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January 7, 2024

Star and Dove

Preacher: Rev. Jack Meehan Series: Lectionary Category: Biblical Scripture: Mark 1:4–11

The Epiphany and Baptism of Our Lord

January 7, 2024

Mark 1:4-11

 “Star and Dove”

Today is a special day on this first Sunday of the new year. It’s a combined celebration of the Epiphany of Our Lord together with the Baptism of Our Lord. On the church’s calendar, yesterday (January 6) is the twelfth and final day of the Christmas season, and commemorates the coming of the first Gentiles to worship Jesus. Those mysterious Magi came bearing their extravagant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, as we sang in our opening hymn. Scripture does not say that they were kings, but that’s usually how they are depicted – wearing crowns. Scripture also doesn’t tell us how many wise men there actually were, but they are always depicted as three because of the three gifts that they presented to Jesus. These first Gentile visitors are important in the Gospel narrative because they reveal that the good news of great joy of Jesus’ birth is for all people, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, everyone. The light from the manger goes out to all peoples, tribes, nations, and languages because the gift of God’s Son is for all peoples, tribes, nations, and languages. If there is one image that we associate with the Epiphany of Our Lord, it is the star that guided the wise men to worship the Christ Child. That star is still to be found atop our Christmas trees, as well as ornaments, cards, and banners. The Sunday after Epiphany, which is today – the very next day – celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord. Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River marked him as God’s beloved Son, sent to fulfill all that was written in the Law and the Prophets; sent to fulfill all righteousness for you and for me. Jesus’ baptism would set him on a journey that would take him all the way to the cross where he would offer his very life as the atoning sacrifice for all of our sins. Baptized into Jesus’ own death and resurrection, all that Jesus has accomplished becomes ours through faith. If there is one image that we associate with the Baptism of Our Lord, it is the dove – the Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism. And so on this day when we celebrate both the Epiphany and the Baptism of Our Lord, we focus on those two images: star and dove. That becomes the theme for today’s message. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.

In the city of Rome, along the Via Salaria – a roadway built by the Romans from the city to the Adriatic Sea – are the catacombs of Priscilla (Home eng – Catacombe di Priscilla (catacombepriscilla.com). Originally a quarry during Roman times, it was used as a Christian burial site from the late second century through the fourth century. Here, is one of the oldest paintings of the early church – a depiction of Mary with the Christ Child, and beside her, Balaam the Gentile prophet from the Old Testament, who is pointing to a “star,” the sign of the Messiah. This and other early paintings clearly identify the star of Jesus’ birth with Balaam’s early prophecy: “I see him, but not now: I behold him, but not near: A star shall come out from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel....” (Numbers 24:17). Balaam, a son of Abraham through Ishmael and a divine seer, unites God’s people (both Jews and Gentiles) by blessing Israel rather than cursing them. He had been sent by Balak, king of the Moabites, to put a curse upon Israel, as they were expanding into Canaan on their journey into the Promised Land. But Balaam was blocked from doing what Balak wanted him to do, both by an angel and his own donkey. Instead of cursing God’s chosen people, he could only bless them. In doing so, he uttered a messianic prophecy, that a star would appear from Jacob, a scepter would rise from Israel. Jesus is the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy. Jesus is that bright and morning Star (Revelation 22:16), heralded by this star in the heavens.

The star in the heavens gives way to the dove descending from those same heavens at Jesus’ baptism. And with the dove, the Spirit, came the Father’s words of affirmation and blessing: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). And so we see the Three Persons of the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – all present here at Jesus’ baptism, even as they are present at our own Baptism. Sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ, we have been baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. As Paul the apostle tells us in today’s Epistle lesson (Roman 6:1-11) that we read responsively, “We have been buried with [Christ] [by] baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). At his baptism, Jesus was declared by the Father to be his own beloved Son. At our own Baptism, we also are declared by the Father to be his own beloved sons and daughters. Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We do not need to be rebaptized, though many will tell us that if we were baptized as infants or young children, it doesn’t count and we must be baptized again. Don’t be misled by this false teaching. Our Baptism, whether as an infant or as an adult, is valid and binding, not because of our goodness or faithfulness, but because of the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness! The Word of God stands certain: “Baptism does now save you” (1 Peter 3:21)

Walking in newness of life, as Paul tells us, is the outgrowth of our Baptism. As the word “walking” suggests, Baptism starts us off on a journey; a life-long journey of faith. Walking in newness of life is an ongoing and daily living out of who we are and Whose we are. This side of heaven, we are never “there.” We will always be struggling with sin in our lives, and we won’t be free from it until this life is ended. The gift of faith that is given through Baptism is sustained by that heavenly dove, the Holy Spirit, who “calls us and keeps us in this one true faith” through the Means of Grace, the Word and Sacraments. Through these Means of Grace, faith is nurtured, strengthened and encouraged so that, day by day, we may walk in newness of life; walking in a manner that is worthy of our calling in Christ (Ephesians 4:1).

 The star, the dove – these images only make sense because of a third image, and that is the cross. Jesus’ revelation to those first Gentiles – his Epiphany – as well as his baptism by John at the Jordan River, all point ahead to the reason why Jesus came into the world. Jesus’ birth and life, his ministry of preaching and teaching – all lead to the cross. It is through what Christ accomplished on the cross – his own suffering and death – that we are declared holy and righteous, acceptable and pleasing to God. It is through the cross of Christ that we understand God is for us, not against us (Romans 8:31). And that is surely a good way to begin this New Year. Amen. 

other sermons in this series

Apr 7

2024

A New Beginning

Preacher: Rev. Jack Meehan Scripture: John 20:19–31 Series: Lectionary

Feb 11

2024

Jesus Only

Preacher: Rev. Jack Meehan Scripture: Mark 9:2–9 Series: Lectionary

Dec 31

2023

Depart in Peace

Preacher: Rev. Jack Meehan Scripture: Luke 2:22–40 Series: Lectionary