A reflection on the three readings which the lectionary selects for this Sunday (Isaiah 43.1-7; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22) is offered by the Rev David Waller, the Anglican Chaplain for Mallorca based in Palma. David also acts as Area Dean for part of the Archdeaconry of Gibraltar.
I relish the idea that Christmas is one of the shortest liturgical seasons in the Church’s calendar. This is not because I’m a Scrooge at heart but because it allows Epiphany to sound the starting pistol for the life of faith and for the mission of the Church. There is a real sense of taking the anticipation, delight and awe of Christmas and then it’s as if God saying to us ‘well don’t just stand there, do something!’
There is an inherent undercurrent of effervescent excitement to Epiphany, if I can put it that way! These readings all tell us of the energy that is released as the people of God grasp at the astounding thought that they are called by God, who then equips them for what is to come.
So Second Isaiah tells of the restoration of God’s people. Following the destruction of the Temple in 587 BC by the Babylonians and subsequent exile, the people of Judah are now encouraged to return to their home. God works through the good offices of Cyrus the Persian king who has overcome the Babylonians and who offers this restoration to God’s people. Among the many themes of the Isaiah reading for this Sunday we might focus on verses 1 and 2a where the collective calling of God’s people is reaffirmed through allusion to water; the Exodus at the waters of the Red Sea and perhaps the entry into the promised land through the waters of the Jordan. In all of this God’s chosen people belong to God – ‘you are mine’ – and even though they pass through waters, (often a sign of chaos and uncertainty in the Bible) they shall not be ‘overwhelmed’. All of this, to jump to the last verse, is because God has made us for himself and our destiny and creation is interwoven with our giving glory to God, in how we live a full human life.
In the reading from Acts it is worth recalling the animosity that existed between inhabitants of Judaea and those living in Samaria – that the Samaritans were not quite ‘proper’ somehow. Hence the radical story of the Good Samaritan that Jesus tells to show the boundary crossing nature of God’s love. Here Peter and John travel to Samaria where someone else has already told the people there of Jesus Christ and baptised them. If I can speculate a little here, it’s as if the Samaritans knew the name of Jesus, maybe having been told of the account of his life and actions, but had not yet received his spirit. Peter and John show them that in receiving Jesus Christ it is a matter of more than just knowledge or understanding, it’s about nothing less than life transformed! I realise that I say this from a twenty-first century viewpoint where the mission of the church is to call people to depth of understanding in faith rather than settling for a slightly objective understanding of Christ as simply one more consumer choice! Faith in Christ calls on the whole person, within the context of their community, to be transformed.
In Luke’s Gospel we hear the passage where John the Baptist rightly points us to Jesus to be the recipient of our expectations. In doing this John also exemplifies the self-emptying ministry of serving others that Jesus will reveal fully in his life and on the cross. This is the life that in God’s good time we are all called to emulate as followers of The Way, the way of Jesus Christ.
Traditional site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan: photo taken by Ben O’Neill on recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land by those participating in the diocesan CEMES programme.
I resonate very much with that question of John in the Gospels about who should be baptising whom on this occasion! I guess we all feel that it is Jesus himself who gives us his gifts of his spirit in order to live out the Christian life. But here Jesus is baptised by John. The gift we receive here is the understanding that God shows us what to do. That if Jesus himself is subject to this ritual showing that he is changed, and turned towards God, then that is the path for us to follow too. It is the essence of a suggestion that if we turn to Christ; if we repent of our sins; if we reject evil, then we too may hear those words whispered in our ear, in our minds, our soul – ‘you are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.’ How could we then not respond? Epiphany!