Today in the Spirit: Epiphany & Epiphany 1A

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Prepositions are important in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). One change in the BCP 2019 that can easily go unnoticed is the designation “Sundays of Epiphany” in the new book versus “Sundays after Epiphany” in the 1979 (and 1928) books. The choice of wording in BCP 2019 conforms with a desire to return to the language of BCP 1662; but we might ask: and what is the old language communicating? One reply might be that the epiphany (the shining forth) of Jesus of Nazareth set forth in the NT Gospels must be understood as an ongoing movement of the Father God, beginning with manger and star, yes, but continuing in the whole life of the man–his teaching and his activities–in order to demonstrate that he is the Son of God? In Year A of the Epiphany season, we begin with Matthew’s version of Jesus’ baptism narrative followed by selections of the Sermon on the Mount (from Matthew). For Epiphany Day and Epiphany 1 the OT, psalm and NT readings, which are the same every year, focus on new light and new knowledge: Arise, shine, for you light has come (Isaiah 60:1 for The Epiphany); and I now realize how true it is (Acts 10:34 for Epiphany 1). The implicit devotional challenge in this opening round of Epiphany readings and prayers is one of allowing our “eyes”, the portholes of understanding, to be made open to all that God will disclose.

The Collect (The Epiphany)

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12)

And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh (11).

All that distance and expense and risk to see a child.  Jesus, however old he is at this point, cannot teach or pray or sing.  He has nothing to offer but his presence–and for the magi that is everything.  As with so much else in our society, we have become so geared to deliverables in the church that we shop uneasily for the right worship, preaching, music, programs and facilities.  Hear the psalmist: Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in light of your presence, O Lord (Psalm 89:15).  The magi’s longing for simply being in the Lord’s company is learned behavior.  Today, Lord, in this new year and decade, by your Spirit, teach me hunger for and contentment with your presence.

The Collect (Epiphany 1A – The Baptism of Our Lord)

Eternal Father, at the baptism of Jesus you revealed him to be your Son, and your Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove: Grant that we, who are born again by water and the Spirit, may be faithful as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Behold my Servant (Isaiah 42:1-9)

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations (1).

Who is the servant in Isaiah’s “Servant Songs”?  We must not be so quick to say “Jesus” that we leave ourselves completely out of the love song.  The servant is Jesus Christ, and we, the Church, are Christ’s body.  As members of Christ, Yahweh sings to us of his delight and, yes, his calling in righteousness to be light for the nations.  The Lord has set us (and you individually as part of the body) apart for a great purpose, his own purpose, and he will uphold us in every step we take in his name, just as he did for the incarnate Jesus of Nazareth.  Recall Paul’s words in last week’s Epistle reading: In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…(Ephesians 1:4-5). Today, in the Spirit, hear the love of Isaish’s servant song as directed to you and walk in it.

You Are My Father (Psalm 89:1-29)

He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
    my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’
And I will make him the firstborn,
    the highest of the kings of the earth.
My steadfast love I will keep for him forever,
    and my covenant will stand firm for him.
I will establish his offspring forever
    and his throne as the days of the heavens (26-29).

In Epiphany 1 we focus on the baptism of Jesus. There is something of a dialogue in the appointed psalm and Gospel reading: the Messiah calling out God my Father in Psalm 89 and the Father calling Jesus my Son in Matthew.  See how often in the Gospels Jesus cries out “my Father” in the course of His ministry–to praise (Matthew 11:25, Luke 10:21-22); to give thanks (John 11:41), and to ask for consolation (Matthew 26:39).  Even more astounding, Jesus also teaches us to call God our Father (Mt. 5:43-48, 6:9).  There is then a jump in our thinking we are intended to take as followers of Jesus Christ: Just as the Father God calls Jesus my Son and Jesus calls God my Father, we are meant to hear the Father calling us His sons and daughters (Galatians 3:26) and to cry out ourselves to him Abba Father. Making that jump is the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in us.  Today, in the Spirit, pray to hear in every oncoming circumstance and every passing interaction with another person the voice of God saying to you affectionately “my daughter” or “my son,” that you may respond my Father, just as Jesus does.

I Now Realize How True It Is (Acts 10:34-38)

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (34-38).

For Epiphany 1 Sunday, Peter’s saying God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power makes this a fitting Epistle reading alongside the Gospel reading on the baptism of Jesus. The passage also demonstrates the continuing development of Peter as a follower and apostle of Jesus, which Luke has carefully traced in both his Gospel and Acts.  Peter’s words Truly I understand (or I now realize NIV) reveal something critically important about that development. It’s not that Peter suddenly has new information on God’s concern for the Gentiles but that he now realizes that God is true to his word about wanting to bless the nations (see Genesis 12:3). For Peter it will take his own experience of Gentiles miraculously seeking Jesus Christ to bring him to the point of sharing the gospel with them. And Peter will have to be willing to enter the Gentile Cornelius’ house in the first place, a step God himself has also prepared Peter to make with a vision (see Acts 10:1-20). Are we not all astonished to realize how active God is in shaping our minds and hearts over time? Job asks: Where then does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell?…God understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells (Job 28:20,22). Today, Lord, by your Spirit, we thank you for increasing our knowledge and kindling new desire, like you did with Peter, to equip us to accomplish your purposes in the world.

To Fulfill All Righteousness (Matthew 3:13-17)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” (13-17).

The Gospel of Matthew, which is our focus in Year A of the Sunday lectionary, contains the words righteous and righteousness far more than the others. And it is interesting to note that  our Lord’s use of these terms in his own speech is found almost exclusively in Matthew. In many cases it is not clear in the Gospel itself what righteousness really means (as if Matthew assumes his readers will know); but there is often a sense that whatever righteousness is, it is not what the world thinks is right (see, for instance, the Beatitudes in 5:6,10). When John the Baptist objects, I need to be baptized by you, does he not believe he is speaking what is right and good and proper? Jesus’ reply, Let [me be baptized by you], for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness, will indicate to John that he is mistaken. Very often as believers our perceptions of what is “right” is not what God wants or has planned. Put simply, that which is contrary to the will of God is not righteous; and, despite all appearances, for members of a kingdom whose duty it is to obey the king, it can never really be considered right. So, knowing this to be true, what shall we do? The critical thing is to abide in the presence of Jesus, to be alongside Jesus like the Baptist on the Jordan River, and to hear from the Lord himself what is the righteousness of God. Today, Holy Spirit of Jesus, give me pause over things I believe to be right by my own way of thinking; speak to me of what is righteous; and give me the heart of the Baptist to consent

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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