by Rev. Dr. Matthew M. Williams, Senior Pastor
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”1
The Christian year began anew for us at the beginning of Advent. Now, as we are journeying together into the year of 2023, we are entering into the Season of Epiphany, and we are continuing the cycle of the Christian calendar. James F. White states, “The Christian year is a means by which we relive for ourselves all that matters of salvation history. When we recall the past events of salvation, they come alive in their present power to save. Our acts of remembrance bring the original events back to us with all their meaning.”2 Indeed, as we embark through the gate of the New Year, we will encounter both joy and sorrow combined. By reflecting on the scriptures yet again in Christian worship, in small group discipleship, and in missional service, we will find God meeting us by grace.
Epiphaneia, or Epiphany, is defined as “manifestation” and “reveal.” The word can be traced back to ancient Greece, where it was believed that visions of gods were reported to those in authoritative roles, especially during battles or when facing adversity. As language evolved and as the church was born, Epiphany came into the common dialect of early faith communities. Throughout the centuries, the Season of Epiphany was birthed. During this season, the appointed Gospels that we will read aloud in Sunday services stress the various ways in which Jesus the Christ has made God known to us through miracles, signs, and wonders.
Epiphany marks for the church significant events in the life of Jesus and the communities he served. This season of the church year especially stresses the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus and the Baptism of the Lord. These stories illuminate the possibilities of our God who leads us, marks us as God’s own, and shows us how God transforms the ordinary into means of grace.
We will celebrate the first Sunday of the Epiphany, or as it is commonly called, The Epiphany of the Lord, on January 1 in one combined service. Amidst the thrill of singing a rousing rendition of “We Three Kings” and getting lost in the wonder of following a star to find the Christ-child, we will reflect on how various manifestations and revelations from God and God’s messengers led Joseph to take his family to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. In this story, we discover that the plight of the Holy Family did not simply end at the birth of Jesus. Rather, Jesus was born into a world that desperately needed salvation. He began his days as a refugee with his family fleeing for their lives. After the death of Herod, Joseph was led to establish his family in Nazareth to raise this ruler as his earthly father. As the prophet declared, “He will be called a Nazarean.”3
January 8th continues our journey into the early Epiphany stories of Jesus as we recall his baptism. At the baptism of Jesus, Jesus hears the voice of the one calling in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The incarnate son of God goes down into the water of the Jordan River and is baptized by John the Baptizer. The Holy Spirit comes to rest on him like a dove, and God declares from heaven delight in him, the Son of God, the beloved.
On this day, we will remember and affirm our own baptisms and how they have shaped our lives and convictions, and we will renew them in heart and mind as we approach the continuing unknown in the coming year. As we read in By Water and the Spirit: “Like God’s people through the ages, all Christians need to participate in acts of renewal within the covenant community. Such an opportunity is offered in every occasion of baptism when the congregations remembers and affirms the gracious work of God which baptism celebrates.”4 The Sacrament of Baptism reminds us that God’s grace is real and that every person is known as beloved Children of God. Baptism is God’s work in us, which is in and of itself a revelation to us.
In these stories, with both their scandal and their hope, we have real people putting their hands into the hand of God: their trust, their hope, and their faith. They entered through many gates of newness and uncertainty, having to rely upon God’s words of instruction and God’s manifestations of revelation.
The Christian year provides us with the opportunity for the stories of Holy Scripture to form us. It provides for us a rhythm of understanding that enables us to connect our very real lives with the lives of those past. Along with the missional purposes of the Church—of being sent from God’s table into our community and world—we also re-live the bounteous narrative of God’s redeeming love. God’s story, through the power of the Spirit, creates the church, which then seeks to live in the narrative that gave it birth.5
As we celebrate the Christian year in 2023 and re-live the old, old stories of God, may we journey down that path that is safer than a known way—the path where we realize we are held in hands of God.
1Haskins, Minnie Louise. I Said to the Man Who Stood at the Gate of the Year,1908.
2 White, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship, Abingdon Press, 1990, p 73.
3 The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2: 23b.
4 Baptist Study Committee. By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism (United Methodist Publishing House, 2004.)
5 Jones, Serene. Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace. Augsburg Fortress, 2000. p. 158.