The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord (Year A), 12 January 2020

January 12, 2020 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 42:1-9 Psalm 29 Acts 10:34-43 Matthew 3:13-17

Do you remember your baptism? Do you remember when God became more than a word to you? Obviously, those who were infants learned about our baptisms much later. We experienced the grace of God and the love of a faithful community in our infancy, long before we could say “yes” to God’s call. Others of us embraced God’s grace and chose the Christian way in youth or adulthood. But, even here, God’s grace was prevenient. In either case, our response was grounded in God’s loving presence in our lives, from conception onward. From the perspective of process theology, all life is a call and response. God initiates each moment of experience and moves lovingly through our lifetime, and at certain moments we consciously respond to the grace and inspiration we’ve received. Grace, at such moments, is personal but never individual; it is grounded in community and reaches out to community.

Isaiah joins the personal and communal. While he is speaking to the community, he is also addressing individuals, including, perhaps, those who may be singled out for unique transformational vocations. God’s Spirit will rest on persons and the nation, calling them to become a light to the nations. The covenant and vocation of light bearing is both communal and individual, aimed a spiritual edification, healing, and justice-seeking. Isaiah appears to not that this event has not yet occurred but nevertheless should shape the peoples’ consciousness and actions. It is, as Whitehead asserts, a “lure for feeling,” a dynamic and energetic possibility intended to awaken our spirits to God’s Spirit moving in our lives and the affairs of nation and nations.

The Isaiah passage raises the questions, “Do nations have callings? Does God covenant with nations, other than Israel? If so, what is the nature of our national calling and can it change over time?” The USA Declaration of Independence is grounded in the perception of a Creator, who endows us with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These words have been a lure, an inspiration, hovering over USA history, challenging our pretense and inviting us to expand the circle of justice. It is evident that the USA and most nations are still a long way from this goal. Can we, without succumbing to the hubris of knowing God’s will fully, call the nation to its covenantal calling? Toward what would we call our nation? Which concrete issues represent both our falling away from our call as well as the embodiment of our nation’s vocation? Such reflections take us beyond American exceptionalism to repentance, transformation, and planetary concern.

Psalm 29 roots our individual and corporate lives in the majestic energy of God. God is God, and we aren’t! God energizes, guides, and empowers all things. God’s dynamism drives forward the evolutionary process, weather patterns, and human adventures. We are not alone in the universe, but part of a meaningful totality guided – though not always followed – by God’s vision of truth, beauty, and goodness. Divine majesty calls us to a self-awareness of our creatureliness and finitude as well as our responsibility toward the well-being of the whole. (Photos of the Hubble telescope might be appropriate to unpacking Psalm 29 both to remind us of God’s grandeur and our place, infinitesimal and yet important, in God’s world.)

Peter’s sermon to Cornelius’ household proclaims the universality of grace. God is not partial to our race, ethnicity, or place in society. Resurrection and salvation are open to all, without exception. This, too, must have ethical and social implications, at least for followers of the Resurrected One: the ubiquity of salvation challenges us to promote social and economic structures that embrace the whole community and promote well-being regardless of social standing. Social gospel preacher Walter Rauschenbusch once stated that “Hell’s Kitchen is not a safe place for saved souls.” Mystic-activist Howard Thurman seconded this assertion, stating that one of the great tragedies of poverty and oppression is the stifling of children’s imaginations. God’s universal offering awakens us to be agents of healing, justice, and transformation for all people, citizen, immigrant, or resident of foreign lands.

Matthew’s Gospel describes a theophany in his account of Jesus’ baptism. In response to Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit lights on Jesus and God proclaims Jesus as God’s beloved. While we can affirm Jesus’ unique relationship to God insofar as God may reveal Godself superlatively in certain person’s lives and life situations, Jesus’ unique status as Spirit-filled does not invalidate the universality of grace. Despite our imperfections, we are children of grace and original wholeness, and not of sin. As Pelagius, the holy heretic proclaims, God’s face is revealed in every newborn. While sin is evident in ourselves, our nation’s policies, and the human condition, sin is derivative not original. Divine love defines who we are and continues to define us even when we turn away. God’s aim, the best for that particular “impasse,” may not be ideal given our decisions and life circumstances, but it lures us to holy relationships with God and the world around us. Attending to the divine movements in our lives opens the door to experience the grace and power that is our birthright. This is not “works righteousness” but response to God’s moment by moment and lifelong call.

Today’s scriptures ask much of us. They ask us to identify God moments in our lives, to make commitments to live in accordance with God’s vision and explore the relationship between God’s personal visions and our responses to God and our responsibility to the larger world. Moreover, if we believe that nations have vocations, we must also consider the possibility that our congregation has vocations as well. We must articulate our congregational visions and vocations humbly, recognizing our finitude and trusting God’s guidance, knowing the power that emerges when our communities say yes to God’s call.

Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author.  A Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of over fifty books including Piglet’s Process: Process Theology for All God’s Children; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: a Progressive Vision; and Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.  He can be reached at