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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord 01/07/2018

Epiphany was yesterday so Christmas is officially over even for those of us who observe the twelve days. All the decorations should be gone but here we are, still decked out for Christmas, cheating a little bit and stretching the season an extra day, celebrating both Epiphany and the Baptism of our Lord today. In some ways it’s good that Epiphany is included. Usually we do an evening Epiphany service and it’s beautiful, kind of quiet and a nice way to end the Christmas season. The down side is that attendance is pretty light, so most people miss out on the story of the Wise Men. This year, on a Sunday more of you are here, so more of you will end your Christmas observance a day late with Matthew’s story of the Wise Men from the East.

In our minds, most of us when we think of the Christmas story, blend Luke’s account together with Matthew’s thus placing all the characters from both accounts together, present at the same time, like it is with most manger scenes, nativity sets and children’s Christmas pageants. That’s OK but at some point it’s good to put some space between the different aspects of the story because Matthew and Luke have different points of emphasis.

One major difference in the two accounts has to do with the first people to come and visit the new born Christ child. In Luke, it’s the shepherds, people of little status, emphasizing Luke’s theology of the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the lowly being lifted up. The shepherds are symbolic of the lowly and they become the first ones to share the good news of Jesus’ birth.

In Matthew, the first visitors are the Wise Men from the East, people who look for signs in the stars. From their observations they see a star that indicates the birth of a king and so they follow that star, first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem where they offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. What is significant though is that, similar to Luke, these are not insiders, not who you would expect. They are foreigners. Jesus has come as king and Lord for all people, not only for one particular group. These Wise Men then represent all the people of the earth and all the kingdoms from which they come. In different ways then, both Matthew and Luke make known that this event and this Jesus is for everyone which should serve as a caution any time we’re tempted to exclude someone or some group from God’s saving grace in and through Jesus.

With the Wise Men there is also symbolism in the gifts that they bring and the gifts also help to reveal the truth concerning this child. The gift of gold is taken as a sign that Jesus is indeed a king, just not the kind that was expected by those longing for the Messiah. The gift of frankincense though, implies that while Jesus is a king, he’s also more than a king, he’s the incarnation of God. Frankincense was used as part of worship and only God can be worshiped so the gift hints at Jesus’ divine nature. Finally there is the gift of myrrh. Myrrh was used to anoint the dead, so this gift foreshadows the fact that Jesus will die as a sacrifice for the people. Taken together then, the gifts contain the mysteries of Christ’s birth. Along with the Wise Men, the gifts help to convey the why of the Incarnation.

There’s another darker aspect to the meaning of Jesus though, one we heard previewed last week when Simeon held Jesus in his arms and, among other things, said that Jesus would be a sign that would be opposed. That opposition is also part of the story of the Wise Men.

The Wise Men are the main characters in Matthew’s account, but there is another important character, that being King Herod. He looms large and his reaction to the news of Jesus’ birth is very different than that of the Wise Men. The text says that when the Wise Men arrived at the place where the star had led them, they were overwhelmed with joy; not so King Herod.

Today’s part of the text ends with the Wise Men going home by another road, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod who had told them to come and tell him when they found this new born king. When Herod found out that the Wise Men were on to him and that they were not coming back, Herod was not overwhelmed with joy, he was infuriated. The same event, the birth of Jesus, evoked two very different responses so early on Matthew lets us know that while Jesus represents good news for some that’s not the case for everyone. There will always be opposition.

In our little corner of the world here in Upper Michigan, opposition to Jesus isn’t likely to provoke the rage of King Herod. It’s more likely to be reflected in the passive opposition of indifference, indifference that sees worship and Sunday School and other church activity as inconvenient when there are so many other things to do on a Sunday morning. But why such a difference in reaction between those who find life’s meaning in and through Jesus and who, like the Wise Men, respond with joy, versus those who just kind of shrug their shoulders when they hear about Jesus and then go on with what they were doing? Many in the latter group still celebrate Christmas and I would assume that they find joy in that celebration, but their joy is more likely to be fleeting, perhaps fading when the last present is opened.

True Christmas joy, true Epiphany joy comes in recognizing Jesus as our savior and king and making that truth part of our day to day reality. It’s not enough just to acknowledge that a baby was born. It’s coming to understand the magnitude of what this event means, to recognize that in Jesus the Word has been made flesh, God has joined us in our humanity in order to restore the divine image in which we were created, an image that has been damaged by sin. Without that recognition, Christmas joy can be pretty fleeting and continuing to worship and follow Jesus can seem inconvenient rather than being an ongoing source of joy.

Today we also observe the Baptism of our Lord. It’s another part of Epiphany, another demonstration of God being made known in and through Jesus. It’s another event that should be a source of joy. Sometimes though, the question of “Why did Jesus have to be baptized?” comes up as part of our understanding of baptism is that it is for forgiveness of sin. If Jesus was without sin, why was he baptized? The best answer I can give is that he didn’t have to be baptized, but it’s another thing that he does for us. When we are baptized, the water serves to make us holy, cleansing us from sin. When Jesus is baptized, he makes the water holy, for us, so that our sins are forgiven when we are baptized.

In all the gospels Jesus’ ministry is preceded by his baptism; his first public appearance takes place at his baptism and this too has to do with Jesus identity becoming known as the deeper theological meaning of baptism is made known. That deeper meaning often gets overlooked, especially when we baptize babies and infants as the cuteness factor can tend to take over. Baptism though is not about cuteness. It’s a symbol of death and resurrection so as Jesus is baptized his own death and resurrection is foreshadowed. In our baptism we join him in that death and in the new life of resurrection.

Baptism is also about repentance and forgiveness, repentance and forgiveness that Jesus doesn’t need, but it reveals him as the Lamb of God who will take on himself our sin as we join him in baptism. Again, it’s for us. Baptism is also a sign of holiness and of renewal. We are made holy as we die to sin and are raised to new life, eternal life. All in all though, baptism is much more than a cute rite of initiation. It is for us and for our salvation and is another source of great joy.

I’m going to end with poetry from the liturgy of the early church as I think it provides a good ending to Christmas and brings us into Epiphany.

Let us assemble in spirit, O Faithful,/ at the streams of the Jordan/ That we may behold a great and mighty wonder./ We shall see the Creator of all made manifest/ as he comes to be baptized./ Let us pass, O faithful,/ from Bethlehem to Jordan./ For behold, the Light which came into the darkness,/ there begins to overcome the night.

Your coming in the flesh, O Christ,/ fulfilled the law/ and accomplished the first act of salvation./ Now in Your compassion You come to the Jordan;/ Your head is bowed to the Baptist/ and the completion of your work is begun./ Cry out in faith, O people:/ Blessed is our God made manifest!/ Glory to You!

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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