In the beginning

SJF • 1 Epiphany A 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.+

January is the month of beginnings. We inherit from the pagan Romans the notion that it is the first month of the calendar year. Even its name, January, derives from Janus, the two-faced Roman God of doorways and gates, who simultaneously looks to the past and to the future. In the secular world, January is the month of inaugurations. Even in this era of rapid transportation and communication, and even though we elect presidents, senators, representatives, and governors in November, we don’t put them to work or into office until January, usually with a ceremonial inauguration and oath-taking.

And so it is that the church similarly commemorates the beginning of Christ’s ministry every January. The church telescopes the thirty years between his infancy portrayed at Christmas and Epiphany — his birth in Bethlehem and the visit of the Magi to offer gifts to the newborn king — right up to his baptism in the Jordan River, so that our commemoration of the beginning of Christ’s three-or-so-year ministry always falls within the first two weeks of January, on the Sunday after January 6.

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Now, part of the reason for the telescoping of those 30 years is that apart from Luke’s brief account of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, the Gospels are silent concerning what Jesus did, where he went, or who he knew during that whole time. It is with his baptism at the river Jordan that the story picks up again — remember that for both Mark and John this is where their accounts of the Gospel begins; only Matthew and Luke give us what film-script writers call “the backstory” — and both of them take it all the way back to Genesis, as they trace out the lineage of the House of David!

But the Gospel really becomes the Gospel with the beginning of the proclamation of the message of the Good News, as Peter says in Luke’s account in Acts, “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.” It is this baptism that marks the inauguration of Christ’s ministry, with St Peter like a newsboy from the last century shouting out the Good News, a headline in only five words: “He is Lord of all.”

That headline is the heart of the Gospel, later reduced by the copy-editor Paul to just three words: “Jesus is Lord.” And it is at the Baptism of Jesus that this lordship is revealed — the first “epiphany” or “showing forth” of that divine truth, in fulfillment of all righteousness. For it is at the Baptism of Jesus that the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends, and the divine voice speaks out loud and clear. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Has any president ever had such an inauguration? Has any monarch ever had such a coronation? Has even any bishop or pope had such a consecration? All of these earthly ceremonial beginnings are mere shadows compared to the glory of God in majesty sending the Spirit of God to descend on Jesus Christ the Beloved Son of God, and literally speaking those words of blessing and benediction, a somewhat wordier proclamation of that same Gospel truth: Jesus is Lord.

That is the message — that is the Gospel — the apostles were sent to proclaim. As Peter says in today’s account in Acts, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” And his baptism is the first sign, the first epiphany, of that “ordination.” It is at the baptism that it all begins, and we ought to look to that beginning, that root and origin, if we are to grasp the significance of what Jesus Christ means to us.

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As you likely know, the study of word origins is called etymology. It looks to the roots and origins of the words we use, to show how words evolve over time, sometimes from one language to another, but often retaining a trace of their origins in spelling or form.

Let’s take that word gospel, for example. In its form and meaning it comes from two English words from the dim reaches of the Middle Ages: gode and spelle. Gode means “good” — that one’s a no-brainer — and spelle means “message.” (Nowadays the only spelle you hear about with any even distant connection to this original meaning is the kind of “spelle” cast by a Harry Potter. Although we New Yorkers may be familiar with the Yiddish equivalent for a salesman’s sales-pitch, spiel!)

So gospel comes from a Middle English phrase gode spelle meaning “Good Message” — thought perhaps in NY I could say, “good spiel” or as we say today, “it’s the Good News.” It is a literal translation of the Greek word that the Gospel writers used to describe their writings: evangelionev meaning “good” and angelion meaning “message” — for the angels were God’s messengers. This is where our English word evangelist comes from: one who spreads the Good Message, the Good News. They are the newsboys of the Gospel, carrying it out into the street and shouting, “Listen! News! Good news! Jesus is Lord!”

So much for our language lesson! For if it is meaningful to look to origins to understand words in human language, it is equally appropriate for us to look to origins to understand Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And as the scripture assures us, it is at the Baptism of Jesus that his identity as Lord of all is confirmed and articulated, by the voice of God himself speaking from on high.

That voice affirms three things about Jesus: that he is God’s Son, that he is Beloved, and that God is wellpleased with him. God’s glory descends with God’s Spirit upon Jesus, which shows us, in Isaiah’s words, that this Beloved Son, with whom God is well-pleased, is Lord, for God proclaims through the prophet Isaiah, “I am the Lord, that is my name, my glory I give to no other.” What clearer indication could we ask, what better inauguration could we hope for, than these words of promise from the Lord God speaking from heaven, this pure distillation of the Gospel, not news delivered by messengers or intermediaries or evangelists in this case, but by the very voice of God giving his glory to Jesus as Son of God and Lord of all; doing precisely what Isaiah promised that God would not do for anyone else.

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That message of the Lordship of Jesus has spread not only through Judea but through all the world — though still there are some who have not received it, and even many who do not believe it. And so it rests for us to continue that task of spreading the word, not only with our lips but in our lives: becoming messengers of God ourselves, each in our own way. And I will say that our lives and works are often more eloquent than our words — for if you are known to be a Christian, how you act will reflect on Christ himself. As St Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” If we say that Jesus is Lord, then we must always seek to act in accordance with his lordship over our lives, our souls and bodies. Actions do speak louder than words, you know. Let us do his will in all that we undertake, now at the beginning of this year and through it and beyond, and we will by our actions — especially those actions of love, service and fellowship — proclaim that simple gospel message, Good News for our own good and for the benefit of others: the message that was sent to the people of Israel, and throughout the world, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all.+