John the Baptist has been our constant companion on the journey through
Advent and into Epiphany. First, it was his task to make ready the way
of the Lord. Next, it was his privilege to baptize Jesus in the river
Jordan. Now, it is his purpose to bear witness to Jesus’ identity,
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Some of my favorite words from the United Methodist Church’s liturgy
for Holy Baptism are the first ones spoken: “Brothers and sisters in
Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s
holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation
and given new birth through water and the Spirit.
For a preacher, the challenge of Epiphany is that it comes every year.
The story unfolds as it always does: King Herod, the wise men from the
East, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. By now, the pageant is
overplayed. The star of wonder has lost its awe. How, in this
over-handled text, can anything new break through?
Time is being stretched in the gospel narrative. With several
allusions to the wise men, we look forward to next Sunday’s celebration
of Epiphany. With the several allusions to the Exodus we also look back
to the Israelites held in bondage in Egypt. With the future, the
present and the past seemingly all at hand, how do we draw out for our
congregations a message from the manger?
The build-up to Christmas bombards our senses—the constant blinking
of Christmas lights, the pervasive wafting of pine-scented potpourri,
the drone of “sleigh-bells ringing.” No wonder we lose sight of what
we’re really looking for in Advent, the signs of the one who is to come.
We don’t ordinarily associate fear with Christmas, and yet throughout
the accounts of the Incarnation, everyone is afraid. Zechariah, Mary,
Joseph, the shepherds, even King Herod is terrified upon hearing the
news that a child will be born in Bethlehem. What’s so scary about a
babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger?
Everything, if you are Joseph.
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