Psalm 2.6-12

Matthew 3.13-17

Pointing Fingers

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

My daughter Clare collects Dad jokes.  I only have myself to blame, I suppose, and every now and then she sends me a good one.  But since Dad jokes are by definition bad jokes, here’s a bad one about John the Baptist, desert mystic, who was known for walking through the wilderness barefoot.  Understandably his feet grew tough and leathery from the hot sand and rough terrain.  His diet, as the Bible tells us, consisted of locusts and wild honey, which, since it is not really enough to subsist on, left him somewhat thin and frail.   It also left him with bad breath – have you ever eaten a locust?  And so taking into consideration the state of his feet, his slight build, his spiritual temperament and his oral hygiene, you might say John was a super-callused fragile mystic vexed by halitosis.

The photo on the back of this morning’s bulletin gives us a pretty good portrait of the slender barefoot mystic John the Baptist pointing at the crucified Jesus.  It is a detail of a five hundred year old altarpiece painted by Matthias Grünewald.  It was created for the Monastery of St Anthony in the town of Isenheim, which is now in the Alsace region of France, near Colmar.  On the far right is St Anthony, the patron saint of the monastery, to the far left is St Sebastian, and the centerpiece depicts Jesus’ crucifixion.  We see John the evangelist on Jesus’ right comforting Mary the mother of Jesus, and on Jesus’ left, stands the Baptist, with a single upraised finger pointing to the crucifixion.  Now the painting itself is historically inaccurate, an anachronism, because the John the Baptist was dead – beheaded - several years before the crucifixion; but Grünewald includes John because the Baptist’s role was to prepare and point the way to Jesus.  That single upraised finger is a powerful wordless witness to both the life and the death of the messiah whom John baptized.  Twentieth century theologian Karl Barth understood this painting to capture the very essence of the gospel message, which is to point toward and bear witness before a watching world to the reality of Christ.

This morning is the last of four Sundays we are looking at the stories most closely related to the celebration of Epiphany, a word which means manifestation or revealing, which encompasses the earliest years of Jesus’ life and ministry.  The first week we heard the story of Herod and the magi – the latter came to honor Jesus, the former wanted him dead; the next week it was the story of Simeon cradling the infant Jesus in his arms, perhaps checking one last item off his bucket list; last week it was the boy Jesus at age twelve in the temple amazing the priests and elders with both his questions and his answers; and this morning it is Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.  Four stories is a lot of heavy lifting for one single church holiday, in fact one of you implied as much last week when you asked me, “When are we ever going to be finished with Epiphany?”  It is a long season this year, I’ll admit.  With Easter falling just about as late as it possibly can this year, it means that Lent won’t begin until early March, so the season of Epiphany, that time in the church year between Christmas and Lent, is as long as it can possibly get.  So while the bad news is that epiphany lasts for another four weeks, the good news is that our four-sermon consideration of it concludes today.

But with regard to Grünewald’s altarpiece, I wanted to include it this morning because of its depiction of John pointing toward Jesus.  Yet in another way it represents all the Epiphany stories we’ve looked at this season, because each one, in its own way, points not only to the reality of Jesus, but also to the authority of Jesus.  More specifically, each one manifests, or reveals Jesus to a specific and particular audience.   In the story of the Herod and the magi, Jesus is revealed to royalty, that is, to the rulers of the secular world, the civil and political leaders.  Herod was the king and the magi, as de facto advisors, were considered part of the ruling class.  When Jesus’ parents bought him to the temple for his dedication, he was met by Simeon and Anna the prophetess, who represent the prophetic tradition of Israel, which stretches all the way back to the days of Samuel, who anointed David as king.  When he was twelve, Jesus made his appearance in the temple before the elders and scribes, the religious leaders of his day.  And this morning, when Jesus was baptized, a voice came from heaven and effectively presented him to the entire watching world: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  You can almost hear the curtains parting as the introduction is made:  This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.  In each of these four epiphany stories, Jesus is revealed to representatives of different aspect of society so that by the end he is known by all.  This, I think, is the reason the church crams so much into the season.  It is a gradual unveiling of Jesus before he begins his ministry, so that by the time he is ready to begin, every significant segment of society knows who Jesus is.  In the altarpiece, it is John the Baptist pointing at him, bearing him witness, but in reality, epiphany is telling us, everyone bears him witness, princes and politicians and prophets and priests.

So the manifestation, the introducing of Jesus to the worldly rulers, to the religious leaders and to the prophetic tradition is part of the story – the historical part, the head part.  But there is also the place where it touches the heart, because each of these not only sees and understands who Jesus is, they also acknowledge him, or confess him.  Herod the king’s conniving question to the magi is also his confession of who Jesus is: “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?”  The magi, for their part, knelt before the infant and paid him homage.  Simeon held the baby in his arms and confessed, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all the peoples.”  Every one of those temple teachers and officials who heard the boy Jesus speak “were amazed and astonished at his understanding and his answers.”  And John, to whom Jesus came for his own baptism, protested, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  So it is not simply an objective recognition of who Jesus is, but it is also a personal confession.  And the end of the story is the imprimatur of the almighty: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Each in their own way points the finger of recognition and attestation and confession toward this Jesus.  Affirmed by royals and rulers and religious, Jesus is ready to begin his ministry.

I think this is what John invites us to do as well, to recognize who Jesus is, to attest to his role and reality in this world and in our lives, and to confess that he is the one who brings life and light.  As we prayed together earlier, he is the one who upholds human dignity and with whom we work together to renew our world.  Or, in simpler terms, in musical terms, Jesus is the one who, as Dave and Iola Brubeck wrote, makes God’s love visible – his love shall reign.

Amen.

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