The First Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, The Church of the Epiphany, Sherwood

“Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mk 1:10).

The transition from Christmas to the Season of Epiphany is a little like time-lapse photography. In this method, a scene that takes some time to unfold is accelerated so that it appears to take place in a short period of time. There are some amazing photographic treatments of flowers blooming, where the motion of the flower that is imperceptible to our eyes suddenly becomes apparent through the use of the time-lapse method. What is lengthy in terms of our experience of time appears to the viewer to move forward quickly, revealing things that we would not have been able to see under normal circumstances.

What we have here in our two week transition from Advent to Epiphany is like the time-lapse method, in that we have moved swiftly from the beginning of the story to a place much further along. We just said goodbye to the Wise Men yesterday, after all, and already Jesus is grown up and taking on his work. What took Jesus thirty years or so to grow into appears to us to have taken place in the blink of an eye. A process that appears imperceptible under normal circumstances seems to move forward at a good clip in the church’s liturgical celebration. The flowering of Jesus’ mission unfolds very quickly using this time-lapse method.

What this method allows us to see is the close connection between the manger and the mission. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (Jo. 18:37). The details of maturation are not particularly important here; what’s important is for Jesus to get on with it, to begin the work of salvation that was already implied by his birth and the stories that surround it. All those stories pointed toward the future, to what was ahead: the mission and ministry of Jesus as the Savior of the world.

Our reading from the Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his ministry, in brief. It’s a bare bones treatment, with few of the details included by Matthew and Luke. Its spare outline lets the main story appear in high relief.  John the Baptist begins his ministry in the wilderness, baptizing people as a sign of repentance; Jesus comes to him from Nazareth and is baptized. When he’s coming out of the water he sees the heavens “torn apart” and the Holy Spirit “descending like a dove on him”. A voice comes from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:10-11).

The words from above are pregnant with meaning. The language of son-ship is important here, a formula applied to the ancient kings of Israel. “Let me announce the decree of the Lord”, it says in Psalm 2, “You are my Son; this day have I begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). In this light we can see that the voice is pointing toward Jesus as the promised Messiah, the king who was to come. At his baptism he’s anointed with the Holy Spirit, filled with the power of God so that he can be the Savior of the People.

Jesus sees all of this this time-lapse moment. He can see his mission. He has the insight, the vision, and the perspective, to see it all. Those standing round can’t see it because they are in the moment; what’s happening is imperceptible to them because they are in the mainstream and cannot catch the full significance. In fact Mark doesn’t even suggest that those who were in the wilderness with John and Jesus saw what Jesus saw or heard the voice. What’s important is that it’s revealed to Jesus.

What do we see as we celebrate this Feast of the Baptism of Christ? Well, keeping with the time-lapse idea, we might speed things up from the moment of baptism to include the mission of the church, our mission, as that unfolds from this moment. Remember John’s words to the crowd, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk 1:8). The Holy Spirit, who moves forward Jesus own mission, will also be given to us through Jesus’ own ministry. The mission of the church, encapsulated in our reading from Acts, which shows Paul sharing the gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism in Jesus’ name and the laying on of hands. We can see it all unfolding from this moment of baptism.

Today we celebrate confirmation at the Church of the Epiphany, practicing ourselves the apostolic rite of the laying of hands; reminding ourselves that we are part of the unfolding mission of the church. To our eyes this moment may not seem particularly epochal; the movement of the Holy Spirit may not be perceptible to our eyes. But if we share Jesus’ perspective, I bet we will be able to see the heavens torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descending upon us all.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee