Epiphany: a season for looking forward


Scripture: John 1: 19-34 Nigel Bunce

The Epiphany season is a time for looking forward to the future.  It’s not just the Magi; it continues the continuing disclosure of Jesus’ divinity.  

What is an epiphany?

Last week, we celebrated the Epiphany, when the Magi travelled to Bethlehem to present gifts to the infant Jesus. The word epiphany means the manifestation, or making known, of a divine figure. The Magi recognized Jesus’ special holiness by bringing him those ‘strange gifts’ that Jan spoke of. Gold for royalty; incense for divinity; myrrh to foretell Jesus’ earthly fate.

In ordinary language, the word epiphany has come to mean just an “aha” moment. You might (or might not!) call it an epiphany when you finally understood a difficult math concept like calculus. For me, getting my first chemistry textbook was a genuine life-changing moment.

Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany. But we don’t have a whole season of Epiphany just to help us count Sundays! The Gospel readings for the Epiphany season are about different people coming to recognize who Jesus was.

John the Baptist encounters Jesus

Today, we heard John’s version of a story that is more familiar in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I’ll use Mark for comparison. We must be careful. It’s easy to confuse John the Baptist with John the Gospel author.

To begin, some Temple leaders confronted John the Baptist. He told them he wasn’t the Messiah, or Elijah come back to earth, or a prophet. He was just one crying in the wilderness. Unlike Mark, this Gospel author puts Isaiah’s prophesy into the Baptist’s mouth.

That conversation took place, “in Bethany, across the Jordan where John was baptizing.” Bethany was just east of Jerusalem but about 20 miles from the Jordan River.

The Baptist saw Jesus, “the next day,” but we don’t know where that happened. Did they actually meet? Did John leg it over from Bethany to the River Jordan? If so, was John baptizing people that day? Because unlike Mark, this Gospel doesn’t say that John actually baptized Jesus.

The role of the dove

The Gospel writers all agree that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Unlike John, who baptized with water. They also record the presence of the dove, symbolizing Jesus’ holiness. In Mark, the dove appeared when the Baptist actually baptized Jesus. But John’s Gospel doesn’t record Jesus’ baptism.

Instead, the Baptist asserted that he already expected that the dove would be the sign of the Holy Spirit. He recognized who Jesus was when he saw the dove rest upon him. That was why he testified that Jesus was the Son of God.

I asked myself, how do we identify people? At the trivial level, by what they look like. At a deeper level, by who they are, by their character. It’s like how Jesus said that we recognize a person by their fruits, just as we judge a fruit tree as good or bad by the quality of its fruit. [Matthew 7: 17-18]

The Lamb of God

John’s Gospel has an important difference from Mark when the Baptist met Jesus. He said, “Here is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” What an extraordinary thing to say of someone you are meeting for the first time!

The expression “Lamb of God” tells us that Jesus will become a sacrifice, like the lambs at Passover. It’s like the symbol of myrrh in the Epiphany story. In other words, the Gospel writer reads back what he already knows. Jesus’ death will not be a surprise.

However, the Baptist didn’t just call Jesus the Lamb of God. He will take away the sin of the world. This Gospel writer must have known about Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and subscribed to Paul’s ideas about why Jesus had to die.

Looking to the future

This past week, I was preparing this homily and also drafting my Report for our annual Vestry meeting. Vestry Reports look backwards on the past year. In the Epiphany season we look back to Christmas, when more and more people recognized who Jesus was.

Shepherds and Magi came to Bethlehem. Simeon and Anna felt the divine presence when Jesus’ parents took him to the Temple. Now today, the Baptist sees Jesus’ holiness, as if a dove had settled on his shoulder.

But the Epiphany season is also a time for looking forward to the future. Otherwise, we would just say, “Jesus is divine. So what?” The ‘so what’ is that Scripture now begins to follow Jesus’ public ministry – what he said and did, so that we can become disciples.

Everything old must become new

Just as the Gospel writers continued forward from recognition to Jesus’ ministry, so also for us. Now is the right time to start looking forward to the next chapter of St. George’s. The pandemic will end. We will return to in-person worship. How will our parish respond?

There will be a temptation to recreate everything just like it was before. But I ask you to remember these words of St. Paul. “… in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. See. Everything has become new.” [2 Cor. 5: 17]

Looking forward

I believe that we must ask ourselves what to recreate and what to change? That must be our epiphany, our “aha” moment.  Where is God calling us to something new? How will we continue to reach out to the people who joined us remotely during the pandemic? Surely, we won’t just dump them? That means we must continue online ministry in some form, while also gathering in person.

In reality, the pandemic has merely accelerated a move towards electronic forms of ministry that we faced anyway. But how should we do that? It would be a huge mistake to arrive back in church one Sunday and then say, “Now what?” So I ask you, please think about this, so that we can discuss it at Vestry. Amen.