Luke 3: 15–17 and 21–22.
Let me begin by asking you to reflect on how you might tell the story of your life. There are two principal alternatives. The first is one with which we are all familiar, not least when we fill in job applications: for example, born in Aberdeen, worked for fifteen years in the oil industry, then as a teacher for another twenty, before finally retiring to St Andrews. Full of facts but in actual fact rather boring since it tells one little that is intimate about the individual concerned. The other option is to pull out those events that have helped to make us the sort of people we are: the moment we fell in love and came perhaps for the first time to value the life of another human being as much as, if not more than, one’s own; seeing Judi Dench perform on stage, and observing a rather mediocre play turned into a great work of art, and from that point on being an enthusiast for amateur dramatics; an anxious troubled moment when suddenly all became calm as one felt one’s heart flooded an overwhelming sense of divine peace, an incident that has effectively shaped one’s faith forever thereafter; and so on.
The possibilities are infinite, and in all probability kept secret except from those who know you especially well. The point, though, is that it is not the routine of one day following another that gives shape to our lives, it is, rather, these significant moments when we are pulled out of ourselves into something deeper and more profound. One writer who thought them particularly important was James Joyce, the famous twentieth century Irish author of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Over the years he identified over forty such significant moments in his own life, labelling each – and here at last I come to my point – labelling each of them, epiphanies. By the time he did so he had lost his faith but there is no doubt from where the term came – from his schoolboy education by the Jesuits. And in reapplying the term, he showed a wise intuition because that is essentially what the Christian Epiphany is all about – identifying the significant moments that will help us to read Jesus’ life in its right perspective, as we begin once more to follow that life through the liturgical year.
For a start, note that none of the gospels give us the CV (job application) sort of approach to Jesus’ life. Apart from his birth, the first thirty years are almost entirely ignored. The result is that we know almost nothing about his level of education: whether, for example, he had trained as a carpenter like his father Joseph or not; whether he ever studied to become a teacher or rabbi; whether he knew any Latin or Greek; and so on. Instead, all four gospels threw us immediately into the thick of things, or rather not quite because each does give us an epiphany, an important moment that is meant to shape our understanding of the significance of how the rest of Jesus’ life is described. I said each of the gospels since, although we celebrated the story of the coming of the wise men from Matthew on January the 6th, there are two other events which the Church has traditionally also treated as part of the Epiphany season, one which we celebrate today (Jesus’ baptism) and other next Sunday (the wedding at Cana of Galilee). And you can see why, because, if Matthew makes the Adoration of the Magi his significant moment, in Mark and Luke it is the Baptism while in John it is the Wedding at Cana. What each event does is declare that the story of Jesus is not just about one event following after another in ordinary, horizontal time, it is also about vertical interventions from above: Jesus not just a good man but the very presence of God reflected in his life. We see as much in the gifts of the wise men, particularly the frankincense traditionally used in divine worship; in the descent of the Spirit and the voice of the Father at his Baptism; and in the extraordinary powers over nature that he displays in the miracle at Cana.
But it is a significant moment not just in revealing Christ’s divinity, it is also significant, an epiphany, because it reveals God for us, how God plans Jesus’ life to make its impact on the way we now live, and so each of the three epiphanies become moments in reshaping our lives just as much as they first shaped Christ’s. Thus think first of the wise men, strangers from afar. Part of the point of that story is to tell us that we Gentiles will no longer be strangers, aliens to the Jewish dispensation. Instead, the Jewish dispensation has now been widened to include all of us. Hence the traditional symbolism of the Magi being from different parts of the word: with one them for example, (Balthasar) usually an African. Jesus’ story, so this epiphany tells us, is for anyone wherever they come from, – even distant Scotland.
Then again, the water into wine in John’s gospel is not just about Jesus’ power over nature, it is equally about his ability to transform us: from weak water drinkers to individuals full of the joy, the wine of the gospel – in Father Ian’s terminology, champagne Christians.
But, what then are we to make of the Baptism, the theme of today’s gospel from Luke? John the Baptist declared the baptism he offered was for the remission of sins, and so expresses puzzlement that Jesus of all people should come forward, asking to be baptised. Nonetheless, the event is recorded in all four gospels, though with a twist in both Matthew and John. Matthew uses an obscure phrase to suggest that it was really done with some other purpose in mind: ‘to fulfil all righteousness’ (3.15) is how he puts it. Again, John the gospel writer has John the Baptist declare in advance that, so far from seeking to expiate his own sins, Jesus has come to expiate those whom he will serve: ‘Behold the Lamb of God,’ he declares, ‘that takes away the sins of the world’ (1.29). In other words, as the early church fathers consistently observed, what Jesus is really doing is acting on our behalf.
Perhaps I can make their point clearer by ending this sermon with a visual illustration. Some of you may know the painting of this scene in the National Gallery in London by the Italian Renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca. It is jam-packed with symbolism. But don’t worry, here I want only to draw your attention to one small but perhaps puzzling detail, precisely because it will help to make sense of that idea of God for us in Christ’s Baptism. It is the fact that, although Jesus is being baptised in the River Jordan with the Spirit descending on him, and the Father above, the waters of the Jordan have run dry. Jesus is in fact standing on dry ground. Why? To answer that question, you will need to know your Old Testament moderately well. First recall that the Hebrew version of Jesus’ name was in fact Joshua. Although Moses had led the chosen people out of Egypt, he died within sight of the holy land, and the task was then given to another, to an earlier Joshua, and he it was who therefore who brought the people there. But only with a miracle on God’s part since, as the opening of the book of Joshua tells, the Jordan parted its waters to let the people cross. The artist Piero, is thus in effect telling us that Jesus is now the Christian Joshua, the leader of our salvation, the person who from our own baptism onwards will direct us through his grace to our own promised land.
If you object that this all sounds too rosy, please do recall what the next event in Jesus’ life was according to the gospel record. As Mark puts, ‘and straightway the Spirit drove him into the wilderness’ (1,12: cf. Luke 4.1). It was forty days battling against temptation. The epiphany of the baptism thus does not just tell us that Jesus was God, it also promises that through thick and thin he will be our leader – in joy and in pain, in life and in death – and eventually beyond, across the last river to our own promised land.