Today is, officially, the Baptism of the Lord in our liturgical calendar. But because of the peculiar lining up of Epiphany, this feast, and the arrival of your new rector, the liturgy and sermon are a bit of a mash-up of theophany celebrations. This would make our ancestors in the faith from the Early Church very pleased.
Theophanies are those moments when God is visibly manifest to us humans. Episodes where God is undeniably present and active in our midst. These seasons, from Christmas through to the Last Sunday after Epiphany, are full of scripture readings that detail moments of such revelation. These seasons also give us the opportunity to reflect on why God has chosen to be revealed in these ways and what it might mean for us.
The baptism of Jesus is amazing. It is also entirely unnecessary for Jesus to do. Jesus does not require forgiveness of sins or a ritual washing his uncleanness into the River Jordan. Jesus lives without sin.
The gifts of the magi are amazing. They are also entirely unnecessary for Jesus to receive. God created all things in heaven and earth and God knows what is to come. God does not require our returning pieces of creation for them to be useful to God, nor a reminder of Jesus’s divinity, kingship, and impending death.
The transformation of water into wine at Cana is amazing. It is also entirely unnecessary for Jesus to do. Jesus and his mother are guests at the wedding and he has no obligation to save face for the host or to impress the other wedding guests.
In spite of them being entirely unnecessary, in each case Christ receives what is offered by humanity and transforms it into something more. Our offerings, flawed and unworthy, are not only received by Christ, but are changed into moments of revelation more splendid than we would have ever imagined possible.
When the wedding host has only water, anxiety, and shame to offer, Christ receives them and transforms them to water and rejoicing. Not only is there wine, but the finest wine that any of the guests have ever tasted. The host’s unworthy offering has been made into something truly worthy of the title “divine”.
When Jesus comes to John at the River Jordan and is baptized, not only is God revealed in sight and sound, but water itself is transformed. Water is used by humanity to wash away dust, dirt, and all that is unclean. John uses it even to wash away the sins of the repentant who hear his message of the God who comes to dwell among them. The River Jordan has been cleaning and washing, filling itself with the spiritual muck and grime of humanity, collecting sin.
When Christ enters its waters and is baptized, the river itself is cleaned. All of the collected spiritual pollution is taken and transformed in the glory of this revelatory moment. As the psalmist reminds us, even waters can clap their hands in joy and, in this moment, they surely do. Christ has taken up our sin and begins his walk with it toward the Cross.
In these theophanies, we also see the ways in which we will participate in the work of God and the life of Christ. Through baptism we will not only be cleansed of our sins, but adopted into the glory, majesty, and all-saving death of Christ prefigured by the gifts of the magi. We are given a place at the eternal wedding feast where Christ is the host and the wine casks never run dry.
For many of us, a reflection like this on what God has done and what it means for us can be a difficult experience. We live in a world where we are constantly reminded that we are not good enough. Others profit over our desire to measure up to whatever standard they set and so we are constantly told that we could and should be more productive, more beautiful, more educated, more fit, more popular and that there is some expensive product or plan which will make it so. We know that, in reality, what usually happens is we end up angry, broke, exhausted, and filled with shame.
If this is how we make one another feel with what we can offer, how are we to feel about the gifts God has offered us? If I don’t feel worthy of a relationship with you, how am I supposed to feel worthy about being adopted into the life of Christ? If I don’t feel my gifts are good enough to share with you, whatever must God think of my offerings? Surely these incredible revelations, beautiful as they are, can’t be for me. They must be for someone much more deserving, someone holier, someone who is worthy.
The good news of today’s feast is that it reminds us of God’s willingness to cooperate with us. God will take whatever we can offer, worthy or not, and will transform it into more than we thought possible. More than what we need. If today’s miracles are not enough to persuade you, cast your mind ahead to Good Friday. When Christ casts wide his arms and invites humanity into the life of God, all we manage to offer is anger, fear, shame, violence, and murder. And with that offering squarely on the altar, God transforms death itself into the gateway to eternal life.
Today’s feast and the miracles it recalls are not about what God needs for God’s own sake, but about what God is willing to do for our sake. God is willing to receive whatever we have to offer and to transform it into something more glorious than we thought possible. Whatever you have brought with you today that you think unworthy of God, give it over as an offering. Give God your joys and all of your craft and skill and art, absolutely. But also, give God your sadness and hurt, your disappointment and shame, your anger and fear.
Give God your whole self, both water or wine, and let God transform you so that you may not only see Christ’s light revealed, but carry it with you to shine before others.