In some Protestant churches, Epiphany will be observed on the Sunday closest to January 6.
Revised Common Lectionary
Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Baptism of the Lord: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
Narrative Lectionary: Jesus Heals and Teaches, Mark 2:1-22 (Psalm 103:6-14)
For Epiphany we begin with the glorious proclamation of Third Isaiah in 60:1-6: “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” The light of God’s glory has risen upon the people, returning from exile. But in verse three, God promised the people that nations would be drawn to their light, because of what God had done for them. The people become a light for the nations, a witness for God in the world. They would be blessed by other nations, who would share with them their wealth—including gold and frankincense, brought in on the backs of camels!
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 is a song of blessing for a new king. The psalmist asks for God to grant the new king wisdom and justice, and to judge with righteousness. The psalmist blesses the new king with long life as he listens to the poor and those in need, lifting them up. While the psalmist also calls upon other nations to bring tribute and to serve him, the psalmist also calls for the new king to deliver the most vulnerable of his kingdom from oppression and violence, to be on the side of the poor and needy.
While most scholars are uncertain if Paul wrote Ephesians, in 3:1-12, the writer, purporting to be Paul in prison, writes of how the mystery of God has been revealed now: Gentiles are also fellow heirs of God through Jesus Christ. Gentiles and Jews are members of the same body, and the church is what can bring them together on earth. Paul is the servant of God, called to deliver this message, even though he is “the least of all saints,” now in prison. God is using him to share the message: that through the church the wisdom of God may be made known to all people, even rulers, even powers in the heavens. Believers have access to God and confidence in faith because of Jesus Christ, who came for all people.
Matthew 2:1-12 contains the story of the visit of the magi. While sometimes this passage is included at Christmas with Luke’s story of the Nativity, and the magi are often included with shepherds and angels in our nativity creche’s, they are quite different stories. The magi, also known as astrologers, probably from Persia though it is uncertain where they came from, arrived in Jerusalem expecting to find a king there since that was where the royal palace was located. Instead, they found Herod, a puppet king for Rome. The scribes found a passage in Micah 5:2 about a new king coming from Bethlehem, the city of David, to shepherd Israel. Micah was writing about Hezekiah, the new king of Judah in his time, who would prevent the Assyrian Empire from taking control of Judah. But here, the scribes have interpreted Micah to be about a Davidic king for their time. Herod sends the magi to go to Bethlehem, with the orders to return to Jerusalem and tell him where the new king is, so he can go visit him. The magi do go and find the child in Bethlehem with Mary his mother (Joseph is not mentioned in this visit of the Magi!). They pay him homage, offering him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod (as an angel warns Joseph in a dream right after this story about Herod’s intentions), and return home another way. Note that in verse 2, in most translations the magi ask, “Where has been born the king of the Jews?” Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: A Multi Gospel Single-Year Lectionary, Year W in her translation on page 35 uses the term Judeans instead of Jews. This is a better translation because Herod was in charge of the Roman province of Judea, and it would make sense to be frightened of a new king of your province, rather than a new king of a people who are scattered throughout the Roman empire.
For Baptism of the Lord, we turn to the first five verses of the Bible, the beginning of the creation of the heavens and earth. The NRSVUE reads in verse two, “the earth was complete chaos.” Out of this chaos, over the face of the deep, a wind from God sweeps over the waters, and God speaks. There is light, there is a separation of light from darkness, and creation of day and night, evening and morning, the first day. God made order out of chaos, balance out of light and dark, and goodness all around.
Psalm 29 is a call to worship, calling the heavenly beings and all of creation to worship God and to be amazed by God’s holiness and splendor. The psalmist uses the forces of creation—water, wind, fire and earth—to show God’s power and might and how God reigns over creation. When we are in the awesome power of our God, we tremble in awe, calling out, “Glory!” Nonetheless, God reigns forever, and grants peace to God’s people.
In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters some disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus. These disciples did not know about the Holy Spirit, and it is unclear if they knew the one John prophesied about, Jesus, had come. Paul explains that they were baptized into the repentance of forgiveness of sins, but they were not baptized in the name of Jesus. The disciples of John, which numbered twelve, were then baptized, and Paul laid his hands upon them. They received the Holy Spirit and were able to instantly use the gifts of the Spirit.
Mark 1:4-11 contains the story of Jesus’s baptism. Mark’s Gospel account is generally short on details, but the details we have on John are interesting. He appeared in the wilderness and proclaimed a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. Mark doesn’t have the stories Luke contains, that John’s parents were both from priestly families and his father was a priest—perhaps it was thought he would also be a priest serving in the temple. Instead, we first find him here in Mark’s account in the wilderness. John was clothed with camel’s hair, wore a leather belt around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. Many scholars believe John may have been with the Essenes at the edge of the Dead Sea, a group that believed the Day of the Lord would be upon them at any time. They ate a mostly vegetarian diet, and used the Jewish practice of the mikveh, the ritual bath, on a regular basis (as a symbol of being washed clean). The mikveh was a pool that had continuous flow of water (not stagnant like a tub). It seems John may have taken this use into the practice of baptism in the river Jordan, which was a muddy river, where people washed their clothes and dishes. John proclaimed there was one coming after him, whose sandals he was unworthy to untie. Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee came to him to be baptized, and the Spirit appeared like a dove above him as he was baptized, stating this was God’s son, the Beloved, with whom God was well pleased. Jesus chose to get into the dirty water of people’s lives to be baptized, to, as Matthew’s account states, “fulfill all righteousness” (3:15).
The Narrative Lectionary focuses on the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in Mark 2:1-22. Jesus returned home to Galilee, and while he was in Capernaum it was reported that “he was at home.” There was no room for anyone else to enter the house, so four friends of a man who was paralyzed climbed up on top of the roof, removed part of it and dug through the thatch. They lowered their friend down on the mat that he lay upon. Jesus saw their faith (that is, the friends’ faith) and said to the man paralyzed, “Your sins are forgiven.” Some of the scribes questioned him and said this was blasphemous, because only God could forgive sins. Jesus could tell they were talking about him and questioning his motives, so he questioned them, “which is easier to say, your sins are forgiven, or stand up, take your mat, and walk?” To show the scribes he did have the authority to forgive sins, he then told the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat, and to walk. Everyone was amazed, having never seen anything like this. But it does us well to remember it was the faith of the friends that amazed Jesus. To the man paralyzed, he simply told him his sins were forgiven. It was only after, when Jesus perceived the hearts of the scribes and others grumbling, that he told the man to stand up and walk.
Following this, Jesus went out to teach by the sea, and as he walked along, he called to Levi the tax collector and told him to follow him. Jesus later sat and had dinner at Levi’s house, and some of the religious authorities grumbled that Jesus and his disciples were eating with tax collectors and sinners. The religious authorities questioned Jesus’s disciples, but Jesus replied to the authorities that he came not for the righteous but for sinners, the way those who are sick need a physician, not those who are well.
In a third scene in this passage, people questioned why Jesus’s disciples did not fast, like John’s disciples did, along with the Pharisees. Jesus explained that no one fasts at a wedding while the bridegroom is present. Using the image of himself as the bridegroom, Jesus explained there will come a time when he will be taken away and then they will fast. In verses 21-22, Jesus used the image of a new patch and new wineskins. You can’t put a new patch on old clothes because the new patch isn’t worn like the old and will pull away. New wine poured into old wineskins will burst the wineskins—new must be put into new. Jesus taught that he would do things in a new way, as he did not fit the people’s expectations.
The supplementary verses of Psalm 103:6-14 speak of how God works on behalf of the oppressed for justice. God made God’s ways known to Moses and the people, and God has love for the people as a father has love and compassion for his children. God is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, for God’s way is compassion.
On this first Sunday in the new year, there are rich stories, of both the visit of the Magi or the baptism of Jesus that remind us to view this new year with freshness. Perhaps our hopes have been tempered from recent years—the pandemic, past politics, the upcoming election in the U.S., the ongoing war in Gaza, the continued military coup in Myanmar in which thousands of refugees are fleeing every day. How do we look to the new year as anything but more of the same, or worse?
We remember that in an atmosphere of fear, scholars from another land came looking for a newborn to pay him homage. We remember that in the muck and mud of this world, John calls us into the waters to be baptized. To start new right here, right now. To claim that in this year, I will not succumb to violence. I will not be overtaken by hate and fear. I will stay true to God’s ways of overwhelming compassion and empathy. I will be led into this new year by another way. I will repent of the ways of this world and listen for the voice of God calling my name, telling me I am God’s beloved child, and I will know that God is well pleased with me. May it be so.
Call to Worship (Psalm 29:1-4, 11, Common English Bible)
You, divine beings! Give to the Lord—
Give to the Lord glory and power!
Give to the Lord the glory due God’s name!
Bow down to the Lord in holy splendor!
The Lord’s voice is over the waters; the glorious God thunders;
The Lord is over the mighty waters.
The Lord’s voice is strong;
The Lord’s voice is majestic.
Let the Lord give strength to God’s people!
Let the Lord bless God’s people with peace!
Prayer of Invocation
God of New Beginnings, we gather in Your name on the first Sunday of the new year. Help us to not be jaded by the ways of the world, but to trust in Your love that You continue to make all things new, including our hearts and our hopes. Restore in us the joy of Your salvation and place a new and right spirit within us all. May we enter this time of worship focused on You, knowing that You will never leave us or forsake us, and that we are part of each other as the body of Christ, gathered in fellowship and in praise of You. Amen.
Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
God of Justice and Mercy, we confess that our ways are not Your ways. Our human desire for justice is often confused with retribution. We want punishment, for others to hurt how we have hurt, to experience the losses we have felt. This is not Your way, taught by Jesus. Jesus laid down his life for us. Jesus taught us to actively resist evil and to pray for those who persecute us. In our practice of justice, in our call for righteousness, remind us to be wary of words that cause harm instead of building up. Guard us from actions that will undermine the work of justice. For those of us with privilege, call us into accountability of knowing when to be silent and lift up other voices rather than our own. Help us often to pause and reflect before we act, so that we might minimize harm and be true to Your ways of love, justice and mercy. Amen.
You are God’s child, the Beloved Ones. You are here, you have already made an effort to be part of something outside of yourselves. Now, take what you are learning about God’s extravagant love and shape your life around it. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Be kind to others, lift up the voices of the marginalized, make space for those who have been left out. Build up one another in the Spirit. Seek forgiveness where you have gone astray, repent, and turn back to God’s ways. For with you, God is well pleased. Amen.
Creator of the Stars, when we look up at the heavens, we know how small we really are, how incredibly insignificant to the rest of the entire universe. We are one tiny speck of dust in a grand universe, precious and fragile. Yet You hold us carefully in Your hands. In our fragility, we sometimes lash out at You and others. Remind us how incredibly significant each and every one of us is to You, O God, and to each other. We are precious and awesome and fearfully and wonderfully made by You, our Wondrous Creator. Call us to love one another, to remember how much we are loved, and to build upon the foundation of love that You are creating Your kin-dom upon. Amen.