I remember a visitation I made a couple of years ago to another parish in the diocese where as part of my visit I was asked to bless a brand new parking lot. Ah, the glamorous life of a bishop! As part of our prayer we invited the young people (or the young at heart) to help bless the new lot with holy water. There were several large buckets of water for this purpose, evergreen branches and – wait for it – water canons for the kids to use in the blessing (truly, this could have been something I’d have expected to find here at All Saints!) And so, I prayed, blessed the water, and to the sound of our singing, we set off in all directions to douse the asphalt for Christ. Exuberance took over and by the end of the procession … well, let’s just say there is such a thing as a holy water fight. Not just the parking lot was blessed – I got soaked.
Water is a central sign for Christians. It is the source and sustainer of life, and the great sign of our new life in Christ. Water can also wreak havoc. Out in the corn-growing parts of our diocese I heard a farmer say that drought can hurt you, but flooding’ll kill ya. If there’s too much water, farmers can’t even get into the fields. In this climate changing world of ours, life-threatening floods take center stage. Warming oceans contribute to all kinds of new dangers. When I lived in Seattle it was all too clear that torrential rains and mudslides could threaten whole communities. In South Sudan I have seen crops withering beside the Nile for lack of the basic means of getting water from the river to the fields. Water is both an agent of destruction and a sign of hope.
Tonight we stand in the light of the great Feast of the Epiphany, a day with more ancient and venerable roots than Christmas itself. This is the original liturgical celebration of the coming of Christ among us. Sure, the stars of the show are those Magi, wise ones from the East (quite possibly from Persia, present day Iran if you please). But the Magi and their ominous gifts are only one part of the way Christians have kept Epiphany. The word epiphany means revelation, uncovering, manifestation. This season of Epiphany has been a time to celebrate the revealing of the meaning of Christ. The magi saw the star and came with their strange gifts to signify the mystery of just who this unlikely baby really was. Tonight and this coming Sunday we remember particularly the baptism of Jesus, when he came up out of the water and the voice declared him to be the one in whom God is well pleased. The Epiphany season has been a time when Christians remembered the wedding at Cana too, when the wedding feast itself was a revelation of just who this was sitting at table, eating and drinking. And from early, early times, this was one of the church’s privileged seasons to make new Christians, days to celebrate the baptismal washing and anointing and feeding of new-born brothers and sisters in Christ. Days to celebrate the presence of the dying and rising Jesus in them, right in front of us.
The revealing of Jesus is what all this is for. The revelation of the one who came to be God-with-us is the whole point of the church and its life. It is the only excuse for us. And that revealing is as troubling to the world (and perhaps to us) as it was to Jerusalem, to Herod its psychotic king and its gossip-filled streets. The presence of Jesus Christ is always troubling to those who wield the world’s power to coerce and threaten and judge and exclude. I get very nervous when Jesus is turned into a comforting blessing of any political status quo. There is simply no reconciling the unquestioned support of certain Christian evangelicals for the actions and policies of the current administration — no reconciling all that with the God of the Bible.
I like these Epiphany days and their images. I like ‘em much more than Christmas. I like them because they are more truthful than Christmas has become. The Sugar Plum Fairy has flown the coop and the sentimentality largely has been packed away for another year with the ornaments. And in their place stands our font. The water. And that water is a sign full of ambiguity. Our Hebrew foreparents lived and moved and came into being as a people in and near the water. At the Sea of Reeds and on the shores of the Mediterranean. But they never became great seafarers. The sea is a place of strangeness. There are monsters there according to the psalms. It is a symbol of life – the people of Israel were brought through the parted waves to safety on the other side – but also of death – Noah and his family were the only ones saved from the flood, Pharaoh and his chariots did not escape. It was over the watery chaos of non-being that the Spirit first hovered and brought all things to birth.
It is not accidental that to be grafted on to the story of God’s people, to become a member of the Body of Christ, to be a Christian means passing through water. It is both agent of destruction and sign of hope. If we are to be united with Christ, truly one with and in him, then we should not be surprised to encounter what he did. The trouble, the heartache, the terrors and tidal waves of this life did not spare him. And that is good news. It is good news beyond imaging because Jesus has entered this world. This world, not some slicked up, romanticized religious fantasy one. Nope. This one with its dangers and terrors and out of control kings and all the rest. And what is revealed in Jesus Christ is not a solution, or a formula, or an explanation for understanding the pain and horror of this world. What is revealed is simply and stunningly what Jesus always reveals – the power of God made plain in us. A favorite author of mine says this: “The Word became flesh … and we’ve been trying to turn that flesh back into words ever since.” Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, your flesh and mine. At every baptism the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends and there is a voice declaring the incomprehensible truth, “This is my cherished daughter, my muchloved son and I am well pleased.”
You and I are members of the dying and rising Body of Christ. And as we renew the solemn vows of our Baptisms tonight, we promise to make real in our lives what God has already declared to be true. Step by step, day by day, we promise to become God’s Word made flesh. We have died in the water of the font and been reborn to another kind of life, a way of living for others, even at the cost of our own safety and comfort. We hold out our hands to receive what we have become: broken bread, wine poured out , the Body and Blood of Christ… food for this hungry fearful world.