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First Sunday after the Epiphany - January 8, 2023

In the house the wise men placed the gold and incense next to the child. Mary pondered these gifts as Joseph thanked the visitors from the East. The third wise man, however, interrupted Joseph, saying, “But wait! There’s myrrh!”

There is “myrrh” to Epiphany than the captivating story of magi following a star to find the child born king of the Jews. The feast of Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Day, is the final day of the Christmas season. “Epiphany” comes from the Greek meaning “to show forth” or “manifestation.” While on January 6th we celebrate the appearance of God to the Gentiles, represented by the wise men, that serene scene at the creche stands as only the first manifestation of God.

This Sunday we observe the second event in which God is shown forth in Jesus. Our gospel writer Matthew previously introduced us to John the Baptist, the rock star of the River Jordan. From Jerusalem and all Judea people flocked to John. They did more than just want to see this camel-clothed prophet. Individually and in groups they came to John to be baptized. En masse, they came to confess their sins.

John is a big deal, but he foretells the arrival of one far greater than he. John’s water for repentance will be replaced by the expected one’s baptism with fire and the Holy Spirit. John raises expectations and anxiety levels as he declares that his successor will clear his threshing floor, gathering wheat into the granary and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. The stage is set for that person to arrive.

Arrive he does in today’s gospel. Jesus comes from Gailee to the Jordan for John to baptize him. Jesus’ baptism inaugurates his ministry. What happens during that baptism shows everyone just who Jesus is.

In my job other than being a deacon of this church, I am an attorney. My chosen practice area has been family law. Among the issues I often face is that of children born outside a marriage. Once stigmatized by society, these children fortunately now rarely bear any shame for the decisions their parents made.

Advances in genetics have made it possible to determine with extreme high probability whether a man is the father of a child. If a man is uncertain of or denies paternity—of if the mother is uncertain or denies paternity—we can perform a common test using a mere swab of the cheeks of child and alleged father. A court order then proclaims the name of the father, and a legal relationship is born.

Fortunately, these tests did not exist two thousand years ago. No one then could scientifically challenge Joseph’s appearance as Jesus’ father. We know from the first chapter of Matthew that both Mary and Joseph knew Joseph was not the dad, but Joseph gave Mary and Jesus respectability by following through with the engagement. We presume others accepted Joseph’s role as father because he stood by Mary as her husband.

Matthew is silent about how Jesus was affected by his unusual conception. As a child, did Jesus suspect Joseph was not his father? Did he ever ask his mother from where came the gold, myrrh, and incense proudly displayed on the home’s mantelpiece? Did Jesus ever wonder why his mom held on to those items even when times were hard? Did Joseph expect Jesus to follow in his footsteps, only to be disappointed as Jesus became increasingly distracted with profound theological issues and concerns of social justice? Did Jesus lose sleep worrying about letting Joseph down? Was Jesus ever torn between following his call and making proud the man known as his father?

Like a scene from a movie, Matthew describes Jesus’ baptism. Just as Jesus comes out of the water (the director’s shot places Jesus’ head facing skyward and his eyes opening in slow motion), the heavens parted, and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending like a dove. Jesus stands upright in the water and stills himself. The Spirit alights on him. As John and others see this sign, a voice from heaven booms, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

While we don’t know if this announcement came as a surprise to Jesus, it surely stunned those others who heard it. In our church’s baptism ritual, the priest asks the parents to name the child. In naming the child, the parents publicly declare their relationship to the child. In John’s baptism of Jesus, God does the same. God proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God.

The declaration is like the paternity court orders in my law practice, only it says more. For not only is there a declared relationship of a parent and child between God and Jesus, but God proclaims he is well pleased with Jesus. Jesus is and will be doing God’s will. This is the person about whom John the Baptist had warned people to expect. A new age is upon them.

A new age is upon us as well. For as Paul declared in his letter to the Romans, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Paul continues, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” As joint heirs with Christ, we share in Christ’s baptism. Critically and in a way that can change each of our lives, we share in God’s adoption of us as his children and in his approval of us.

The desire for approval of one’s parent is a powerful force, ingrained in most of us. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, we see it in the story of Joseph, that Joseph of dreams, brotherly hate, and Egypt. Once ensconced in power as Pharoah’s chief minister, Joseph rescues his father Jacob from famine. When he sends his brothers back to their father, Joseph instructs them, “You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” This call for parental approval is so powerful that it becomes codified in the commandment to honor our fathers and mothers. In turn, we honor those who honor their parents: the ones who follow in the family business or profession, who strive to maintain the family honor, who help hold the family together, and, most of all, who care for the parents when the parents can no longer care for themselves. Looking back on my own life, this desire for parental approval, usually operating at a subconscious level, guided many of the choices I made when I came to my forks in the road. It continues to do so.