A Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany

by Louise Browner Blanchard, Interim Rector

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22  

For many of us, the New Year is a time for big gestures, or at least big ideas. We relish the idea of making things new again. We’re full of expectations for ourselves and the world around us. Even if they’ve exhausted us, the holidays have given us an impetus for a fresh start, as we fill in calendars for the coming year and make lists of projects that are long overdue. This will be the year that we really do get in shape or read Shakespeare, find a new job or learn to play the piano. We’re ready for big changes, and big answers.

The gospel stories that we heard over Christmas foreshadowed the sense of expectation for the new year, with angels heralding the births of the miraculous babies John and Jesus, silencing John the Baptist’s father, reassuring Jesus’s mother, and guiding shepherds to a lowly manger. Surely, we’re inclined to think, the gospels in the early days of 2016 will continue to inspire the same sense of awe, excitement, and wonder as the stories surrounding the birth of the Son of God.

Take today’s gospel, for instance. We know now that it was a big deal: capital T The, capital B Baptism of our Lord, and none other than God’s voice proclaims to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But today’s gospel actually beckons us to change tack, to listen carefully, to pay attention to the details as much as the big picture. As I said a moment ago, we know now that Jesus’s baptism was a big deal. But if we look at it as if we had been there when it happened, a different picture emerges.

First of all, no one other than John the Baptist and Jesus himself was likely to have even noticed that Jesus was being baptized. In those days, John the Baptist was the one who was making a splash, attracting crowds in the wilderness for a baptism of repentance, urging those who were looking for salvation from the corrupt and oppressive rulers of their day to look first at themselves: to repent of their own sins, to share their clothes and food with those who had none. That may be an inspirational message for the New Year, but it didn’t come from Jesus. Jesus was a 30-year old about whom we know absolutely nothing from the time he was a cheeky 12 year-old on a visit to the Jerusalem temple with his parents until he joined the throngs in the wilderness, just one among many people who were baptized by his cousin John. And, apparently, his baptism made no more nor less an impression than anyone else’s at the time.

What happened when Jesus prayed after his baptism is what’s remarkable. That’s when heaven opened, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved: with you I am well pleased.” But…despite how we might imagine the voice of God – booming, impossible to miss, unbelievably loud – there’s absolutely no indication that anyone other than Jesus heard a peep. Nevertheless, it was enough. It was enough to carry Jesus into the wilderness, enough to sustain him in the face of the devil’s temptations, enough to launch the ministry that is the reason that we’re here today. And it set the pattern for the way that God and Jesus communicated, not through big happenings or spectacles, but off the main stage, through prayer and listening.

In other words, this morning’s gospel offers the suggestion that the clearest manifestations of God’s power and presence often come to us not in grand gestures or bold accomplishments or anything that we control. Rather, this morning’s gospel offers the suggestion that the clearest manifestations of God’s power and presence often come to us when we pause and pray and pay attention. No one else may have heard God’s proclamation that Jesus was his Son, the Beloved, with whom God was well pleased, but – through prayer – Jesus did.

It’s a pattern that Jesus modeled throughout Luke’s gospel: that prayer is the precursor to big actions and big decisions. As word about Jesus spread far and wide, and the stakes of his ministry grew, Luke 5:16 tells us that “he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” Before he chose his disciples, he prayed. Before he submitted to those who would kill him, he prayed. Before he breathed his last breath, he prayed.

The example was not lost on Jesus’s disciples, who asked him to teach them to pray. He not only taught them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer (and will ourselves pray shortly), but he taught them to pray persistently, expectantly, and with enough humility to recognize that we may not know the answer that we think we do.

Our Quaker forefather William Penn warned against “running before we are sent.” In other words, for example, however ambitious, exciting, or inspiring our new year’s aspirations may seem, we should take the time to discern prayerfully where God may be calling. Particularly in this dark and gray time of year, remember that much is taking place beyond what we can easily see and hear. Somewhere, where we can hear it if we are listening, God is calling you “Beloved” and calling you to something.

It’s as true for St. Mary’s as a community as it is for us as individuals. We ended 2015 on a wave of emotion for the past and excitement for the future, and we begin 2016 on a raft of high expectations. We have much to look forward to. Let’s remember to do so by listening for God’s voice and trusting in it.