The baptism of Christ. Etching by William Blake. Public domain.
Easter in 2016 falls on March 27. That sets the date of Ash Wednesday to February 10. And that in turn means that when you take out the “special purpose Sundays” of Baptism of the Lord (January 10) and Transfiguration (February 7), there are only three “Ordinary” Sundays in the Season after Epiphany this year.
That’s not a lot of time to make a coherent series. And with the “series” being bookended by individual “special days,” this “Ordinary Time” might easily feel like one disconnected week after another until you stumble into Lent.
Let me suggest and urge that it doesn’t have to be so! True, there is no longer a “Season of Epiphany” with some sort of unifying if esoteric theme of “the light of Christ.” That way of reckoning these weeks until Lent disappeared along with most denomination-specific one-year lectionaries over 40 years ago. But there remains an inner logic to this season, found in the texts themselves, especially the gospel readings, starting with Baptism of the Lord and continuing through Transfiguration.
That inner logic is a focus on the beginnings of the ministry of Jesus. And the purpose of that focus is to help the church get ready for the more intensive work of “spiritual midwifery” with candidates for baptism, confirmation, reaffirmation, or reconciliation and their sponsors during the 40 days of Lent.
So we might say the point of these five weeks (counting the “bookends” of Baptism of the Lord and Transfiguration) is to help the church “get ready to get ready.”
The gospel readings during these weeks give us a foretaste of the life of disciples of Jesus and an overview of the sweep of Christian life from baptism to entire sanctification. In attending to the sweep of this life in these weeks, the church is reminded of the kinds of things it needs to prepare to do and be so it can best walk the Lenten journey with those seeking discipleship to Jesus for the first time, those seeking to sponsor the baptism of people not speaking for themselves, those seeking a deeper faithfulness to Christ, or those returning to the Way after a breach or long absence.
Week 1: “First Step: Baptized with Holy Spirit and Fire”
Baptism of the Lord, January 10, 2015
If this doesn’t kickstart the need to “get ready to get ready,” I’m not quite sure what will! What is most important in this gospel reading is not, as self-esteem obsessed Americans might tend to imagine, the voice from heaven saying to the baptized Jesus, “You are my beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” What’s most important is what is most often-repeated in these verses: the work of the Holy Spirit.
Baptism isn’t just being put into some water. It is nothing less than becoming possessed by the Holy Spirit. Water is cleansing. The Holy Spirit purifies. Water sustains life. The Holy Spirit breathes life. Water surrounds us before birth. The Holy Spirit drives us from watery places into the desert.
John baptized with water. Jesus receives the water and the Spirit. Today, we, the body of Christ, baptize with water and the Spirit.
This is the day to remind the church and all those who will use the Lenten season to prepare for baptism, reaffirmation, or reconciliation that what we’ll be preparing people for is nothing less than lives directed and driven by the Holy Spirit.
Yes, God loves us and is pleased with us. Yes, in baptism, we are adopted as God’s children. But how God loves us and how God treats God’s children is precisely and no less than with Holy Spirit and fire.
What is in place, and what needs to be put into place, so those preparing intensively during Lent are more likely to know and feel at their baptism or reaffirmation at Easter that indeed they are possessed by the Holy Spirit?
Week 2: “First Sign: Water to Wine”
Second Sunday After the Epiphany (January 17, 2016)
Last week, we saw the first step of Jesus into public ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This week, we see the “first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, revealing his glory” (John 2:11).
The story may be familiar, even to relative newcomers to the church. At a wedding feast, where wine was about to run out, Jesus turned water in purification jars for the wedding feast into the best wine that anyone had seen yet. His glory was shown. But only the servants and the disciples actually knew what had happened. And his disciples “believed into him.”
Three points about this.
First, signs and wonders are part of what happens around Christians, just as they happened around Jesus. A related question is, “Will we have eyes to see them?” or “Will we know them when they happen right in front of us?” Good news: Even at the very beginning of their relationship to Jesus as disciples to their master, the disciples of Jesus could see this and know something of the magnitude of its meaning, even though many others who benefitted from it did not.
Second, the sign itself was turning water for ritual purification into great-tasting wine for the life of the party. This was a transformation from something that warded off a spiritual threat into something that filled everyone with life and joy. Jesus and his body, the church, are all about repurposing threat into abundant life.
Third, when the disciples saw this, “they believed into him.” We don’t have this phrase, “believe into” in English. But it most literally translates the Greek prepositional construction, “eis” (for, toward, into) plus a noun in the accusative (direct object) case. If we were to translate this more fully, the sense of it would be, “They put their whole trust in him,” or, perhaps more colloquially, but even more accurately, “They were ready to stake their lives on him.” The intended effect of the sign wasn’t to dazzle anyone, but to generate this kind of “all in” trust in his disciples.
Keeping with the series theme, what is in place, and what needs to be put into place, to remind your congregation that “signs and wonders” are a normal part of life in Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit?
What is in place, and what needs to be put into place, to help new disciples, disciples wanting to go deeper, or disciples who have wandered away to be part of Jesus’ ongoing work of turning water to wine, threat to joy, in the world around you?
What is in place, and what needs to be in place, so that those who will undergo more intensive preparation during Lent and are beginning to see such signs and wonders may be more likely to put their whole trust in Jesus?
Week 3: “First Words at Home, Part 1: Great News!”
Third Sunday After the Epiphany (January 24, 2016)
Jesus is at the synagogue in his hometown for the first time since his public ministry began. His townspeople have heard about the signs and wonders that surround him. They’re ready to hear from him in their own synagogue, where he had grown up. He asks for the scroll of Isaiah to be brought to him, opens it, and reads.
These are words of great hope and promise for amazing things God would do. And he concludes the reading of them in an even more promising way: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
What was being fulfilled? The poor were getting good news. Captives were being set free. The blind were getting their sight back. The oppression of the oppressed was ended. And the year of the Lord’s favor (Jubilee) was being proclaimed.
All of this is happening, right now, Jesus said. God is up to all of this, right now.
Being a disciple of Jesus means being part of this amazing great news, too. Preparing to be his disciple, deepening discipleship, or returning to his way means being part of all this.
So… what is in place now to help you help others get ready to live as bearers and participants in all of this great news where you are? And what else do you need to do to “get ready to get ready?”
Week 4: “First Words at Home, Part II: Great News… For THEM?”
Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany (January 31, 2016)
And now we hear the rest of the story.
Indeed, the great news Jesus read from the prophet was being fulfilled in the people’s hearing. In fact, to some degree, it had been happening in small ways up to then. But now, Jesus said, it would all flow at once. What was coming was an outpouring of fulfillment of this prophesy.
And then he let them know they might not like what that meant.
He gave examples of what the fulfillment would look like, based on what it has looked like in the past. There was the Lebanese widow kept alive by an Israeli prophet. There was the Syrian army commander cured through the word of another Israeli prophet. Both of these happened at times when Israeli widows were starving and Israeli lepers were left uncured and unclean.
The good news wasn’t necessarily or only for “us.” It was for “THEM!” And worse, “THEY” were actually enemies -- and had been for centuries.
And so the trouble began.
And so the need to get ready to get ready is clear.
What is in place for you to walk beside people preparing for baptism, reaffirmation, or reconciliation so they are encouraged to live “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:14) like our Master, Jesus, engaging in being part of this good news even, and especially, when it ends up being good news for people the surrounding culture consider enemies or anathema?
And what will you need to add?
Week 5: First Glance of Final Glory: Transfiguration
Transfiguration of the Lord (March 7, 2016)
Words fail to describe what happened to Jesus on an unnamed mountain, when he took Peter, James, and John away for a time of prayer. Luke can only say, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Then Moses and Elijah showed up. All that Peter, the only one who can say anything, can come up with is “Let’s build some shrines here to mark what’s just happened!” Just then, everyone was struck mute again as a cloud overshadowed the whole scene.
Paul talks about the implications of this in terms of our reaching the point in our relationship with God where it is like the veil on the face of Moses is no longer needed. We can see God face to face. The reading from Exodus this morning tells the original story Paul alludes to.
And perhaps John had something to say about this some years later, when he wrote, “My beloved, we are now the children of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be. But this we know. We shall be like Jesus, because we will see him as he is” (I John 3:2).
Transfiguration happened to Jesus in the flesh. And whatever it is, this is a promise for all who follow him as well. Clearly, even the closest of Jesus’ disciples were completely unprepared to see what they saw. They had no coherent words. It blew their minds. Such transfiguring power will blow our minds as well.
How do we get ready to help others get ready to have their minds blown by the transformations they’ll see God do in their lives and the lives of others?
But this story doesn’t end with disciples in a dither. It ends the same way as the “bookend” that began these five weeks. A voice from the cloud speaks. Again it says, as at the baptism, “This is my Son, my Chosen One.” This time the voice adds, “Listen to him!”
Listen to him.
And Jesus said… nothing. Luke tells us he was simply there, silent, alone. And so the disciples remained silent for a time, too.
Listen to him? When he is silent? What can this mean?
Perhaps the opening line of today’s reading may pass by unnoticed. But as many “bookends” are, it actually helps to frame this whole story. “Now about eight days after these sayings…” (Luke 9:28). What sayings? Go back a few verses. Jesus foretells his death by crucifixion and his resurrection. Then he lays out the requirements to remain his disciples. Deny yourselves. Take up the cross daily. And keep following him.
Follow him, no matter what. Follow him, right into death itself. Follow him, and even in death, live.
Listen to him!
To walk into the waters of baptism is to walk to our deaths—death to self, death to sin, death to this life we think we have as we think we have it. And then, and only then, to be raised to walk in newness of life, eternal life, resurrection life, life in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Ash Wednesday is this coming Wednesday. You have three more days to get ready—to help those seeking discipleship, or deeper discipleship, or renewal of discipleship—to listen to him, too.
What is ready? What do you still need to get ready to get ready?
So get ready… and then let’s go!