Service Planning: the Season of Epiphany

Epiphany season begins twelve days after Christmas, on January 6, and continues until the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. While this article provides resources for six Sundays, the season can be as long as nine weeks. The Sunday lessons during this season center upon events and readings from the ministry of Jesus, all of them concentrating on the seasonal theme: God, in Jesus Christ, personally appeared (Greek: epiphaneia) on earth, revealing himself to us directly rather than through any chosen messenger. During the Epiphany season the service planner is challenged to make sure sermons, hymns, anthems, and prayers all focus on Jesus Christ. By doing so, planners can help those who worship truly feel the impact of Scripture:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father.
—John 1:14 (RSV)


Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

For some Christians—notably the Eastern Orthodox Church and churches in Latin America—the observance of January 6th follows a rich tradition. This is the day when gifts are exchanged among friends and family members in commemoration of the gifts the wise men presented to the baby Jesus.

Among Reformed and Presbyterian churches, Epiphany Day is largely ignored. Most of us—even those who follow the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)—do not gather to worship on Epiphany and, as a result, tend to skip these lessons. However, since these three passages help us understand how God appeared in person, the editors of the RCL suggest that churches who do not meet on Epiphany Day read these passages on one of the two Sundays following Christmas.

For the purpose of worship planning, note the Epiphany theme in each lesson. In the Isaiah passage, the light of God dawns on God's people in the midst of the world's darkness. In Ephesians, we are reminded that the gospel was a mystery—obscured in the past, but made clear to all who encounter Jesus Christ. Tire Matthew reading tells of the heavenly light, sent by God, that leads wise men to the very place where God appeared in person.

The light that shines in these narratives neither reveals humanity nor exposes our sin. Such light is alluded to elsewhere in Scripture. Here the light reveals God, leads the way to Christ, and makes evident the manifold wisdom of God's plan for salvation. Surprisingly, such light may be no more desired by the world than the light that exposes its evil. King Herod, after all, sees and tries to extinguish the light that reveals God when the scribes read the scroll of the prophet Micah.

Still, yearned for or despised, God's light shines in the world, and that's what's important. Because it shines, nations come to it, Gentiles rejoice to share in it, and the wise from the ends of the earth kneel in worship before King Jesus.

What Star Is This? (Coffin)
As with Gladness Men of Old (Dix) 
O Morning Star (Nicolai)
Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning (Heber)
Psalm 72: Hail to the Lord's Anointed (Montgomery)
Jesus Shall Reign (Watts)

The Morning Star (F.F. Hagen. Boosey & Hawkes #5483}
Lord, We Beseech Thee (A. Batten. In A 16th Century Anthem Book, Oxford University Press)

First Sunday After Epiphany

THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

The first Sunday in Epiphany always focuses on the narrative of Jesus' baptism. This year the passages suggested by the Common Lectionary deal with our Lord's baptism in the context of the creation and the "New Creation."

Planners should note that the epiphanic event in the gospel lesson is the divine anointing that follows Jesus' baptism. The Spirit descends as a dove, and the voice from heaven speaks, revealing Jesus as the One who fulfills John's words of prophecy. God, who appears in person as Jesus Christ, will baptize with the Holy Spirit; his heavenly anointing validates just that.

The lessons reveal a parallel between the voice that spoke over Jesus with the voice that spoke in the beginning, when God's Spirit hovered over the formless void. The message of Genesis is that all creation owes its being to the God who brought it into existence by his personally spoken Word.

What God did at the beginning of time he also does at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, as described by Mark: the voice that speaks from heaven while the Spirit hovers overjesus is a revelation that the Author of history is, by his personal appearance as Jesus Christ, about to bring forth a new creation.

The lesson from Acts teaches that the new creation does not come about through simple repentance. The Ephesian disciples who had received the baptism of John need something greater. At the moment when Paul lays his hands on them in Jesus' name, they become true followers of their Lord: the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they begin to declare the wonders of God.

The church today would do well to look at the baptism of Jesus as the point of its founding. All those who are the church must come as Jesus did to receive the baptism of repentance and to become a new creation through the baptism of Jesus, empowered through the Holy Spirit given in Jesus' name to minister for Christ.

Hail to the Lord's Anointed (Montgomery) 
Thy Strong Word Did Cleave the Darkness (Franzmann) 
The Church's One Foundation (Stone) 
In the Beginning Was the Word Eternal (Polman) 
Psalm 29: All Glory Laud and Honor (Bishop of Orleans)

Hail, Holy Light (A.D. Kastalsky)
At the Name of Jesus (R. Vaughan Williams)

Second Sunday After Epiphany

1 Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20: Psalm 63:1-8: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20: John 1:35-42

Will humans recognize God when he appears in person? The lessons for this Sunday deal with God's epiphany from the perspective of those to whom God has come.

In the Old Testament lesson, God appears as a voice in the night, calling the child Samuel by name. Relying only on his human faculties and on his personal experience, Samuel misidentifies the voice three times, confusing God's call with a summons from his mentor, Eli. Only after Eli finally understands what is happening and instructs Samuel to listen obediently is God able to get through with his message.

The problem here is not divine weakness but human inability and ignorance. Samuel does not perceive God because God has not yet become part of his life; where his relationship with God should be, there is only emptiness. But when God comes a fourth time and Samuel offers to obey, a relationship begins that will continue all of Samuel's days (vv. 19—20). Human ignorance is overcome, and God enters in.

The Corinthian church also missed God, but for a very different reason. Although Christ had come to them (through the preaching of Paul), they seem to have chosen not to listen. Indeed, they seem to have listened to every voice but the voice of God! As Eli corrected Samuel's minor human error, so Paul must correct the Corinthians' major human sin. Samuel had a void in his life where God should have been. The Corinthians had one too, but they filled it with a collection of evils. Their sinfulness kept God from making a temple within their lives.

In the gospel lesson the problem is not so apparent. John describes the first disciples as seekers, already looking for God as followers of John. When the Baptist directs their attention toward Jesus, they immediately switch their attention to him. Only after Jesus himself invites them to follow him and they accept is their search completed.

When God appears in person, will humans recognize him? If we rely only on ourselves—our own experience and knowledge—the answer is no. But when we are directed toward God by those who have already met him (Eli) or those whom he has called to speak for him (Paul) or by God's own invitation issued by Jesus—then we will know God without any confusion.

On the day following Jesus' invitation to him, Andrew made finding his brother, Simon, his first priority. He told Simon with confidence, "We have found the Messiah!" and he brought his brother to Jesus. This remains the task of Christians today.

I Have No Other Comfort (Grether, Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 1)
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart (Croly) 
Breathe on Me, Breath of God (Hatch) 
'Tis Not That I Did Choose Thee (Conder) 
Master, Speak! (Havergal) 
Psalm 63: O God, Thou Art My God Alone (Montgomery)

I Greet Thee, My Redeemer (arr. by C. Dickinson. H. W. Gray) 
It Is Our God (J. C. Bechler. Carl Fischer, Inc., #CM 7849)

Third Sunday After Epiphany

Jonah 3:1—5; Psalm 62:5—12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-33; Mark 1:14-20

It might be wise to ask, at the midpoint of the season of Epiphany, why God would want to appear in person to us. Both the Old Testament and the gospel lessons respond to this question.

In the book of Jonah God's intention in coming to Nineveh through his prophet forms the heart of our reading. Nineveh is described as a great city, so vast that it takes days to cross it. Full of people and wealth, this city hears from Jonah's lips God's proclamation of disaster.

But God doesn't want to destroy Nineveh. Repentence is what God desires. To Jonah's great displeasure, God makes his desire clear, and the Ninevites repent. They believe in God, declare a fast, and wait humbly for God to be merciful. God sent Jonah for salvation, not damnation.

God's motive is even clearer when he comes in person as Jesus Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds his listeners, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:21 NIV). This is true for God as well as for us. We are God's treasure; God's heart comes to where his treasure is-—with us!

As earnestly as we work for our daily living or for earthly riches, so earnestly does God work for our salvation. Even when it means giving up the joys and privileges of heaven, the Son of God comes to us because he loves us.

This model of God's own action forms the foundation for Mark's account of the calling of the first disciples. Jesus encounters Simon, Andrew, James, and John and asks them nothing more or less than he has already asked of himself. "Follow me," says Jesus (come, do what I have done).

Paul often refers his readers to the example Christ set and exhorts them to respond by following that example. It is with that understanding that we should read the lesson from the epistle. Paul is interested in affirming not so much the virtues of poverty or the single life as the virtue of following Christ. The intent of the passage is most clearly expressed in 7:35 : "I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord" (NIV). Isaac Watts put it another way in his great passion hymn: "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."

God appears in person to us out of love for us. We to whom God has appeared must respond in the same way toward God.

Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (Wesley) 
Be Thou My Vision (Ancient Irish) 
O Love of God, How Strong and True (Bonar) 
Jesus Calls Us, O'er the Tumult (Alexander) 
Psalm 116: What Shall I Render to the Lord? (Psalter, 1912)

O Taste and See (J. Goss) 
Lord, Look Down (Air. by H. Hopson. GIA Publications #G-2170)

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1—13; Mark 1:21-28

In Jesus Christ, God appears to the world as an ordinary human, unremarkable in every way except for what he said and did—and even in these things, he seems to seek anonymity over fame. Why? Why should God appear in person only to cloak his majesty and grandeur behind the image of the ordinary?

The lessons for the day give insight into at least one aspect of God's purpose. The reading from Deuteronomy recalls a past event in which God hid nothing of his power and majesty. Moses reminds the Israelites of the time when God, in the midst of thick darkness and fire so fierce that it threatened to consume the sky, descended before their eyes on Mount Horeb (Sinai). Before God the earth trembled; a celestial trumpet heralded his coming, blaring forth ever more loudly until it was silenced by the very voice of the Creator!

At the foot of the mountain the people of Israel stood and quaked in awe, certain that before a Presence so terrible they were sure to die. Unable to stand before the majestic power of the Almighty, they sought out a God whom they could abide, the golden calf. Before this lifeless idol, they bowed in worship—-perhaps less in defiance of God than in stark terror of him!

In the presence of God's awesome glory and stupendous power, his love and mercy were hidden from their eyes. Fear blotted out even the recognition that God had always used his power for their rescue and salvation, not their ruin. Their weakness drove them away, toward their idol.

God knows all about human weakness. So he agrees to come to his people through prophets, through their own kind. God's people will have no cause to fail to hear his full counsel.

This same compassion for our weakness is exemplified in the incarnation. No matter what other motives God might have had for coming to earth, merciful love was one. The evil spirit who cries out in terrified recognition of Jesus sees him not as a man but as the Israelites saw God at Sinai. The evil in the spirit threatens to expose Jesus' full majesty and hide his lovingkindness. It is as much to prevent this from happening as to free the spirit's victim that Jesus orders it to be still and casts it out of the man.

Jesus Christ is God, come to us in a form we can accept without fear so that we might see God's love and feel his pardoning grace. But Jesus also reflects God'sjustice and righteousness, teaching with authority and rendering swift judgment against evil. He reveals the wholeness of God. And God is love.

In imitation of Christ, the Corinthian Christians are urged to be concerned for the weaknesses of others. Although they knew God was preeminent over the worthless idols to whom meat was sacrificed, they were enjoined not to live according to their knowledge, but rather to forego their freedom in order to give the weak among them the opportunity to be strengthened by God's love.

If we are to show forth God's love in our lives today, we must do the same.

Father, Long Before Creation (Jones)
Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us (Thrupp)
How Gentle God's Commands (Doddridge)
Blest Be the God of Israel (Perry)
Psalm 23: My Shepherd Will Supply My Need (Watts)

The Lord My Faithful Shepherd Is (J. S. Bach. Augsburg Publishing House, #ACL 1538)

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

Job 7:1-7; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

In the book of Job God withdraws from his faithful servant and turns Job's life over to Satan. In God's absence all Job holds dear is taken from him. He is left with only his life, of which he cries, "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and thev come to an end without hope" (NIV).

Hopelessness is the necessary result of life without God, for without God we have no one to hope in. When God is not with us, human ills abound, sufferings multiply, and life is a trial to be endured until death passes its grim sentence.

In Jesus Christ, God appears on earth in person to end hopelessness. God's presence in our midst is the assurance that even though we may experience great suffering, we will not be abandoned and that life is not a period of suffering but a gift to be cherished and enjoyed. In the gospel lesson Jesus demonstrates through tangible acts his desire to restore health and wholeness to broken lives. His healing miracles are not merely signs of his power but examples of his love.

But true hope transcends the good feelings of the moment. When Jesus heals their bodies, the citizens of Capernaum will not let him alone. They feel good now, and they want to stay that way. Even out in the countryside Jesus can find no peace; the people keep coming to him.

But Jesus came to do more than heal people physically. Hope is his gift—for now and for all eternity. It is given both to those who are near and to those who are far off. The good news is for everyone who will hear it and accept it.

This is Paul's theme in the epistle lesson. Though the Corinthians may desire all of his time and efforts, Paul's apostolic calling is to follow Jesus, to minister to all as their needs may require and not to count the cost.

Christians today need to make this response as well. We must meet the world where it is and offer real, tangible help—not only for the day, but forever, through hope in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Christ for the World We Sing (Wolcott)
Hark, the Glad Sound (Doddridge) 
Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun (Watts) 
Shout, for the Blessed Jesus Reigns (Beddome) 
Psalm 42: As a Deer in Want of Water (vers. CRC Publications)
Psalm 147: Sing Praise to Our Creator (Post)

Jesu,Joy of Man's Desiring (J. S. Bach. Church Music Society, #CMS 16A)

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

THE TRANSFIGURATION: 2 Kings 2:l-12a; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

In the New Testament the word epiphaneia always refers to the appearing of Christ—-born on earth the first time and still to come at the end of time. Epiphany season always concludes with the narrative of the transfiguration, that great vision of the Christ who is to come.

Suddenly, before the disciples' eyes, Jesus appears robed in his glory, shining with a pure, dazzling light. Moments before, they had climbed the hill with him. Now, in the twinkling of an eye, all has changed!

How marvelous that this prophetic event occurs in the middle of Jesus' ministry. The second coming of Christ is not just a promise for some far-off future; it encompasses the whole of God's plan for salvation. And it has meaning for us now, in between epiphanies.

Note the conscious allusions to great epiphanies of the past. Jesus takes his chosen disciples alone to the top of a high mountain. There he is revealed to them. In the past God had appeared to Moses twice on Mount Sinai— in the burning bush and in the giving of the covenant. On this same mountain Elijah had hidden near the mouth of a cave, and God let his glory pass before him (Ex. 3:1-12,19:16-25; 1 Kings 19:9-18). These two great figures from history stand now with the same One they had seen on Sinai, talking with Jesus and illumined again by his glory. The glorious Christ the disciples see is the God of Moses and Elijah, the God who fills history.

He is also the Lord of the present. At the beginning of his ministry a cloud appeared and a voice from heaven spoke over him. Now, in the transfiguration, the cloud returns, and the same voice speaks the same words: "This is my Son, whom I love!" Jesus—the Jesus of the present, who walked and talked with his disciples—is revealed in his glory.

But the God of past and present manifested in the transfiguration is also God of the future. That's why Peter's offer to build three booths is not accepted. Instead, the voice from heaven responds with the command that the church must carry into the future. "This is my Son, whom I love! Listen to him!" When that same voice spoke in the beginning to the darkness, the darkness listened and became light. Now God calls to people of faith that the light of Christ may shine in them until the sun and moon are no more and they are called to live in that heavenly city where God will be their light forever.

O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair (Latin, 15th C.)
Christ upon the Mountain Peak (Wren)
O God, Our Help in Ages Past (Watts) 
God Himself Is with Us (Tersteegen) 
O Could I Speak the Matchless Worth (Medley)

Alleluia (R. Thompson. E. C. Schirmer, #ECS 1228)
And I Saw a New Heaven (E.L. Bainton. Novello, #29 0342 03)

James R. Esther is pastor of Second Reformed Church ini New Brunswick, New Jersey.


Reformed Worship 5 © September 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.