Monday, 7 January 2019

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 13 January 2019,
First Sunday after Epiphany

The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist depicted at the Duomo in Florence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 13 January 2019, is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, and the Epiphany theme continues in the readings.

. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland for next Sunday are:

Readings: Isaiah 43: 1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8: 14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

An icon of the Baptism of Christ, worked on a cut of olive wood by Eleftheria Syrianoglou, in a recent exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Introducing the Readings:

Christmas appears to have come to an end. The 12 Days of Christmas came to an end with our celebrations of the Epiphany on Sunday [6 January 2019]. Long before that, however, many people had returned to work, the schools have reopened, the Christmas decorations are down, the trees and the tinsel have gone, and the shopping centres have stopped blaring out those awful versions of carols.

But Christmas is not over. Christmas is a season of 40 days that ends with Candlemas, the pivotal feastday between Christmas and Easter, that links the cradle with the cross, the Incarnation with the Resurrection.

The feast of the Epiphany celebrates not one but three Theophanies or great events, reminding us what Christmas is truly about and who this Christ Child is for us.

We celebrated the Visit of the Magi on Sunday [6 January 2019]. This Epiphany story is a Theophany, in which the kingdoms of the world are seen bowing down before the King of Kings, sacramentally laying before him, in their gifts, all the wealth of the world. But their gifts are also named because they recognise the Christ Child as Priest, Prophet and King.

The Wedding at Cana, which we read about the Sunday after next [20 January 2019], is an Epiphany or Theophany event too when, even before his time has come, Christ shows who he is.

It is a sacramental moment, with the water and wine after the meal, with the wedding banquet that so often symbolises the Kingdom of God, and where the bridegroom and the bride, as so often, symbolise the covenantal relationship between Christ and the Church. It contains the promise that, to parody the words of Frank Sinatra, ‘the best is yet to come.’

This Sunday’s Gospel reading, Saint Luke’s account of the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, marks the beginning of Christ’s public ministry and is also an Epiphany or Theophany moment.

It is a Trinitarian moment, when the Father, Son and Holy Spirit come together, acting as one, with distinctive personal roles: when Christ is baptised, heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ ‘in bodily form like a dove.’ And the voice of the Father comes from heaven declaring: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Luke 3: 21-22).

The Baptism of Christ depicted in stucco relief in the Baptistery in the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Isaiah 43: 1-7:

The people of Judah have complained that God has deserted them, his people, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and in their exile. In previous chapter, God tells them that they are blind and deaf to his will and his way: they see but do not observe, their ears are open but they do not hear, they are ‘prey with no one to rescue’ them. God asks them, through Isaiah, ‘Who among you ... will attend and listen for the time to come?’ (Isaiah 42: 23).

Now, in Sunday’s reading (Isaiah 43: 1-7), God tells them not to fear for the future: he will rescue and save his people, reminding them he has called them by name. Even when they face danger from waters, rivers and fire, he promises them, ‘I will be with you.’

Because the people are so precious in God’s sight, they will be freed, while Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba (Yemen) will become Persian vassal states. God’s people will be gathered back together from throughout the whole known world, and will share in God’s life so that they will be called by God’s name and give glory to him.

When they people observe and listen, see and hear, God will call them his sons and daughters.

Psalm 29:

This psalm expresses God’s supremacy and universal rule, and all other ‘heavenly beings’ are invited to acknowledge God’s supremacy and to give him the glory due to him.

In the storm, the ‘voice of the Lord’ is heard in the thunder. The storm moves in from the Mediterranean, sweeps in across the land, breaking the tall cedars as it moves across south Lebanon, displays its power on Mount Lebanon and then on Mount Sirion, and moves on into the wilderness, the Arabian Desert.

The Word of God is indeed mighty, and all the people in the Temple acknowledge God’s supremacy as they cry: ‘Glory!’

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace! – Psalm 29: 10-11.

Acts 8: 14-17:

Saint Philip was one of the seven deacons chosen by the apostolic Church to ensure that widows received basic rations (see Acts 6: 1-6). When persecution begins in Jerusalem, he travels to Samaria to preach the good news in people who do not live in Jewish areas. The people there listen eagerly to what Saint Philip tells them, ‘hearing and seeing the signs that he did.’ Even Simon Magus tells them that Philip speaks and acts through God’s power. Those who believed, including Simon, are baptised.

In Sunday’s reading (Acts 8: 14-17), the apostles send Saint Peter and Saint John to Samaria. In the Acts of the Apostles, the converts usually receive the Holy Spirit at Baptism (see Acts 2: 38 and Acts 19: 5-6) or before Baptism (see Acts 10: 44). But in this reading, the new converts receive the Holy Spirit some time after being baptised, and only with the arrival of these two apostles, representing the church.

Later, in Acts 8: 18-24, Simon Magus is going to get it wrong. He offers the apostles money if they will give him the power to impart the Spirit to people – it is this action that gives us to the word simony. Saint Peter reprimands him and tells him the Holy Spirit is God’s gift and cannot be bought.

An icon of Saint John the Baptist in a small chapel in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22:

People flock to Saint John the Baptist in the wilderness in response to his call to start new, ethical lives – as a way of preparing for Christ. But, earlier in this Gospel, Saint John condemns those who seek his baptism without any intention of changing their ways. He warns that being Jewish nominally is no assurance of being part of the Kingdom of God. Failure to respond to his call to repentance leads to condemnation.

The people are expecting a Messiah, an agent of God, who is to restore Israel and proclaim the triumph of God’s power and authority. John tells them that the ‘one who is ... coming’ is so great that he is unworthy even to ‘untie ... his sandals,’ the task of a slave.

The coming Jesus will baptise in the name of the Holy Spirit, and will usher in a new age, harvesting like the judge at the end of time. The wheat is tossed in the air with a winnowing fork, so that the grain falls to the ground, but the chaff is carried away by the wind to the edge of the threshing floor. God will gather the godly, but the ungodly will be condemned.

Christ is then baptised, showing his solidarity with Saint John’s proclamation of God’s plan for saving all who come to him. God is now revealed to all in a Trinitarian Theophany: the Holy Spirit descends on Christ, appearing ‘like a dove,’ and God the Father proclaims, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

The Baptistry at the Duomo in Pisa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A reminder of our Baptism

When we hear this story, it serves as a reminder of our Baptisms, and it is the story of a new creation.

In the Orthodox Church, Epiphany is a day for blessing the waters, at lakes, by rivers, by the sea, and Baptismal water for use in the Church. Many places around the world mark the day with a blessing of the waters and the immersion of a cross in seas, lakes, and rivers. In many places in Greece, for example, the local priest or bishop throws a cross into the sea, breaking the cold ice if necessary, and the diver who retrieves the cross is said to be blessed for the coming year.

But the Baptism of Christ is also about new beginnings for each of us individually and for us collectively as members of the Body of Christ, the Church.

Sunday’s Gospel reading is also the story a new beginning in every sense of the meaning. Did you notice how after the waters are parted, and Christ emerges, just as the waters are separated, earth and water are separated, and then human life emerges in the Creation story in Genesis (see Genesis 1: 1 to 2: 3). Here too the Holy Spirit appears over the waters (see Genesis 1: 2), and God says ‘I am well pleased,’ just as God sees that every moment of creation is good (see Genesis 1: 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and with the creation of humanity it becomes ‘very good’ (verse 31).

But this Gospel reading also poses two sets of questions for me.

My first set of questions begins by asking:

● What would a parting of the waters and the promise of a new beginning, a new creation, mean for people in Ireland today?

● Would they be able to believe that what God has made is ‘very good’?

● Have we been responsible enough when it comes to the care of the creation that has been entrusted to us?

And my second set of questions arising from this Gospel reading begins:

● What would a parting of the waters and the promise of a new beginning mean for people caught as refugees in the cold waters of the Mediterranean or in the English Channel between France and England in this winter weather?

● Would they be able to believe in the hope that ‘the best is yet is offered at Epiphany?

In recent years, I have been moved by the response of Canon Malcolm Bradshaw when he was at Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens and volunteers throughout the Greek Islands to the refugee crisis in the waters of the Aegean Sea.

However, we might ask whether we are leaving it all either to ‘those out there’ in NGOs, to mission agencies and other churches or to governments to decide how to respond?

It is at the very end of the creation cycle, after the creation and separation of the waters, when God has created us in human form, that God pronounces not just that it is good, but that it is very good.

In responding to our promises at Baptism, we must take responsibility for creation and for humanity – those responsibilities are inseparable. But they are at the heart of the Epiphany stories if we show that we truly believe that ‘the best has yet to come.’

The Baptismal Font in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22 (NRSVA):

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming’ (Luke 3: 16) … a fresco in a church in the mountain village of Maroulas, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical resources:

Liturgical colour: White

The Collect:

Eternal Father,
who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
Grant to us, who are born of water and the Spirit,
that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Refreshed by these holy gifts, Lord God,
we seek your mercy:
that by listening faithfully to your only Son,
and being obedient to the prompting of the Spirit,
we may be your children in name and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)


For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

The Baptism font in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick … a reminder of our own Baptismal commitments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Renewing Baptismal promises:

At the beginning of the new year, it is good to be reminded of the promises at our baptism, and that we have been incorporated into the Body of Christ, which is the Church. A good example of how this is done at the beginning of the year is the Methodist Covenant Service and the Methodist Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

The fifth century mosaic of the Baptism of Christ in the Neonian Baptistry in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000) edited by Bishop Edward Darling include:

Isaiah 43: 1-7:

642, Amazing grace (how sweet the sound!)
12, God is our strength and refuge
481, God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year
557, Rock of ages, cleft for me
595, Safe in the shadow of the Lord
22, You shall cross the barren desert

Psalm 29:

349, Fill thou my life, O Lord my God
30, Let us with a gladsome mind
431, Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour
196, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness
45, Praise, O praise our God and King

Acts 8: 14-17:

294, Come down, O Love divine
297, Come, thou Holy Spirit, come
318, Father, Lord of all creation
312, Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost
91, He is Lord, he is Lord
299, Holy Spirit, come, confirm us
421, I come with joy, a child of God
301, Let every Christian pray
306, O Spirit of the living God
313, The Spirit came as promised

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22:

295, Come, gracious Spirit, heavenly Dove
324, God whose almighty word
126, Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding
419, I am not worthy, Holy Lord
322, I bind unto myself today (verses 1, 2, 8, 9)
652, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
214, O Love, how deep, how broad, how high
136, On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
197, Songs of thankfulness and praise
341, Spirit divine, attend our prayers
386, Spirit of God, unseen as the wind
200, The sinless one to Jordan came
204, When Jesus came to Jordan

Saint John the Baptist baptises Christ in the River Jordan ... a detail from a window in the north ambulatory in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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