January 10, 2016
The Greek word epiphany means “appearing” or “revealing.” The brief church season of Epiphany is when we journey from Advent to Lent, leaving behind the manger and swaddling clothes and turning to stories of shimmering revelation: Kings and stars. Doves and voices. Water. Wine. Transfiguration.
In Celtic spirituality, Epiphany stories are considered “thin places,” places where the mundane and the eternal are so close they practically touch. God parts the curtain, and we can catch glimpses of God’s love, majesty, and power. Epiphanies are those moments when we see beneath and beyond the ordinary and discover the extraordinary. This season is an invitation to look deeply at Jesus, and see God.
Some of you think this might be all well and good as a season that commemorates some great Bible stories, but you can’t see what it has to do with you today. I’ve not heard of anyone at Trinity discovering a portentous star in the East or seeing the Holy Spirit descend like a dove. To the best of my knowledge (and my great disappointment) we have no personal experiences of water becoming wine, or of seeing Jesus’ clothes become blindingly white on a mountaintop. Don’t worry. It’s not just us. Not many 21st century Christians claim signs and wonders as part of their faith experience. Many faithful people experience God as silent or hidden. Many long for an epiphany of any kind.
If you are among those seeking a “thin place,” an epiphany, I hope you’ll join us after worship on the Sundays in Epiphany for an educational series that we are calling “Narratives of Hope.” Think of them as windows opening to reveal some modern-day epiphanies.
But at this moment, we have to deal with this text, Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism, which stretches the limits of credulity for us modern Christians. Heaven opened. A dove descended. God spoke out loud. Really? Is this a metaphor or did the people of that time and place really experience these things? And if God really did once speak audibly and show up in bird form, why doesn’t God do that now? It would certainly bolster our membership if God would put on a show—even a tame one—now and then!
Christian historian John Dominic Crossan writes that the story of Jesus’ baptism was an “acute embarrassment” for the early Church too, but for different reasons than our modern ones. The problem for early Christians was not the miraculous stuff in the story, but the ordinary stuff. They were fine with mystical doves and heavenly voices, but scandalized by the idea of the Messiah receiving baptism alongside the great unwashed masses. In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus isn’t even baptized by the formidable prophet John the Baptist since he’s recorded as being in jail at the time. Here the perfect, untouchable Jesus is baptized by some random nameless leader who may or may not have known Jesus’ identity as God’s son!
How could this be? John the Baptist very clearly prophesied that the Messiah coming after him would be a mighty change agent, offering a new, more powerful form of baptism—one of Unquenchable Fire! Not only does there seem to be no fire here, not to mention no winnowing fork, but in this story Jesus isn’t actually doing anything at all! He’s passively receiving something that is available to pretty much anyone who seeks it.
Why would God choose this moment to part the clouds and call Jesus God’s beloved Son? Why not wait till Jesus was doing something noteworthy and important, rather than just dripping like the rest of the masses? It’s no wonder that a few verses down John the Baptist sends a note from jail to ask if Jesus really is the Messiah or if that great hero is still on the way.
Maybe these concerns aren’t just those of the early Christians. Maybe we, too, secretly find the miraculous part of the baptism story more credible than the idea that Jesus takes his place among a throng of sinners, getting dunked right along with them, and that God says he is loved for no particular reason. Maybe we prefer the idea of God being dramatic to the possibility that God is right next to us in familiar everyday-ness of our lives.
One of our confirmation students has a terrible time every time I suggest that we are all related to one another through our baptisms. I’m not sure if it’s just the idea of being related to me that bothers her, or if it’s the larger implication that if we really are kin, that makes us each other’s keepers, and that’s a huge responsibility. Maybe what scares not just her, but all of us, most about baptismal connections and epiphanies is that they might be all around us, if we are willing to look.
Maybe we want the in-breaking of God to be so fantastical that we can’t avoid the “thin places” but must be bowled over by them. How much nicer it would be if the font sparkled with supernatural holiness! But I’m here to tell you, the water in our font is just tap water, the kind that leaves a ring in the bowl from all the lime in it. The “thin places” where God shows up are just parking lots, kitchens, neighborhoods, forests, hilltops. The voice that we think might be God might also be the wind, or thunder, indigestion, or delusion. We might find ourselves asking, “Is the baby divine? Or have we misread the star? Is this the very lifeblood and body of God’s Son? Or is it a just a bit of bread and a sip of not-very-good wine?”
We’d like to know for sure when God was talking to us, and when we were on our own. That arrangement would fit neatly with our often-unarticulated sense that God is revealed to people who truly deserve it, who pray hard enough, or are searching to do God’s will, while it is hidden from those who do not merit a visit from the divine, at least not at this time. We tend to believe that what we do or do not do is what makes us loveable or unlovable. We frequently measure a person’s worthiness by their competence, productivity, or ability to keep a certain set of rules. I blame the Puritans.
But what if that’s not how it works? What if, when the heavens opened at Jesus’ baptism, they never closed up again? What if God is not waiting for us in the “thin places,” for “the good people,” but just shows up over and over again, all over the place, every day? What if everyone is free to choose whether to ignore or respond to God?
Luke’s story of Jesus baptism shows us an entirely different way to think about when and how and to whom God is revealed. God doesn’t just appear at landmark events like retirement parties or funerals or the birth of a baby. It isn’t just in holy places that God is present, but out in public! It isn’t just the faithful who can hear God speak, but the crowd in the wilderness!
I think we are being given an opportunity not merely to observe but to practice Epiphany! As author Debie Thomas puts it, “See freshly. Stand in the place that might possibly be thin, and regardless of how jaded you feel, cling to the possibility of surprise. Epiphany is deep water — you can’t dip your toes in. You must take a breath and plunge. Yes, baptism promises new life, but it always kills before it resurrects.”
Yikes! “It always kills before it resurrects.” That sounds unpleasant! But it’s true. It’s real, and if we are going to talk about the bright Epiphany stories, we have to be honest about how they all have a shadow over them. The story of the Magi finding Jesus is followed by Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents. Immediately after Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters, he is tempted in the desert. Shortly after the Transfiguration, Jesus is arrested and killed. “Seeing the light” is not always safe and pretty. Epiphanies do not promise “happily ever after.” Debie Thomas points out that, “Until Christianity became a state-sanctioned religion in the 4th century A.D, no convert received the sacrament of baptism lightly; he knew the stakes too well. To align oneself publicly with a despised and illegal religion was to court persecution, torture, and death.”
If our baptisms still courted “persecution, torture, and death,” would you still claim yours? And if that is what baptismal living leads to, then why is Trinity doing an Epiphany series called “Narratives of Hope”? If everything is shadowed and temporary and dangerous, what hope is there to hold onto?
Follow where John the Baptist’s finger is pointing. Look at Jesus. He’s standing at the riverbank with all the rest of us liars and thieves and greedy, self-centered people, dripping with the same baptismal water that covers us, not doing anything special, but being called God’s beloved? He’s the “thin place”! He’s the in-breaking of God into our daily experience! No matter how often Herod or Pilate or the high priests (or any of their modern equivalents) say NO to compassion and justice and mercy, God says YES through Jesus Christ. No matter what we have done or left undone, no matter how good or bad or indifferent we are, Jesus Christ is with us and for us!
Because Jesus named us and claimed us, whether or not we are looking, the Holy Spirit descends to us every day. Whether or not we hear it or believe it, daily God whispers to us, “You are my beloved.” Because Jesus is for us, no one can be against us. Even in the deepest water, we are always the Beloved.
~Pastor Susan Schneider
Thanks to Debie Thomas for the idea of Epiphany as a “thin place,” from her essay “Thin Place, Deep Water” on the website Journey with Jesus. I owe the whole concept behind this sermon to her. ~SS