January 5th, 2020

SERMON: SUNDAY BEFORE THEOPHANY (EPIPHANY)

SERMON: SUNDAY BEFORE HOLY THEOPHANY 2020

In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dear ones, tomorrow is the Great Feast of the Appearing of God, Theophany, called Epiphany in the West, or in Russian, Богоявление. I know that many of you will not be able to attend due to work or other obligations. So today, the Sunday Before Theophany, I’m going speak about the Feast itself because of its importance to our salvation. First we’ll start with Scripture.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was unsightly and unfurnished, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so” (Genesis 1:1-9 LXX).

This creation narrative in Genesis reveals how God brought all things into being from nothing. Then it says that He “hovered” over the water and organized the chaotic creation by imposing order on it. Out of the watery chaos of the deep, the dry land was revealed. God then hems in the chaos of the waters so that life can exist on earth. It is in the very act of creation that God “appears” or “reveals” Himself for the very first time.

Today we celebrate the second great appearance of God at the water. This time it is not only the Spirit that is mentioned, but the entire Holy Trinity. This is why the Feast is called “Theophany.” It means the full manifestation or Revelation of God. The Spirit hovers in the form of a dove, the Father speaks from Heaven, and the Son stands at the shore and eventually enters into the water itself. This is the meaning of the Troparion of the Feast:

“When Thou, O Lord wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bare witness unto Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son, and the Spirit, in the form of a Dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world: glory to Thee.”

This time God did not come to the water to create the world, but to begin the work of its “enlightenment,” its “re-organization,” its “Re-Creation.” I remember once, many years ago, Fr George Benigsen, the former Rector of our St Nicholas Parish here, when he and Matushka Helen were living in Calistoga, telling me about a miracle that was happening at the convent there. They had a small icon of St. Nicholas there in the temple which had been very dark, blacked and damaged by age, soot, smoke. But this little icon, by the grace of God, was beginning to restore itself. No human being was cleaning it. It was cleaning itself miraculously, or rather God was cleaning it. It started at one corner, and little-by-little, over a number of weeks or months, the restoration spread until the icon looked like it had just emerged from the icon-workshop in Russia over a century earlier. This is the same thing that Jesus was doing at the Jordan. He wasn’t there because He needed baptism. What an absurd idea! He wasn’t there because He needed to be freed from sin and death. Not at all! But the world did. We did. And He began the process at the Jordan, He began the work in that one little corner of the world, which would then begin to spread throughout the entire world.

So, let’s review: we understand that God hovered the first time over the waters when He created the world and declared it to be good. The second time He did it, it was to begin the re-creation, restoration, and renewal of that world. That’s why St Paul says “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17)! Will there be a third time that God will appear in connection with water? There certainly will be!

In Matthew 24:30, Jesus says:
And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

In Revelation 1:7 St John writes:
Behold, He cometh with the clouds; and every eye shall see him...

Now I want you to think about this for just a moment. In the beginning of time, the beginning of creation, when the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, no one saw it. It was revealed by the Holy Spirit, in a mystery, to Moses, who wrote it down. But nobody saw it. When God appeared the second time at the water, at the Jordan, nobody paid much attention. Nobody recognized Him. It was only John the Baptist who pointed Him out and declared to the people: “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) But the final time that God will appear, everyone will see Him, and He will come on clouds, clouds made of water. And what do clouds represent or symbolize? To those of us on earth, clouds mean water, life, refreshment, shade, and purification. And spiritually, mystically, these clouds mean heaven, heaven coming down to earth, and the completion Christs’ work of re-creating the world.

Holy Theophany, like Christmas, reminds us that Jesus is coming again. He is coming back for us. He is coming again in order the judge the living and the dead. We should live our lives in anticipation of this fact. Creation, Christmas, Holy Theophany, all of these events in Sacred History have only one goal, one final destination, the Kingdom of Heaven. Not this world, not this fallen, twisted, darkened, damaged icon of creation, but the New, shining, brilliant Jerusalem to come. May we find ourselves worthy to forever dwell in her mansions in the company of Christ, His Most Pure Mother, St. John the Baptist, all the saints, the holy angels, and all the righteous who wait for us there. Amen.