Updated: Jan 27
I hope everyone had a memorable Epiphany this past Wednesday.
I also hope it meant more to you than “time to take down the Christmas decorations!”
It should mean more because we have now entered into the church’s part of the calendar that is between the birth of Jesus and the time when he went into the wilderness for forty days – the period that we call Lent.
Epiphany means more than getting fat on king cake, before we decide what one sinful thing we will give up for the same number of days as Jesus sacrificed. We totally miss the point that the only one thing that matters is our sinful self. Give that up!
In that vein of thought, the central theme this week is baptism, where we all have to get clean before we can serve God. In that regard, there is a clear difference stated in the Epistle and Gospel readings, between baptism by water and baptism by the Holy Spirit.
One is physical.
The other is spiritual, with the spiritual baptism having much greater value.
One of the less clear aspects in the readings (which I feel are important to point out) is how physical baptism needs to be in holy water, not normal shower or tub tap water.
Another aspect worth realizing is that spiritual baptism needs to be done alone. There is nobody that can make us serve God.
In the first verse of Isaiah’s song, we are told, “this is what the Lord says — he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”
We miss the point, when we read of a creation by the LORD, which is then later formed by the LORD. That means we are born into physical bodies, but we must be shaped into righteousness.
Just as “Jacob” is a name that recalls the reality of “holding the heel” of a twin at birth, we are created to be “supplanted” (another meaning of “Jacob”) to take the place of (definition of “to supplant”) a higher destiny.
We are created to become one who is truly deserving of a birthright from God. That requires God’s redemption and a ceremonious renaming.
That means we must change to receive that birthright. That change comes via a willingness to receive the Holy Spirit. Still, that is easier said than done.
We must wrestle with an angel and become Israel, “formed, crafted, fashioned, and ordained” to become a body made by the LORD, which transforms into a temple where “God strives” … the meaning of “Israel.”
Epiphany is about that “sudden manifestation of the divine” within one, where that one experiences that which had never before been known to one. Epiphany is revelation, insight, and intuitive understanding. Epiphany is that point between having been born a mortal human being in this world and when one is forever changed into a faithful servant of the LORD
While not one of the readings today, I am reminded of the story from 2nd Kings, where Naaman is cured of his leprosy. He was healed because he followed Elisha’s instructions to bathe seven times in the Jordan River.
We read today from the Gospel of Luke how John baptized in the Jordan River; but we do not ordinarily see how John chose that water source because of its healing history … a history related to a Gentile’s skin lesions being cured in its waters.
To Jews, imperfections like leprosy were signs of sins, as God’s punishment for what one had done wrong. Visible marks were believed to be from the divine, pointing out the sinners.
Because the Jews of John’s and Jesus’s time were lost spiritually, they felt like they had an invisible leprosy covering them. Their lost way was like a mark of blindness, a lesion of vision that needed to be washed away in the holy waters of the Jordan. They believed it was best cured by a holy wild-man named John the Baptizer, who might be their Messiah or another Elisha-like prophet.
The Jews lined up on the shore waiting for their turn. The guilt of sin made them do it. The guilt of sin made them want to be clean.
We are no different today. As Christians we wear the guilt of sin. We confess our sins in church, faithfully, each and every Sunday. Therefore, we incorporate baptism into our lives, as part of our religious faith.
Baptism by water is a common ritual that connects all Christian denominations; although baptism rituals do differ. Episcopalians most often see baptism done to babies, where a priest pours blessed water from a baptismal font over the baby’s head.
Some denominations have robed pastors walking into industrially manufactured and installed baptismal pools, like a walk-in tub. There they dunk robed children and adults … I presume in water that has been blessed.
Some preachers, in some churches, still lead their congregations out to a nearby stream or river, where ceremonial robes are worn by the preacher and those who wade out into the water. Like John and the Jews, one gets dunked in the muddy waters of one’s home land. I imagine a prayer blesses those waters before such events.
Physical water in large rivers is holy water in many ways, as water is a necessity for mortal life – plant and animal. Remember, Naaman commented (after being told to bathe in the Jordan River), “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” (2 Kings 5:12)
I guess, as Forrest Gump’s momma might say, physical water can be summed as; “Holy water is as holy people do.”
John the Baptizer said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
We assume John was referring to Jesus; but then Jesus let John baptize him and he was still like all the other Jews who were baptized by John. It was afterwards, while Jesus was praying, that he was baptized with the Holy Spirit.
The symbolism of that is people pour physical water over people, in the physical realm. Someone does it to us; but ask yourself, “Where was Elisha when Naaman’s sin fell from his body?” Ask, “Where was the one who is more powerful” than John, who he said “will come after”? When the Holy Spirit descended from heaven upon Jesus, “in bodily form like a dove,”was it Jesus filling himself with the Holy Spirit?
No. God is the one more powerful who baptizes in the Holy Spirit and winnows the grain from the chaff. God is the one who brings fire and burns the sinners … not Jesus.
Jesus was just a holy man like John, until he became the Son of God, through the Holy Spirit remaining upon him, when God said, “You are my son; with you you I am well pleased.”
Elisha sent a messenger to meet Naaman, basically telling him, “You have to go and baptize yourself. Do it seven times.” There was no holy man present in the waters of the River Jordan when Naaman’s own acts washed away his sin.
Elisha touched Naaman via a message – the Word of instruction – to get him to act for his own good. Elisha was not about to let someone thing he (a man) was a cure-all that could be bought or manipulated. Jesus was a teacher, like Elisha … in that regard. Remember how God would tell Peter, James and John, atop Mount Hermon, “Listen to him!” Take notes boy, he is giving you important instructions.
Naaman went back to see Elisha after he was cured, telling him, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” (2 Kings 5:15b)
Doing things for yourself will let you know things like that.
Episcopalians say, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” But, ask yourself, “Since when do newborn babies have sin?”
That should be an epiphany for you, if you had not realized that yet. A Christening is not truly a baptism for sin, as much as it is anointing an infant as a promised disciple of Christ.
The one baptism for the forgiveness of sins cannot come from a spoonful of holy water, just as it cannot be given by the touch of a magic wand. When we read in Acts that Peter and John were going to help Peter and lay hands on those seeking the Holy Spirit, their hands passed on instructions … the Word.
John the Baptist baptized Jesus, along with all the others who went to the Jordan River that day; but what sins did Jesus have to be washed away? Why did he stand in line with the others?
As far as we know from the Biblical record, Jesus was like a baby being anointed by John, as a disciple of Christ … the coming Messiah.
It is actually more important to see how Jesus was praying after he had been ceremoniously anointed with all the others?
It was prayer that led to the heaven opening and the Holy Spirit descending upon him in bodily form like a dove.
When the famous Day of Pentecost came, after Jesus’s Ascension, it is written, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
In that scene, we do not quite see the same image as that of a dove gently forming to Jesus’s body. Still, both versions match how Isaiah wrote that God would form Israel upon one’s body.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you,” God said. “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Together, you and I, we will “Strive for God” … the meaning of “Israel.
Maybe the difference between “in bodily form like a dove” and “like a blowing of a violent wind” bringing “what seemed to be tongues of fire” is an indication of how much sin just got washed away by the Holy Spirit?
Jesus just a little sin? The disciples significantly more past mistakes wiped clean?
Jesus was practically sin-free; but still he prayed for forgiveness after ceremoniously being anointed as ready for God’s service. Thus, the Father said, “With you I am well pleased.”
“With you” means I have molded you to strive for God, so we can be one together.
This “with you” epiphany makes it possible to see how Jesus could die, be resurrected, and then go sit in heaven at the right hand of the Father, where he advocates for Christians, so the Father’s Holy Spirit can be “with you” too.
That is how the disciples, created in bodies, were formed into Saints. God was one “with them,” individually. So, the Book of Acts tells us the stories of how Jesus was duplicated in the first Apostles. The same stories apply to each of us.
Today we read a short excerpt from Acts chapter eight, where we see Peter and John of Zebedee going to Samaria to help Philip lay hands on newly baptized-with-water Christians. They went to lay their hands on those who likewise wanted to receive the Holy Spirit.
The laying on of hands is known to be one of the healing abilities of the Holy Spirit, as stated by Paul, of which this gift is given to some Apostles.
Reading how “Peter and John laid hands on them,” it reminded me of the movie The Resurrection, starring Ellen Burstyn (1980). She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in that movie, although few saw it in theaters then.
In my research of that movie, I came across a short interview that Ellen Burstyn gave, about she came to be in that movie. She said she was first contacted about reading for the lead role in a movie “about a woman dying and coming back as Jesus.”
After some major revisions to the original script, the movie changed to a powerfully inspiring movie. The film showed how a woman was crippled in a car accident, in which her husband was killed, and in which she too had died. She visited the “afterlife” (a “near death experience”), before returning as a paraplegic.
The character’s name is Edna, whose recovery had her moving back to live with her parents in rural Kansas; and in her slow progress to managed health, she found out she an ability to heal others. That was a talent she had never had before.
She could lay her hands on people with illnesses and heal them … well, about 70% of them. Not all people were healed by her touch.
Being able to lay hands upon people became a forced religious side-show, and her inability to heal everyone caused her to be seen, by some, as a fake. Those pressures caused her to run away from her talent; but eventually, she realized it was more important to use her talent discretely. She had an epiphany that her abilities came from one more powerful than she, for more powerful purposes than her “pay grade” was able to understand.
She began secretly touching the lives of others, so others would feel the power of God within themselves, giving them the courage to die forgiven, or have the strength to let God heal them for a higher goal to achieve.
It dawned on me that being washed of sin makes one so happy, one wants to go make others clean also. Unfortunately, the epiphany of cleansing does not make one yet ready to go out and “heal the world.”
After all, you do have to die first … in ego … and be reborn as Jesus.
Trying to become a traveling medicine show, as Jesus, without a personal Lent first only brings failures that cause one to run and hide. After being Christened with the light of Christ, too often we hide it under a barrel.
Time spent reflecting on what God has in His plans for us is where we need to see how Jesus was praying after John baptized him. It is the aging process, the gaining of experience that brings wisdom, where we know it is not about us being healed, but about having others receive the Holy Spirit through us.
In the Olympics they call that “passing the torch.” We are not the flame, but we bear it. Our touch allows another torch to be lit.
If having some person touch you is all it takes to stay filled with the Holy Spirit, then it is right to treat all Christians as babies. All anyone will ever need is to have someone lovingly hold them and gently pour warm water over their foreheads. It is just like bath time.
“Would you hand me one of my tub toys now … please?” we ask the priest, pastor, minister or preacher, after we are Christened or baptized with water.
If the Samaritan converts to Christianity were so many that Philip needed help filling them with the Holy Spirit, then why didn’t John the Baptizer just quit and say, “This is impossible. I’ve got no one else to help me here.”
Peter and James went to lay hands on people so the Holy Spirit would prove to them how important it is for themselves to desire it and for themselves to do everything possible to keep it after they get it.
Philip, Peter and John of Zebedee were not more powerful than John the Baptist and they were not more powerful than Jesus. They were torches needing to be lit. They were created with physical names, but they were formed as purposeful … by God’s fire.
The Apostles of Acts 8 went to do like Edna (the character in The Resurrection) did, after she realized the Holy Spirit does not come upon people to make them circus performers. It comes upon them so they can privately touch people with their hands AND open them up to receiving the Spirit. Then, one can only leave it up to the one who is truly more powerful than all – God – to take it from there.
The Holy Spirit is freely given, but only by God. To receive that gift you must earn it. Then, it is wholly up to you to maintain it, by passing it on.
When you have been touched by one who is evidence that God does reside with His faithful, then you can be with God too. Once the Holy Spirit is strongly in control of one’s being … then the real work begins.
Then, you have to share its presence; and you cannot do that by sitting on your hands.
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