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Sermon: Epiphanies


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11

Yesterday was Epiphany – the last day of Christmas. If you have not done so already, you may now throw out the Christmas tree, but hopefully you left it up through Epiphany. Epiphany occurs on January 6th, the 12th day of Christmas, and the baptism of Jesus is celebrated on the Sunday thereafter. In the Eastern Church, Epiphany emphasizes Jesus’ baptism; in the Western Church we emphasize the visit of the Magi. In that epiphany means “manifestation,” “revelation,” or “appearance,” both events qualify. Other instances of epiphany include the miracle of turning water into wine. In the early history of the Church, before Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th, both Jesus’ birth and baptism were celebrated on Epiphany.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we read from Isaiah 64, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence (Vss. 1-2; NRSV)! In today’s reading from Mark, the account of Jesus’s baptism, we read: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1.9-11; NRSV).

Our readings are connected by their shared references to water and the Spirit. In Genesis 1.1, we read, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (NRSV). Other versions read, “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” In Psalm 29.3 we read, “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters” (NRSV). In Mark we read of John the Baptist’s saying, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1.8; NRSV). And in Acts 19, Paul asks some early Christians in Ephesus if they had received the Holy Spirit. They reply that they have never heard of the Holy Spirit—they were baptized into John’s baptism. Paul baptized them “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and when Paul laid “hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them” (Vs. 6; NRSV).

In our baptismal service we acknowledge water and Spirit in the prayer of Thanksgiving Over the Water: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit… Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior” (BCP, pp. 306-7).

It is the power of the Holy Spirit which brings new life; through the Spirit we become the children of God, and in so doing, we, too, are recognized as God’s beloved. It is the power of the Spirit which enables us to live in the risen life of Jesus Christ. Ideally, our baptism is an epiphany—it should lead us into a life that is filled with further moments of epiphany.

What is it like to have an epiphany—to see with new eyes and understanding?

One of my favorite short stories, Pigeon Feathers, by John Updike provides a wonderful example of epiphany. The main character is David Kern, a fourteen-year-old boy. In the first sentence of the story, Updike masterfully sets the mood: “When they moved to Firetown, things were upset, displaced, rearranged.”

Throughout the story, David Kern wrestles with the question of immortality. In a confirmation class, he asks Rev. Dobson about immortality. Dobson tells him it is much like the goodness Abraham Lincoln did living after him. David feels betrayed. He longs for the assurance that God grants us everlasting life; he wants to know more about the life to come.

Near the end of the story, David is given the task of shooting some pigeons which inhabit the barn and are making a mess of a tarpaulin which cover some furniture. As he sets about the task, David comes to see himself in the role of God, as one having power over life and death. After killing several pigeons, he is told to bury them. This is Updike’s closing paragraph:

He dug the hole in a spot where there were no strawberry plants, before he studied the pigeons. He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole creation by refusing to let David live forever (John Updike, Pigeon Feathers).

What masterful imagery and writing. The tension introduced at the beginning of the story is resolved.

David’s epiphany does not arise solely from reason; it is grounded in, it arises from his whole being. It has physical, rational, psychological and spiritual elements: “and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty.” There is a mystical air to this revelation. Some of my philosopher friends might argue that Updike’s story depicts the classical argument from design for the existence of God. Granted, these rational/logical elements are present, but the story goes far beyond those elements. It covers all dimensions of David’s experience.

How does God make God’s presence known to us? I can’t help but wonder—do epiphanies related to our faith always have this experiential dimension? In the Road to Emmaus story, a post-resurrection story, we are told a “stranger” overhears two disciples conversing about recent events in Jerusalem. The “stranger” joins them, and ultimately says, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory” (Luke 24.25-26; NRSV)? Thereafter the “stranger” began to interpret the scriptures. When they came to Emmaus, the disciples convinced the “stranger” to stay with them. At the table, the “stranger” “took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.” The account reads, “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us’” (Luke 24.30-32; NRSV)? Again, we see this was more than reason at work—the experience was grounded in their whole being.

We may sometimes question the existence of God. Such epiphanies give us the assurance that God is real, for we experience God’s grace with our whole being rather than solely with the mind. When we share our epiphanies with other Christians, we are likely to hear their epiphanies. In these stories we move beyond the domain of proof, for heart speaks to heart, Spirit speaks to Spirit. Share your stories of epiphany, and experience anew the power of the Spirit.


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