Second Sunday after Epiphany Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
The Second Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany is always graced by a reading from the Gospel of John. Instead of continuing the narrative from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, depending on which year of the lectionary we are in, we instead hear from John, which has a fairly unique approach to writing about Jesus. We know that John is different when we look at the Gospels and see that instead of talking about a birth narrative, we start with this grand cosmic concept…”In the beginning was the Word.” An acknowledgment of the Christological nature of Jesus to start us off.
The fourth Gospel then drops us right into the ministry of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Christ, and then on this Second Sunday after Epiphany, we have the first appearance of Jesus. If the Gospel of John were a movie, I imagine the Gospel of John starts out the way most Star Wars movies do. We begin with a narrative that sets the scene, explains to us where we are about to drop into the story, then we hit the ground running with Jesus’ adult ministry.
You might ask why the Gospel of John is given this particular place. Why do we always get to hear from the Gospel of John on this Sunday? I think it is a question worth exploring; and while you would really need to ask the authors of the Revised Common Lectionary for a direct answer, there are at least a few things we can be fairly safe to assume about the use of John. Chief among these reasons I believe is that the Gospel of John focuses far more on the mystical nature of Christ, and spends a lot of energy on this idea of Epiphany, of the appearing or manifestation of the Second Person of the Trinity.
John also leans far more on the cosmic reason for God becoming human. From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we have John the Baptist calling out, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” I guarantee that this title being used here means huge things to the people that are hearing it from John the Baptist’s mouth. Recall that the Hebrew people expected their messiah to save them in a worldly sense. They expected someone to come and lead armies against whichever occupying force was ruling them at any particular time in history. They expected a strong warlord.
But John the Baptist says, “Here is the Lamb of God.” He doesn’t say, “Here is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah!” He doesn’t say, “Behold the general to slaughter our enemies.” Think about what lambs were used for at the time of Jesus. What would the, “Lamb of God” evoke for these people but an understanding of sacrifice? There is little doubt that the author of the Gospel of John focuses on this in a few places, that the author wants to convey that God has taken on flesh in part to be, and I use this term knowing how complicated it is, a ‘sacrificial lamb’ for the sins of the world.
Understanding Jesus as the Lamb of God ties directly to the understanding of Passover in the Hebrew mindset. The Passover Lamb was slaughtered, and its blood sprinkled on the lintels of doors during the escape of the Hebrew people from Pharaoh. This was done so that the Angel of Death would pass over their houses and only visit the houses of Egyptians during the tenth and final plague. Just as the Passover lamb’s life is given to save the Israelites, so then is the sacrifice of the Lamb of God to save all of humanity from ultimate death.
Later, in the Passion narrative in the Gospel of John, Jesus dies, “about noon” on the day of preparation for the Passover. This is the author of the Gospel assigning this time and day to coincide with the slaughter of the lambs being prepared for the Passover meals. The use of the image of the Lamb of God is strong and from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to its end in the Gospel of John it is found throughout to emphasize the salvific nature of Christ manifest.
I know that you might say, “Wait a second! We aren’t even at Lent yet, and you’re moving us along to the crucifixion of Jesus!” Ultimately, even as we are in the midst of a celebration of Christmas, we must remember the cross. Without the cross, the manger, the wise men, the whole thing means very little. The whole incarnational narrative is important and every piece of it touches on the other. Even as we talk about Jesus’ baptism, the very nature of Christ must be discussed.
Mother Julia Gatta writes, “It is remarkable that Jesus begins his public ministry by submitting to John’s baptism of repentance since the New Testament and subsequent tradition never attribute personal sin to Jesus. What is Jesus doing in such a compromising situation? He is emphatically taking his stand with human beings in their sinfulness. He is defining the radical scope of his ministry from the outset. It is a position that will elicit criticism throughout his life as Jesus dines with public sinners and, finally, suffers a shameful (sic) death, crucified between two criminals. His life and ministry and, at the last, his death address our desperate plight: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
In John’s naming of Jesus as the, “Lamb of God” he is calling to the fundamental nature of Christ’s incarnation as one meant to bring eternal life to humanity. This is God’s plan from the beginning, to bring about the Kingdom of God, to bring eternal life to humanity. I do not believe there is anything in Christ’s death and resurrection meant to point to God being wrathful and bloodthirsty. God is the one who pays this ultimate price, who takes on flesh and submits to humiliation, pain, and death to tear the gates of Hell off their hinges and offer life once and for all.
I realize that when we dive into the Gospel of John, there is a chance we can get lost very quickly in the weeds. It is heady stuff, and calls on us to challenge and think about our faith and our theology. That is an important part of our growth as followers of Christ. It is easy to be lulled into the niceties of swaddled babies in mangers, or the general socialized cheap grace that is so often pedaled as Christian faith. This is our faith, this is why we gather, otherwise, why bother getting up on a Sunday morning? “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’” Keep that question with you this week and be ready, because at any time, Jesus could be asking you the same.
First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, 2020
Baptism of Our Lord
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
A drunk man stumbles across a baptism service on Sunday afternoon down by the river. He proceeds to walk down into the water and stand next to the preacher. The minister asks the drunk, “Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?” The drunk man says, “Yes, I am.” The minister then immerses the man under the water and pulls him right back up. The preacher asked, “Have you found Jesus?” The drunk says, “No, I didn’t!” The preacher then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up and says, “Now, brother, have you found Jesus?” The man replied, “No, I did not.” The preacher in disgust holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time then brings him out of the water and says in a harsh tone, “My God, have you found Jesus yet?” The drunk wipes his eyes and says to the preacher… “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”
Today we celebrate and recall the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It comes always on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, and moves us from our celebrations and observance of Jesus’ birth into his ministry. On this day every year we hear an account of Christ’s baptism. This part of Jesus’ life and ministry is so important that you find it in all four of the Gospels, along with his death and resurrection. Not even the Christmas narrative is part of all four Gospels. But Jesus’ baptism holds such a significance that it shows up all four times.
Yet, this story contains what I think is a possibly confusing event. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself, after hearing any of the accounts of Jesus baptism why exactly Jesus gets baptized by John? Sometimes we get into a mode of listening and just accept what we hear. But this is one of those times that you might say, “wait a minute, why is Jesus being baptized if he’s already sinless and God incarnate?”
People have been coming to John the Baptist, repenting of their sins, and enter the Jordan River to be symbolically washed clean. This action is one they would already be accustomed to, there are all sorts of ritual washings and purification rites. It is important to remember that this is also not what we think of as Christian baptism. It’s not meant as initiation into the body of Christ, it is not tied to the salvific acts of Christ. It is a preparation, as John says, for the one to come.
But when that one shows up, Jesus, and wants John to baptize him in this act of cleansing, John tries very strongly to refuse. He knows who Jesus is, and does not feel he is worthy to take this action. John, as we know, relents and baptizes Jesus. And again, I ask you why? Why does Jesus seek out this moment? We must always be working on our faith, asking questions about our scripture, digging deeper into the understanding of what we are told is important or meaningful to our faith.
Though I suppose if I were to ask you to imagine an opposite scenario, you begin to see why Jesus went through this baptism. Imagine instead, Jesus walking up on the crowd gathered, people wading into the dark muddy waters of the river, and Jesus looks around in disgust and says, “I’m not getting my lovely white robes dirty in that muck! It’s fine for you all, but I’m the messiah!”
Of course that is incredibly facetious, and we would never see Jesus doing something like that. Which is precisely the point. Jesus goes into those less than clear waters, he joins the people in the mud and the muck and gets dirty. He is participating in the experience with all the sinners, but it’s more than just that. This is a physical, tangible action. God has become flesh, and is partaking of the human experience here to identify with us and to experience the fullness of a life that includes seeking forgiveness for one’s sin, but not because he is a sinner, but because he is taking on our burden.
Steven Driver writes, “Pondering the reasons for Jesus’ own baptism requires pondering what it means for the Son of God to have become a human. In short, to understand baptism, we must understand the reality, the physicality, of being human, and what it means to say that God saved us by becoming just like us.”
The incarnation of God comes into the world to fulfill the promise that our salvation will be assured, and this moment in the Jordan River is Christ’s action of taking our place. He stands in those waters and takes on the baptism of repentance so that we don’t have to. That’s not what our baptism is about. Our baptism is a reminder of our salvation, adoption into the body of Christ. Our being washed in the waters of salvation and being sealed by the Holy Spirit is our moment for God to look upon us and say, “this is my child, my beloved in whom I am well pleased.”
In a few moments we will take the opportunity of it being the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord to renew our own baptismal vows. It is our opportunity to be reminded of the promises we have made in taking on this adoption as part of Christ’s body and to strengthen our commitment to following in the footsteps of the one who took on our nature and came into the world to save us. Today as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord consider this action Jesus has taken, to be fully human, wading into the murky waters with the rest of us. May you be renewed and refreshed knowing that the Incarnation has set us free from all sin and rejoice in the salvation that God has brought us.
Christmas Day Year A 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
In seminary, when you take your required core class on ‘The Gospels’, it’s generally titled, “The Synoptic Gospels” because they only cover Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John is conspicuously absent, and quite frankly if you compare the prologues of those Gospels you can see why. Last night we listened to Luke’s nativity, the one we I’m sure we can all practically recite by heart, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Now equally I would say that the prologue of John, traditionally recited at the end of every mass, is also quite memorable and easy to recite. But what it doesn’t do is evoke for us the images of a cooing baby in a manger, of the shepherds and the angels and the little drummer boy. Instead the author of the Gospel of John sets out to explain to us the cosmos, created and uncreated, the mystical origin of Christ as one of the three persons of the Trinity, the infinitude of Christ as the Word, the Logos, which has always been. It’s really hard to make that the picture on the front of a Hallmark Christmas Card.
But John’s prologue is no less important than the other stories that begin the telling of the Good News of Jesus Christ. In this Christmas season, when we are faced with the images of the baby Jesus, an important reminder of God as child, as baby, we must also remember that contained in that baby is the Christ, the Logos, the Word made flesh. Though this is a child born of Judean parents, drawing it’s first breath surrounded by hay and animals and blood and sweat and tears, this is also the eternal Word, the bringer of order to chaos. Aaron Klink writes, “The most central claim of the Christian faith, one that should scandalize us from time to time, is that God became incarnate, one of us, that we might know God’s nature and God’s love for us.”
This reading reminds us that Christ has always been; from the beginning this was the plan. It reminds us that God always had this path set out. God’s love and intention for humanity and for creation was always set this direction, not simply because of sin making its way into human nature. So for us in this Christmas time, in awe of the wonder and majesty of the Word made Flesh…the Triune creator of the universe contained in this little baby, perhaps we ought to take a lesson from John the Baptist’s playbook.
The voice crying out in the wilderness is said to have come, “as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” What is our job as followers of Jesus, if not to testify to the light, to the word, to Christ, so that all might believe? That is what we do in proclaiming the Gospel, the good news. In this time of Christmas, it seems to me there are so many ways we can point people back to that manger, to that light, to the Logos, through our words, and our actions, and even our attitudes.
One of my favorite Christmas traditions is watching at least one version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Amongst my top picks I would say are the 1988 film ‘Scrooged’ as a modern retelling for its brilliance and humor, and for accuracy to Dickens’ original text I actually always hail the 1992 release of ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ which includes a lot of lines from the book that you don’t always hear in many of the movies.
While I was watching that particular one just the other night, the speech that Scrooges’ nephew gives him in the office about Christmas really hit me. In response to Scrooge telling his poor nephew Fred how terrible and ridiculous and scandalous Christmas is, Fred says, “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
That is exactly the sort of Christmas spirit that makes all the crazy running around, consumer culture, family stress, and general chaos pause for a minute. It pushes it all aside and, like John the Baptist points back to the true Light of God’s love made manifest in the world. Christmas is most certainly a time for celebration, for feasting, for spreading joy. But it is all those things precisely because of what happened in that manger so long ago. That God was born into this world in flesh and blood just like we are.
So then, how do we find ways to tell people about this joy, to be like John the Baptist and point towards this source of truth and light? Howard Thurman, a prolific theologian, author, and civil-rights leader wrote,”
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.”
So as you leave this place today, with the proclamation of Christ’s birth on your lips, remember that this time especially is a time where we can point back to the Light of God’s Love made flesh in the world, and to begin the real work of Christmas.