John Hougen, Elkins Park PA

 Warm-up Question

At the moment, questioning what is true and what is false, what is real news and what is fake news, dominates political and moral analysis in the United States. Let’s turn these questions inward and ask: what is the truth about who I am and who God is? For the warm-up, discuss this question: What do you believe is true in the Bible stories of Jesus’ birth; what do you doubt; and what do you not believe?

The Truth, the whole Truth … 

January 6 was the Christian holy day Epiphany, which literally means a revealing, an unveiling, a manifestation. Epiphany (aka Three Kings Day) commemorates the visit of the Wise Men (aka Magi) to the infant Jesus (aka the Messiah). God revealed His Son to the Magi. A truth was unveiled as they knelt before the manifestation of God’s Self on earth.

The Day of Epiphany is the beginning of the season of Epiphany, a season of discovery during which we are invited to open ourselves to revelations about Jesus and revelations about ourselves. Maybe we won’t get to the whole truth; but, during Epiphany, our goal can be to get as close to the whole truth as possible.

Having a confidant can help you discover more of the truth about yourself and your beliefs. A confidant is someone to whom you can reveal the truth as you know it. If you don’t have a confidant, I hope you find that someone or that group sooner rather than later. You will know you’ve found trusted confidants when you are sure they will affirm the best about you and not reject you or judge you harshly for the worst. And, trusted confidants only reveal to others what you want them to reveal. Your secrets are safe with them.

As our confidants respond to what we tell them, we discover new truths about ourselves. Their responses help us uncover what is below the surface in our self-understanding. As we dialogue with sensitive others, we also come to know them more completely. The way they respond to us tells us important truths about who they are.

God is the ideal confidant. God listens when we pray, when we think, when we question. God knows us fully, seeing more deeply than we do into who we are and who we might become. God not only knows us fully, God loves us completely: forgiving our sins, lifting us up when we fall, and calling us to become a better version of ourselves. As God’s love becomes real for us, we discover more of the truth about God. Our dialogue with God reveals what is holy in God and in us: caring is holy; forgiveness is holy; truth is holy; love is holy.

Discussion Questions

  • Without revealing any secrets, if you have a confidant, share with the group what it is about your confidant that enables you to trust her or him with the whole truth about who you are.
  • Is God one of your confidants? Do you reveal yourself in prayer either in church or privately? If so, which of God’s qualities are most real to you? Is the God to whom you pray loving? kind? merciful? understanding? all-knowing? all-powerful? judgmental? distant? close? mysterious? something else?
  • If you don’t pray, what thoughts or feelings lead you to choose not praying over praying?

Baptism of our Lord/First Sunday after Epiphany

Genesis 1:1-5

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Today’s Gospel reading is about two kinds of baptism: baptism with water and baptism with the Spirit. John the Baptist proclaims that he baptizes with water, but the one coming after him (Jesus) will baptize with the Spirit. In the Lutheran tradition and many others, the two become one. God sends the Holy Spirit into the water as the promises, prayers and pronouncements of the sacrament are spoken. Spirit, Word, and Water mingle as the baptizer speaks: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” In this moment, the one baptized is blessed with water and the Spirit, and promised that the Spirit will remain with her or him forever.

Three truths are revealed in Mark 1: 4-11. Three epiphanies related to baptism are unveiled, challenging us to ask: are they as true for us as they were for those who were with John the Baptist by the River Jordan?

First, in verses four and five, we are challenged to decide whether we are like the “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” They made the trip from the safety of their homes into the dangerous wilderness to see and hear John the Baptist. Why? Because John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John’s baptism accomplished the cleansing the people longed for. People confessed and repented.  (To repent means to be turned around to face a new future.) With water and the Word, using John the Baptist, God forgave them and gave them a new direction for their lives.

We are challenged to ask whether it is the truth that inside us is a longing to come clean, to confess the whole truth about ourselves, and to be forgiven for the parts of that truth that are unholy. Is it true that inside each of us is a longing to be fully known and fully loved, and given a fresh start, a clean slate?

A second epiphany awaits us in verses nine through eleven. These verses report that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan.  “And just as (Jesus) 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.’”

We are challenged to ask whether we accept as truth that Jesus is Divine, full of God’s love, and the exemplar of how to please God. The Gospels confirm these assertions as true as they go on to describe Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. At the same time, we are challenged to accept or reject the notion that we too want to please God, that Jesus is the personification of our deepest hopes for ourselves.

A third epiphany is ours if we understand that our baptisms reveal who we are as surely as Jesus’ baptism revealed who he was. As we come up out of the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on us and God speaks, “As brothers and sisters of my Son Jesus, you too are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We are challenged to ask whether we accept the improbable Gospel truth that God regards us as God regards Jesus: worthy of love, worthy of intimacy, and worthy of resurrection to an eternal intimacy with the Divine.

Mark 1: 4-11 proclaims that it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that the journey of the Christian during the season of Epiphany, (and throughout life) is marked by epiphanies of who we are:

  • people who long for confession, repentance, and forgiveness,
  • people invited to accept God’s love for us as his children
  • and people who want to be more like Jesus;

and revelations of who God is:

  • a God of infinite mercy,
  • a God who loves us as much as God loves Jesus,
  • a God whose Spirit empowers us to be like Jesus.

Discussion Questions

  • At this time in your life, do you receive the three epiphanies identified in the Gospel reflection as true, maybe true, or false? They are
    • You long for forgiveness, a clean slate.
    • Jesus is God’s beloved Son, and you wish you were more like him.
    • God loves you as much as God loves Jesus.
  • The baptisms performed by John the Baptist in the River Jordan were very dramatic. In order to be baptized, people overcame their fear of the wilderness and their shame which kept them from speaking of their sins. They were desperate to receive a baptism of forgiveness. When Jesus was baptized, the drama unfolded publicly as the Spirit of God became visible and God’s voice became audible. You can’t get more dramatic than that! How do the urgency and drama of these baptisms compare to the baptisms in your congregation? If you answer that they are similar, what makes the urgency and drama of baptism in your congregation obvious to witnesses? If you answer today’s baptisms have less urgency and drama, how might the life-changing revelations of baptism be made more obvious to those who witness them?
  • The Bible teaches us that Jesus was without sin. (see e.g. Hebrews 4:15). If that is so, and John baptized people so their sins might be forgiven, and their lives turned around, why do you think Jesus wanted to be baptized by John?

Activity Suggestions

Look at the section on baptism in the hymnal your congregation uses. Copy the words that help you understand why water is used in baptism. Then, copy the words that help you understand what it means to be “baptized with the Spirit.”

Closing Prayer

Lord: help us to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.

(From the 1971 Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak musical Godspell – based on a prayer ascribed to the 13th-century English bishop Saint Richard of Chichester)