The Gift of Epiphany

(Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

Well, here we are again—the start of another year. The Christmas decorations have all been taken down; the Christmas trees have been boxed or placed by the side of the road. All that wrapping paper that looked so pretty in the store last month, lies crumpled up, rotting in a landfill.

Dominic’s ready for Christmas to be here again. And we have to say, “It’s going to be a while, buddy.”

Kids have difficulty in grasping the concept of time. “Why can’t we just wake up tomorrow and open presents again?”

“Where’s the nativity?”

“It’s put up, sweetie.”

“Why?”

It’s a good question. But you and I know that you can’t live like that forever. Advent is about waiting, looking for Jesus. All that anticipation, excitement.

“Is he here?”

“No. Not yet. Be patient.”

But it’s hard to be patient. You get tired of standing on your tiptoes, staring toward the horizon. You can only keep your eyes peeled for so long before you get exhausted.

And then, BANG! Christmas is here. And it’s no time before the living room is strewn with torn bows and wrinkled paper. You drink a little egg nog, eat a little green bean casserole, try to pitch the fruit cake without uncle Stanley seeing you, and before you know it, Christmas is over.

It’s a great deal of buildup with a surprisingly unsatisfying payoff, if you ask me. Wal-mart starts stoking the fires in October, getting us all hyped up, wearing out our Master Cards, making us trudge through the mass of humanity at the mall to buy an electric dog polisher or a two pound Whitman’s Sampler for aunt Gladys who won’t eat it anyway because she’s on some perpetual grapefruit and lima bean diet.

And for what? For 11½ minutes of sheer chaos on Christmas morning, which soon looks like the aftermath of the Hindenburg.

Bah humbug! It can seem pretty disappointing.

Don’t you feel that way sometimes? You know what I’m talking about—that sort of: If that’s all there is, why bother? What’s the point, really? We wait and hope, and then there’s this tremendous letdown afterward. Disappointing.

I mean, here we are on January 13th, we’ve got our first snow, and Spring seems like ages away.

If you’re a kid, you think, “How can school only be half over with?”

Christmas is gone, and it’s a long slow trudge through January and February.

Liturgically, it’s not all that different. We have the great buildup of Christmas, and then what? Epiphany.

I’d be willing to bet that many of us, as many times as we’ve celebrated it, still draw a blank when I say, “Epiphany.” You know—the coming of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism? The celebration of Jesus’ earthly life, his manifestation as the Son of God.

It’s all rather underwhelming when you stack it up against the apocalyptic waiting of Advent or the solemn preparation of Lent. Liturgically, it’s even referred to as Ordinary time.

Look at our passage for today. The baptism of Jesus. Every year, it’s the same thing. The first Sunday after January 6th, the Gospel lesson is always Jesus’ baptism.

How many different ways are there of looking at it? What else can you say? Matthew, Mark, Luke—each year the Lectionary picks up the story.

This year it’s Luke’s telling. But they’re all pretty much the same. John the Baptist is baptizing folks. Jesus gets baptized (although, interestingly enough, Luke doesn’t say that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist), and after he comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends on him, and in Mark and Luke a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In Matthew the voice says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” suggesting that God is making a declaration to the crowd, instead of speaking directly to Jesus—but the point’s still essentially the same: Jesus is identified as the Son of God, and set apart for ministry.

Then, what happens? Well, in Matthew and Mark, Jesus is whisked away to the wilderness to be tempted for forty days. But what happens in Luke?

Nothing. Nothing at all happens.

Luke takes the opportunity immediately following Jesus’ baptism to rehearse for us the tedious genealogy of Jesus. I say tedious because, while your family vacation videos might be interesting to you, they’re excruciating for everybody else to have to sit through on—what feels like—an endless loop. The only ones the general public are likely to care about are the ones that wind up on America’s Funniest Home Videos—where cousin Eddy does a full layout on the trampoline into the Weber grill or the dog sings the Star Spangled Banner every time grandma starts clipping her toenails.

Be honest, when you’re reading Scripture and you get to the begats, don’s you just skip over them?

Why?

Seventy-seven names. We don’t even know many of them. Who cares? What’s the point?

Let me ask you: What is the point? Why does Luke tell us the rather common story of Jesus being baptized, and then launch into this brutally long list of who fathered whom?

Well, what’s the context? What’s going on leading up to Jesus’ baptism?

John the Baptist has been out raising the hackles of the religious establishment, proclaiming everybody’s need for repentance. John’s been talking hard, getting on everybody’s bad side.

The crowd, hearing all of this, “were filled,” as Luke tells us, “with expectation.”

But expectation of what?

Well, think about it: here comes John, looking like he just walked off the set of Sons of Anarchy, making his way into occupied Judea. And he starts giving everybody the business. He takes no prisoners. He’s not prejudiced; he’s willing to annoy everyone.

John’s spitting nails, and the people have never seen anybody like this. They start wondering, “Could this be him? Could this be the one for whom we’ve waited all these years? Could John the Baptist finally be God’s Messiah, sent to save us, and free us from these pagan Romans? I mean, he looks like a tough guy, talks like a tough guy. Maybe John’s the one.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? John’s different. He speaks with authority. He’s got that air of holiness just seeping from his pores. “Are you the one?”

And John says, “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.”

People want to know if John the Baptist is the one. And John says, “No. Someone else is coming.”

But Luke tells us that John—even though he’s not the one—has finally gone and ticked off the wrong folks and gotten himself thrown in the county lock-up.

It’s only after all this questioning about who’s the Messiah that we get to Jesus’ baptism. It’s finally at Jesus’ baptism that we get confirmation via the Holy Spirit and a voice that Jesus, not John, is the one.

While Jesus is still busy blotting the water out of his ears, Luke takes the opportunity to pile on this long list of names, telling us where Jesus has come from. “(Jesus) was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, . . . etc. etc. On through this long list of names. Let me ask you something: Where does the genealogy end?

Take your Bibles out and look. (That’s a cue to take your Bibles out and look.) Look at verse 38 of chapter 3. Where does the genealogy end?

Unlike Matthew’s genealogy, which goes back to Abraham and the beginning of God’s covenant with God’s people—Luke goes back even further, beyond the children of Abraham . . . all the way back to Adam—which is a way of cluing us into the fact that Jesus is significant not just for the children of the covenant, but for all Adam’s children.

Do you see?

The way Luke constructs the genealogy of Jesus, he highlights the fact that Jesus isn’t just for the people of the promise, isn’t just for people who’re pretty sure God will pick them first, but for everybody. According to Luke, Jesus’ presence among us is God’s way of saying that everybody’s important, that all people are the ones God has in mind when God’s love gets poured out.

Unfortunately, too many folks want to cut the family tree back so it looks like us, so it contains the folks we approve of. They don’t want any exotic surprises when the 23-and-me report comes back. But God’s love embraces the whole world, and not just that part of it where we can see the family resemblance.

But if you look even more closely, Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry even further back than that. Luke shows that Jesus’s ancestry goes all the way back to . . . God.

What does the last part of the story of Jesus’ baptism say? God breaks onto the scene and says, “You are my son, the Beloved.”

What’s the sum total of Luke’s survey of Jesus’ genealogy? Well, if you go to verse 23 and start with the first three words of the genealogy, you get: “He was the . . .” And if you go to the last three words in the genealogy, and cut out everything in between, you get “son of God.”

Which, of course, is the point of this little exercise in family history—to show that Jesus is the Son of God.

Both the story of the baptism of Jesus and the genealogy of Jesus have as their main function the demonstration of the fact that Jesus is what God looks like with wet hair and a pair of sneakers.

So what? Why is that important?

Remember, the question lurking in the background, the question Luke wants to address is “Who’s the Messiah?” And Luke takes great rhetorical pains to show that not only is Jesus God’s Messiah now, as if perhaps God had made a snap judgment and confirmed it with a loud fireworks show at Jesus’ baptism, but Luke wants us to see that Jesus was God’s plan from the beginning.

According to Luke, all of history, since the creation of the world was moving toward this moment. The goal was Jesus all along. All through Adam, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and David—Luke believes that Jesus was what we were always heading toward. He wasn’t a quick fix, a last-ditch effort to pull us out of a tight spot; he was the point all along. Through the use of this genealogy, Luke is telling us that no sooner had God breathed life into Adam, than Jesus was getting his carry-on bags ready to head for Bethlehem.

Do you understand? Luke desperately wants us to know that God had us in mind from the beginning. Humanity’s not some afterthought, not some disposable object, only worth being tossed in the waste bin when it’s gone bad or isn’t useful any longer. (Which—it’s important to point out—if that’s how God feels about us, we probably ought to try to make a habit of thinking about each other with the same sense of compassion.)

We were important enough to God that God had it figured out from the beginning how to bring us home. We, therefore, if we are to be like God, must devote ourselves to the prospect of making a home for one another—both the kind we live in, as well as the kind that lives in us.

The point, of course, is that God will never be caught short-handed. Which is the great good news of the Gospel: We can never get so lost that God will be stymied as to how to find us. Things will never get so bad with God’s people that God won't find a way—through those people—to touch the world with peace and justice . . . and love.

So, take heart, God will not be outmaneuvered; God’s purposes will not be frustrated. God is determined to establish God’s reign, a reign in which all people finally get to live in peace, in which all people get to see the arc of the moral universe finally bent all the way toward justice, in which all people are finally embraced by a love that feels like stepping through the front door at the end of a long journey home.

And, unlike whatever might lay wrapped underneath the Christmas tree—no matter how good a present it is—if that’s the kind of world you’re waiting for, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

-Amen.

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