January 12, 2020, The First Sunday After the Epiphany

The First Sunday After the Epiphany
January 12, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

From the Prophet Isaiah, “The former things have come to pass and new things I now declare.”

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Most folks who have lived in urban environments will tell you there is a distinct difference between doves and pigeons. Mention a “dove” – especially to people who live in beautiful settings like Valle Crucis – and most will likely smile and think of that often rare to find, beautiful white bird that wafts through air with a gentle, almost pastoral, sound to its cooing voice. Now, mention a pigeon and most of us – especially those who have lived in a city – will think of something smelly and dirty; something all-too common, perhaps even a blight; something to be avoided.

     I thought of those differences when studying today’s gospel lesson. Matthew paints a vivid picture of what happened when Jesus rose from the waters of baptism and, Matthew says, “the Spirit of God descending like a dove” alighted on him. Oh, what a beautiful image. But imagine for a moment what we would think if that descending bird was described as an everyday common pigeon. Would we see it as the Spirit of God at work or dismiss it as something troublesome, something to avoid?

The fact is that in both Hebrew and Aramaic the word for dove and pigeon is the same (yoh-nah)! And I find that remarkable. See, we tend to think of the moving and living Spirit of God to be as rare in our lives as a beautiful, pure white dove. But visualizing it as a plain ordinary pigeon suggests that the Spirit of God is as natural and as vividly common and prevalent in our everyday lives as everything and everyone else. And that is one of the many wonders affirmed in this Season of the Epiphany.

     See, the Epiphany – the revelation that Jesus is the Light of the World - reminds us that God is always at work, always doing new things, always doing the unexpected, forever transforming, changing, shaping, and nudging our very souls. This goes to the heart of what it means to be people of a living faith that is at the heart of our scripture lessons today and over these next several weeks: these stories of Jesus’ Baptism, his childhood presentation in the Temple, his changing water into wine at Cana and more. And yet, for most of us raised in the Church, there is a tendency to think of these stories as simply a history lesson, a plain old pigeon as it were, that our faith is so rooted in past events that God can’t and won’t do something new. But we live in the present. Yes, we celebrate the past and revel in the saving works of God and yet, we must never forget that same God is still doing the unexpected. God is just as visibly active and present in this world today as God has always been present and active in this world. It’s all a matter of our choosing to look for, to see, God at work, and then respond.

That is what we call a living faith. It is more than remembering, “Oh, this is what God did a long time ago.” It is anticipating that God might do something new even in our own time. All that God did in the past – those scripture lessons heard week after week – direct us to look for what God is doing today and might do tomorrow. Our faith didn’t just happen: It continues to happen. We continue to grow, to be nurtured by an active Spirit of God, to be transformed into true and faithful people of God. Otherwise faith becomes a relic, something remembered but, in truth, makes noreal difference in us, or in the world.

     One of the most amazing stories in the New Testament is the story of the Epiphany - the arrival of the Magi. Matthew tells us that three wise men - three Gentile kings - from foreign lands followed the path of a bright star in the sky convinced that some incredible work of God was about to unfold. They arrived at Jerusalem, told King Herod all that they had seen and heard, and then asked, “Where is he that is to be born King of the Jews.” Now, like most people confronted with theological questions, Herod turned to the religious for an answer. And they responded that according to the prophets, the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, the King of the Jews would be born at Bethlehem. But have you noticed in this story that none of these religious men accompanied the Magi to Bethlehem? I think that speaks volumes about what happens when people of faith see pigeons and not doves, when we only look to the past and ignore the reality that God is always at work in this world. Perhaps their response had something to do with the fact that the men were Gentiles – pigeons in their eyes. “God would never do something amazing for Gentiles. We’re the doves, the chosen people, not them.” And Herod and the religious missed out on meeting the Christ face to face – the very Messiah they had begged for, and prayed for.

     In today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptizer has called the nation of Israel to repentance. He takes the people out to the River Jordan – the same place where 1,500 years earlier their ancestors finished their Exodus and crossed into the Promised Land. But John hasn’t brought them here to conduct a history lesson. No. That was then: today is now. John declares that God is doing something new in their lives, in this moment. The Christ has come. And it is here that John baptizes Jesus not because Jesus needed to repent, but rather, as Jesus says, “to fulfill all righteousness,” in other words, to perform the will of God. And it is in these same waters of baptism that we continue to be set free from sin, welcomed into new lives, find salvation, and embrace a new relationship with God and with each other in Christ.

    Peter, in this morning’s reading from Acts, proclaims, “God shows no partiality,” but rather, “in every nation anyonewho fears (God) and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter declares that in Christ Jesus, everything has changed. God has done something new and unexpected: One’s Salvation is not based upon their nationality, but upon one’s faith alone. Therefore, in response to this new work of God, Peter says that we, too, must treat every person we meet with the same impartiality as God does with us, and see others as just as worthy of God’s grace, mercy, love and forgiveness as we see our own selves. The former things have come to pass, and new things God now declares. God has done the incredible. The message of the Epiphany is that God will always do what we least expect; show up in the oddest of places; appear in a stranger, and be present to someone in need. If we embrace a faith that only looks to the past, we risk missing out on the transforming presence of God in this moment in time: we risk ignoring pigeons that, in reality, are doves.

     Years ago standing at the corner of 43rd Street and 5th Avenue in New York City and gazing upwards at some amazing architecture, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a poorly dressed man shuffling along. And I thought, “Oh, oh, here comes a Pigeon – a panhandler” and I prepared to be hit up for some cash. The man stopped, stood to my side and joined me in my gaze upwards – and I must admit his presence made me nervous. Then he asked, “What are the chances that you and me, a white man and black man, would be standing here on this street corner gazing upwards?” Then he added, “May you always be looking upward this year … and may God bless you” and he walked away. I was stunned. What I thought was a pigeon was a dove, the Spirit of God that spoke with a softness that cut through my defenses in order to quietly and gently nourish my soul. 

     Isaiah says that when the Spirit of the Lord is present within us, upholding the dignity of every human being becomes a priority. We choose not to break the bruised reed or snuff out the dimly burning wicks of society – no, not anymore. Isaiah understood and proclaimed that where the Spirit of God is recognized and welcomed, God’s people change and embrace their covenant promise to be a light to the nations, to demonstrate a better way of living, to share with others the grace, mercy, love and forgiveness of God, to be reconcilers and peacemakers, to set captives free and proclaim God’s good news. In other words, we begin to live more fully into our Baptismal Covenant Promises that we, with Eleonore Rose McGuire this morning, will stand and renew and, in so doing, affirm how the Spirit of God continues to change us all in unexpected ways. The difficulty is to recognize that whether the Spirit of God comes as pigeons or as doves it always transforms the heart if we choose to see it and welcome it. Such is the essence of embracing a living faith; a living faith made real to us in baptism; a living faith that continues to change us and the world every day; a living faith made possible by a living, transforming, active Spirit of God.

    May God help this living faith continue to transform us this year, to touch the lives of all we meet, to see doves and pigeons as one and the same, to see God’s Spirit at work doing the incredible, the unexpected even in sinners like me and you. Beloved, we can, and, in the words or our Baptismal Covenant, we will, with God’s help. Amen.