Would you be surprised to find an ad in your local newspaper announcing an Epiphany service in your church?
Most of us would. Traditionally churches in the Reformed tradition have not observed Epiphany. Many of us are probably not even sure what Epiphany is all about or where the idea of celebrating it began. Although a growing appreciation of the church year has given Christians a better understanding of Advent and Lent, Epiphany still seems a bit "foreign" to some of us.
Actually, it is a celebration that has its roots way back in the early church. Epiphany is a Greek word that means "to reveal" or "to make manifest." It was the name given by early Christians to their celebration of the birth of Christ, a festival that took place each year on January 6. The name recognizes that Jesus, the Son of God, reveals God's plan to save the world.
During the fourth century, the celebration of the nativity was moved from January 6 to December 25. Now January 6, the day of the Epiphany, brings to a conclusion the twelve days of Christmas and thus marks the end of the Christmas season.
How to Observe Epiphany
Though few, if any, of our churches will hold an Epiphany service on Friday, January 6, some may wish to celebrate the Epiphany at their Sunday morning worship on January 1. The lectionary for that Sunday designates Matthew's story of the visit of the wise men as the gospel lesson. This story would be most appropriate for the first Sunday of the new year as the congregation joins multitudes from all nations and races in adoration of the newborn King.
Epiphany refers to a single day. The Sundays following are, therefore, usually called "the Sundays after Epiphany" (or Sundays in "Ordinary Time"—that is, not part of the Christmas or Easter cycles). In the Christian year, these days begin with the first Sunday after January 6 and end with the Sunday before Lent. In 1995 there will be eight Sundays between January 6 and March 1 the first day of Lent.
During this time, we focus our attention on the One who came to reveal the "good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). We observe his actions, especially those mighty acts we call miracles, and listen to his teaching. As he proclaims the kingdom of God among us, we observe the unfolding of the mystery kept secret for ages, "that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus" (Eph. 3:6).
As believers gather for worship during the Sundays after Epiphany, the liturgy and message should help them come to a new and deeper awareness of the grace of God that extends to all people, including themselves. They should also hear the Lord calling them to be "witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
Each service should not only speak to those already in the faith but should also be an expression of the outstretched arms of Jesus to a world lost in darkness. When congregations conduct their worship celebrations in the spirit of Epiphany, they will discover that they are working hand in hand with the Lord to bring the world the best news it has ever heard.
Planning for Epiphany
The series of service plans suggested in this article follows the Common Lectionary for Year C, which features the gospel of Luke. The Old Testament selections of the Lectionary support the gospel readings for these Sundays.
In each of the three years outlined by the Common Lectionary, the gospel reading for the first Sunday after Epiphany tells the story of Jesus' baptism and concludes with the story of the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent begins. Jesus' baptism launches his public ministry, and the Transfiguration assures the disciples that Jesus is on the right track when he tells them he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die.
As you prepare the sanctuary for worship during this season, the dominant color should be green to reflect the growth and vibrant life of the church. The Christ candle, which was lighted at the service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, should be prominently displayed as a symbol that Christ is the light of the world.
The following liturgy includes suggested litanies and prayers designed especially for these Sundays. Christmas music is very appropriate, especially during the first few Sundays.
LITURGY FOR THE SUNDAYS
Call to Worship
God, whom we gather to worship,
gave Jesus, born in Bethlehem, as the fulfillment of the
promise to his people, the children of Abraham.
God called persons of another tradition,
the Wise Men, to seek out Jesus and to worship him.
Yes, God, maker of heaven and earth,
so loved the world—and each person in it—that he
gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him s
hall not perish, but have everlasting life.
Come, let us worship God.
[From Come, Let us Worship by David M. Currie,p. 88]
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Open the service with the following invocation:
Lord, God, who promised that your glory should be revealed and that all flesh should see it together: set a restlessness stirring in our hearts, a waiting for the light that will break into our darkness, a wondering before the innocence that will address our sinful world, a waking to the hope that will dispel our weariness in seeking your kingdom above all things. Glory to God in the highest! Amen.
[From Prayers for Worship Leaders by Arnold Kenseth and Richard P. Unsworth, p. 63]
Song(s) of Praise and Adoration
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we have received God's peace, let us share the peace with each other.
[The people share the peace by saying: "The peace of the Lord be with you" and respond with "And also with you."]
Call to Confession
"Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it" (John 1:3-5). Let us confess our sin.
Jesus calls us to confess our sin with these words: "Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. All who do evil hate the light, and will not come to the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what each one has done has been done through God."
Confession of Sin
Eternal God, we confess that we have praised you with our lips but have not glorified you with our lives. Have mercy on us, we pray, for our brief faith that fades under pressure, for our quick enthusiasms that just as quickly die, for the hopes we proclaim but do not pursue. Forgive us, Lord God, and give us new trust in your power, that we may live for justice and tell of your loving-kindness by our acts as by our words; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[Prayers far Worship Leaders, p. 30]
Assurance of Pardon
The Reading of God's Law
A Song of Dedication
Old Testament Lesson (see box for readings and comments)
New Testament Lesson (see box for readings and comments)
Reader concludes with, "This is the Word of the Lord."
Thanks be to God.
Prayer before the Sermon
Lord God, enable your servant to speak your Word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus. Amen.
[From Acts 4:29-30]
Open the mouth of your servant, and fill it with your wisdom and knowledge, that he may boldly proclaim your Word in all its purity Prepare our hearts to receive it, to understand it, and to preserve it. Amen.
[From the Psalter Hymnal 1959, p. 75]
Psalm or Hymn
Offering and Offertory
SCRIPTURE READINGS AND HYMN
SUGESTIONS FOR THE EIGHT
SUNDAYS AFTER EPIPHANY
January 1: Epiphany of the Lord
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 60:1-6—"Arise, shine, for your light has come...."
New Testament Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12—The wise men visit the newborn King.
Theme: Christ is made manifest as the Savior not only of the Jews, but of the whole world. Comments: Isaiah foresees the Messiah as a light shining in a dark world, and he sees the nations drawn to the light. The wise men are a symbol of all the nations and races who will join in praising the newborn King.
Psalms and Hymns
"Arise, Shine," PsH 198 or concertato setting of Isaiah 60, arr. Folkerts
[CRC Publications 2411-9800]
"As with Gladness Men of Old"
[PsH 358, PH 63, RL 228, TH 226]
"Hail to the Lord's Anointed," concertato setting of Psalm 72, arr. Hopp
[CRC Publications 2410-7200]
"How Bright Appears the Morning Star"
[PsH 357, PH 69, TH 515]
January 8: Baptism of Jesus
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 43:1-7—God's promise of protection and restoration
New Testament Lesson: Luke 3:15-17,21-22—The baptism of Jesus
Theme: The dawn of a new age is announced as Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit.
Comments: Water imagery is important in all three passages. The sinless Christ humbled himself in submitting to the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His baptism gives us a picture of God's salvation plan in Christ: dying/drowning to sin and rising to newness of life. All three persons of the Trinity were active at this moment: the Father expressing love and approval of the Son, who was anointed by the Holy Spirit.
Psalms and Hymns
"Christ, When for Us You Were Baptized"
|PH 70, RL 241]
"Lord, When You Came to Jordan"
"O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High"
[PsH 364, PH 83, RL 342-3, TH 155]
"The God of Heaven Thunders" (Psalm 29)
[PH 180 or choral setting in Psalm Praise]
"When Jesus Came to Jordan"
January 15: Second Sunday After Epiphany
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 62:1-5—The marriage of Jahweh and Israel
New Testament Lesson: John 2:1-11—The wedding at Cana
Theme: The One baptized by John makes all things new.
Comments: The gospel lesson contains rich symbolic imagery in which the marriage feast anticipates the festivity at the end of the ages. "On the third day" probably looks ahead to the resurrection of Jesus. Wine is a symbol of the blood of Christ, but it is also a symbol of joy and festivity. The best is saved for last.
Psalms and Hymns
"Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life"
"My Heart Speaks Out" (Psalm 36)
"Songs of Thankfulness and Praise"
[PsH 361, RL 231]
January 22: Third Sunday After Epiphany
Old Testament Lesson: Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10—After hearing God's Word, the people are told not to weep but to rejoice "for the j oy of the LORD is (their) strength."
New Testament Lesson: Luke 4:14-21—Jesus preaches his first sermon.
Theme: Jesus proclaims good news to a hurting, broken world.
Comments: Although the Word does bring reason for dismay and even tears of remorse, it is primarily a message of joy and peace.
Psalms and Hymns
"Hark the Glad Sound, the Savior Comes" (Isaiah 61:1-2)
[PsH 335, RL 251]
"I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say"
[PsH 488, TH 304]
"The Heavens Declare Your Glory" (Psalm 19)
[PsH 429, RL 411-12, TH 113]
"The Joy of the Lord" (Nehemiah 8:10)
[The Hyumnal for Worship and Celebration, 411]
January 29: Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
Old Testament Lesson: Jeremiah 1:4-10—Jeremiah is called to bring a message that will be rejected by many.
New Testament Lesson: Luke 4:21-30—Jesus is threatened because a prophet has no honor in his own country.
Theme: In spite of fierce resistance, God breaks into our darkness to build, plant, and save.
Comments: A calloused world turns a deaf ear to the Savior, but the mighty power of God is demonstrated when Jesus walks unharmed through the threatening crowds. That same power is needed to break through the barriers set up by all sinners.
Psalms and Hymns
"Christ Is the World's True Light"
[PsH 600, RL 181]
"God of the Prophets"
[PsH 521, RL 429]
"Holy God, We Praise Your Name"
[FsH 504, PH 460, RL 619, TH 103]
"In You, O LORD, I Put My Trust" (Psalm 71)
[PsH 71,PH 183, TH 682]
February 5: Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 6:1-8 (9-13)—Isaiah's vision and call
New Testament Lesson: Luke 5:1-11—Jesus calls his disciples.
Theme: The disciples are surprised and amazed at the positive response to the gospel.
Comments: Those who are called by God are usually deeply aware of their unworthiness to bring the gospel. They are surprised when people respond in faith to the gospel message, just as the disciples were surprised at their unexpected catch of fish.
Psalms and Hymns
"Church of God, Elect and Glorious"
"Here I Am, Lord"
"Jesus Calls Us; O'er the Tumult"
[PsH 553, RL 258-9, TH 591]
"With Grateful Heart My Thanks I Bring" (Psalm 138)
[PsH 183, TH 88]
February 12: Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
Old Testament Lesson: Jeremiah 17:540—The prophet exposes the sinful and foolish ways of fallen humanity.
New Testament Lesson: Luke 6:17-26—Jesus heals the sick and tells them of the way that leads to happiness.
Theme: Happiness is found by walking hand in hand with God.
Comments: Jeremiahs picture of a healthy tree drawing water from a nearby stream is closely related to Jesus' proclamation that happiness is available to those who walk in the ways of the Lord. (See Psalm 1.) These passages lead to a reflection on the relationship between justification and sanctification.
Psalms and Hymns
"Blest Are the Contrite Hearts"
"Happy Are They" (Psalm 1)
[see "Hymn of the Month," p. 29]
"How Blest Are They Who, Fearing God"
[PsH 1, RL 81]
"If You But Trust in God to Guide You"
[PsH 446, PH 282, RL 151, TH 670]
February 19: Seventh Sunday After Epiphany
Old Testament Lesson: Genesis 45:3-11,15—Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers.
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
New Testament Lesson: Luke 6:27-38—Love your enemies.
Theme: The greatest of all commands is to love God above all and your neighbor as yourself.
Comments: The way of love calls each person to be forgiving, tolerant, and nonjudgmental. When we suffer hurt at the hands of others, we should avoid revenge but "leave room for God's wrath" (Rom. 12:19). Joseph learned that God can bring good out of evil.
Psalms and Hymns
"Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love"
"Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service"
[PsH 603, PH 427]
"Spirit of God, Who Dwells Within My Heart"
"When Evil People Sin" (Psalm 37)
February 26: Transfiguration Sunday
Old Testament Lesson: Exodus 34:29-35—The radiant face of Moses.
New Testament Lesson: Luke 9:28-36-The Transfiguration
Theme: The path that leads to Easter Sunday moves through the rugged season of Lent.
Comments: Eternal lite is not a gift of cheap grace. There is a cross in the picture, for both Jesus and his disciples. In the Transfiguration God called his disciples to follow Jesus to the cross so that they might also experience the resurrection.
Psalms and Hymns
"Christ upon the Mountain Peak"
[PsH 369, PH 74, RL 257]
"Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies"
[PsH 481, PH 462-3, RL 463, TH 398]
"O Son of God the Father"
"Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory"
"The Lord God Reigns in Majesty"