Sunday Sermon

First Sunday after the Epiphany

Year B; RCL

Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11; Psalm 29

The Collect

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.


     The creation story is full of magic for me.  Darkness was there in the beginning. God touched it with light. This darkness was not scary or threatening. It was there. God caused light to appear in the darkness. A wonderful making divided light into day and darkness into night.  I remembered how I felt about darkness as a child, before I ever began worrying about what was hidden in it.  Darkness has haunting beauty.  Where I came from in Texas there was always bright starlight in Winter.  I remember looking up at the Milky Way smeared across the sky, stars too many to count.  The shadows were mysterious, soft and inviting in a different way than light.  I never feared the night as a child.  I simply enjoyed it, lying in the grass, taking in moon and star light.  Reading the Genesis lesson took me back to that childish enjoyment of the night.  

     I remember running as fast as I could over land I knew as well as the back of my hand, pretending to be the wind and then flopping down, totally relaxed when I couldn’t run any more, catching my breath while taking in the velvety expanse of the night.  I remember cicada song, fireflies and mosquitos, companions in the dark.  I knew all the places spiders liked to set up shop, avoided their webs in the dark.  I lived on a coastal plain so there was nothing tricky about the landscape.  No place to hide really, just lovely darkness and the shadows cast by trees.

      The Bible contains a great deal of thought about the nature of things real and imagined wrapped up in those stories.  They cast a certain way of seeing things.  The creation stories in the Bible show me the sweet, dawning innocence of the world.  I believe this story was told with intent, so that we could see and understand that God gave us a beautiful, untarnished gift with this world.  God looked at what was made and declared it good.  It is not harmless, mind you, but it is good.  God did not make a world without challenges, without difficulty and pain. 

     So much of freedom requires me to stretch myself and my ways of thinking.  I seem to do that best when things are not working as I’d hoped or planned.  The Bible stories taught me to consider goodness in a different light than my own preferences and needs.  If God said it was good, then maybe I could stretch myself to see and imagine how that might be so.  Sometimes I manage it.  There is little I remember more impressive than the big Texas sky when a tornado is brewing or the bellowing wind of a hurricane.  My Dad taught me what to look for and what to do.  The coastal plain brews all sorts of storms, and we all knew what to look and listen for and how to protect ourselves.  Because we followed his instructions there was never any serious damage to persons, house or property from rain, wind, or storm.  I learned from Dad to prepare well, and to wait it out.  That plan works well for any sort of storm.             

      In the Ephesians reading disciples had received the Baptism of John for repentance, but had not received the Holy Spirit.  They had been freed from their sins, but lacked the power to create new life.  The Holy Spirit lives among us to bring new life. If we repent but don’t change anything it is hard to break out of the patterns of behavior that get us in trouble.  Jesus brought us this power to free ourselves from sin and to break the patterns that trap and hold us.  The Holy Spirit helps us to see what we do, to consider ways of renewing our lives, empowering us to act when we are ready.  The Holy Spirit brings light into our darkness, and by that light we can reimagine, repair, rebuild.  It makes perfect sense to me that the disciples were frightened and powerless until the Holy Spirit came.  Until then they were the followers of an absent Messiah.  He was crucified and raised from the dead, then returned to heaven.  We all know that, but they had little or no idea what they were supposed to do about it.  They had not experienced the power of the Spirit for creating new realities, fresh worlds.  I believe that the resurrection of Jesus prepared them to look for the great things God was ready to do among them.  Jesus’ death and resurrection opened their eyes to God’s creative power still present among them when the Holy Spirit came. 

      I can imagine their delight as they learned about this new companion.  I think of the Holy Spirit as the power of life itself, making itself available for building new life.  I must do the work of considering and reimagining, but I don’t do it alone.  There are enough stories about this time of exploration to demonstrate that we rarely do more than scratch the surface of what the Holy Spirit can do to bring new life.  That understanding keeps me hopeful when the budget is lean and the roof needs repairing.  I know vividly what the Holy Spirit can do to renew life within me, having proof of it in my own renewed life and health.  I have read what the Holy Spirit can do to build up communities, and I hope we will bring that blessing with time and prayer.     


   When I talk about the indwelling Spirit I am not making a claim to personal sanctity.  God is willing to meet us where we live.  Jesus showed us that by his presence with sinners and tax collectors while he walked the earth. I think that may be one of the most important things he did.   God prepares people to hear and receive words that heal, build and guide.  Jesus showed us that God’s will for us is love and mercy.  These days we have the Spirit and the Word of God to guide us.  Hearing and receiving the Word without the Spirit is like reading the instruction manual before driving a car.  Until we take the car out on the road we don’t really know how to drive.  We have theoretical knowledge without practical experience.  The Holy Spirit brings the love of God to bear on daily life.

      Just as God was willing to accept the restrictions of a human body in Jesus, God is willing to accept the limits of dwelling with us. I try to keep the premises clean and ready, but sometimes my attention wanders off.  Sometimes I go to bed without doing the dishes.  I get crabby for no reason other than it’s too cold, much too cold.  Mostly, though, the Holy Spirit draws my attention where it needs to go to further my ministry.  I am particularly good at contacting people.  I get this urge to go look at my phone or to call or to go right now.  It doesn’t make my life easier; it helps me keep my commitments.  Speaking in tongues helps me attune myself to others.  I can step out of my frame of reference just far enough to hear what is troubling other people.  I am very good at prayer.  I know it is effective.  As for prophecy, I am used to watching the flock, so I have a pretty good idea what needs to be addressed. I think of prophecy as being able to read the lay of the community with the Holy Spirit as guide.

      The gifts that I exercise most are those that maintain a community.  They aren’t showy.  I want to do my work; God helps me do it. The Spirit is a constant companion.  Without the Spirit, I believe the Apostles would have been so grieved by the rejection of the gospel message among the Jews that they would never have reached out to gentiles.  The Holy Spirit guides the efforts of disciples. We tend to associate God’s Word with success.  After all it did create the world.  If it doesn’t succeed it must not be from God.  I have thought about this often.  The cross is an awkward symbol for success.  It always stands there within my vision when I am anxious.  God made us able to choose the world we will live in; God respects our choices.  If we choose to make a mess of it, we will live in our mess.  God made sure that we got the basics for how to clean up the mess from Jesus, then sent the Holy Spirit to supervise us through the work we must do.  God is not cleaning up my mess for me.

     The Holy Spirit helps us to imagine and build worlds that we can live in, does it every day, for all time.  Scripture helps us to imagine another world than the one we live in, tells us stories of the interactions of God and man, showing us things about ourselves, about God. We can take those things to heart or pass them off.  We choose.  Those who want to be disciples look through those words, cultivate the presence of the Holy Spirit, and find the guidance they need to move in new directions.  The Holy Spirit is responsible for the move to include the gentiles. There has been doubt among scholars whether Jesus initiated the mission of the Church among gentiles. Jesus was following God’s call, did what he was called to do, giving the gift of healing where God led him.  The spread of the Church is Spirit business, then as now.  The Church was failing to grow among the Jews.  Disciples looked to a new mission field and found unexpected success.

     I think the truth is that the mission field of the Church has always been among sinners, those who are feeling the pain of living in the mess of their lives. Jews were living as God had called the community to live for the most part, and didn’t need a message of forgiveness the way sinners do.  God’s Word was meant for us who want something other than what we know.  It is there to show us an alternate life style, encourage us to seek it, giving us the tools to get it done.  It is very hard to break loose from a bad habit.  I know because I have broken some bad ones.  As a child I promised myself I would never lay a hand on my daughter or threaten her with my power over her.  The Holy Spirit helped me to keep that promise made to myself.  I put her in her room and shut the door until she was ready to come out.  I put her solidly in charge of her behavior.  I did not hit as I was hit.  I do not like hitting people with words and emotions either, and promised myself I would not do that.  My anger was a living thing, and I put a solid leash on it in the power of God, until I learned how to open the cage door and let it go.  Jesus and the Holy Spirit helped me with that, too.  With the power of God, I am building the world I want to live in.

     All those neat and cleanly habits of body, mind and spirit that I could not learn at home I learned in Bible study and in prayer.  I read Scripture with a purpose.  In the power of God, I wanted to make a safe world to live in, and so far as that is in my power, I have done so.  That is the strength that I bring to this job, the simple strength of what one person can do to change the world she lives in with the power of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to help make it so.  Somehow, even as a child, I grasped that the gospel was about creating new worlds.  I needed to make a safer one for myself and my children.  My daughter knows how I was raised.  It is part of our special bond that she understands the choices I made for love.  She gives that love right back to me.  I always wanted love like sunshine to help me grow.  No manipulation.  I hated love on the barter system.  I imagined love like sunshine, and used the promise of God’s help to live and make that possible.  It is always a work in progress.  The old me and the new me are both in here together.  I listen to the old me to help me renew and refresh the life I want to live.         

     God has put creative power in our hands, beginning with the power of reconciliation.  Jesus was sent into the world to save sinners.  Part of that salvation is envisioning a new way of being in the world, and then making it happen.  Jesus and the Holy Spirit are available for the whole journey.  I came to you here broken-hearted, and you have watched and helped me to heal.  I came here beaten up, much as I had been beaten as a child.  I worked so hard to get away from that life.  It hurt me to stumble into it again.  It shook my confidence.  In this place I have found all I needed to start again. The miracle of the gospel is restoration and hope, life renewing itself in the power of God. 

     Not many people have eyes to see this regenerative love.  Many seek something grander, the gospels describe the search for “signs and wonders”.  I know the love that grows the seeds of new life.  It is wonderful enough for me.        

Sermon for 1 Epiphany by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin