2022.

SERMON

Today we enter the Season of Epiphany. Thursday we celebrated the day called Epiphany that focuses on the coming of the Magi and the realization that we non-Jews were represented in the Christmas narrative.  Epiphany Season, though, looks at the adult life of Jesus and how his incarnation made God known to us.  During Epiphany, we pray we will have “aha” moments as we discover who our God is.  For six weeks we will be looking at who this Jesus is and what that means.  Epiphany always starts with the Baptism of Jesus when he first publicly claims his mission. 

Expectations

Interestingly, Luke opens our text by first setting the scene.  “The people were filled with expectations.”  Hebrews 12:1 challenges even us twenty first century skeptics at the beginning of the year,

         “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that seasily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked  out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Luke opens his gospel with a genealogy of generations, the cloud of witnesses, preceding Jesus, waiting for the Messiah.  Luke tells of the crowds waiting outside the Temple as Zechariah offered prayers and met an angel.  People of faith surround us.  Pause for a moment and thank God quietly for the person who impacted your life spiritually.  (Pause.)  The people in our text are waiting and expecting God to act.  Are we excited about how God will act in 2022?

         So what are our expectations as we wait for 2022 to unfold?  The people’s expectations were not silent ponderings but more active.  They were questioning if John the Baptist was the Messiah. They were interacting through eyes of faith with the events of their world unfolding before them.  Do you remember Sunday School in high school when a whole lesson could be the newspaper laid out on the table and just praying over the events recorded?  I guess newspapers are not as “in” as they once were but news certainly sells – not just the rise and fall of the stock market.  My husband and I like to keep our Christmas cards and then read and pray over them gradually during January.  Martin Luther wrote a darling little book where he divided the Lord’s Prayer into seven parts and then for a year we used that devotional to set the theme of praying daily a piece of the Lord’s prayer with all it’s implications.  The question the text confronts us with is, “Are we people expecting” or are we people resigned to receive whatever happens daily?

Experts

…but one who is more powerful than I is coming…

As Luke relates the baptism of Jesus, he notes the people waiting in expectation but he stops to make sure we understand that John the Baptist, that fiery prophet in camel skin clothes, standing in the Jordon, to whom people flocked, was not THE expert but only ,a prophet pointing to someone greater.  John the Baptist knows the people are expecting, longing for a Messiah, and he is clear that he is only preparing the way.

         Each night as a different expert from a different state or a different university weighs in on the statistics of Covid and what it might mean or we take polls on the popularity of our President or we analyze the decisions of our courts, we seldom if ever say “but one who is more powerful than I is coming.”  We seldom admit the limitations of our understanding and that there is a greater power at work in our world.  Even pastors are prone to feel the responsibility of being a Biblical expert.

         So who are the experts we are paying attention to today?  There seems to be an erosion of confidence in traditional voices of authority.  The word “evangelical” has been linked with political philosophy and spirituality has been called into question and belittled.  We are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and by that we mean we bring the “evangel”, the good news of salvation, not necessarily a critique of politics.  “Evangelical” is used by many to mean that they believed in Jesus as a person who understood and then testified to their own faith through baptism.  However we understand our identity to be evangelical Christians who represent the Good News and can confess that there is “one more powerful than I” who rules our world and understands our lives in ways we do not.  We believe he dealt with sin on the cross.  My feelings and ability to understand does not govern my salvation but through faith that sometimes is strong and sometimes struggles I have access to salvation.  My spiritual struggles in 2022 do not change the fact that Christ died for me.

         John 14 has much to say about who our real expert is, the Holy Spirit

            “26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my  name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do  not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be  troubled and do not be afraid.”

We do have an expert we can turn to who is always available, willing to listen and interact, and who intercedes for us when we cannot find the right words. 

         Our text reminds us today that when we feel so ignorant in the presence of all the experts in our world that seek to explain reality, the true expert is Jesus who came and will come.  We experience him as the Holy Spirit.  It is appropriate that we start our liturgical year by studying his life, a revelation of the true God who holds our lives in his hands and who speaks to us today in the Holy Spirit.

Experience

Luke then tells of Jesus’ baptism.  Unique to Luke is the additional fact that then Jesus prays and as he is praying the Father speaks and the Spirit descends like a dove.  It is a picture for us of the Trinity.  Luke does not specify the details of the baptism as we like to quibble about – dunk or immerse, backwards or forward – but rather he comments on Jesus praying.  In the midst of that prayer the Trinity appears, the wholeness of God.

         It is in the act of prayer that the door of faith opens to the Father and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We are not saved by baptism but by the death of Christ on the cross but faith opens the door of relationship, of access to experts and experience, to guidance, to insight, to wisdom, to comfort … to relationship with a real expert.

         Let me first clarify, John the Baptist baptized with water, a baptism of repentance, to prepare the hearts of the people to hear the words of Jesus.  The baptism we practice today is not a baptism of repentance but a baptism of faith, a baptism “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  We identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Romans 6:3,4 says,

         “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

As Lutherans we believe that the faith of the parents covers the life of the child and so we bring our children.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and need salvation, even children.  We baptize and believe that we cannot by our own strength believe in Jesus or come to him but the Holy Spirit calls, leads and guides us into a faith relationship marked by the Spirit’s presence.  We claim that relationship for them and promise to pray for them, teach them and be with them as they grow.  

         Returning to the baptism experience of Jesus, we see him engulfed in the Godhead, not an individual expression of God.  We stand and bow at a mystery today.  Our God can be acting in uniquely different ways, all at once, and yet in unity.  As the Spirit hovers, God speaks and Jesus shows us that reality.  They work together.  We bow in faith.

         Jesus prays and we see that through prayer that full relationship with our Three in One God is active.

         Let us return to the word epiphany.  Merriam-Webster defines the essential meaning of “epiphany” as:

         1: a Christian festival held on January 6 in honor of the coming of      the three kings to the infant Jesus Christ

         2: a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way

Thursday we celebrated how the Magi started a journey to visit the “new born king and worship him.”  We start 2022 expecting and wanting to see this new born king whom we now call Savior in new ways and in new places.  We acknowledge that he is the only true expert who can lead, guide, and forgive us as we live our lives.  Our prayer is “open our eyes that we may see, open our ears that we may hear, and open our hearts that we may know” Jesus in a new epiphany as we look at his incarnation for the next few weeks.  Let us pray, “Lord, may this be so as we walk with you!”  The people of God said, “Amen!”

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