The First Sunday After Epiphany
January 8, 2017
‘What Happens When God Doesn’t Show Up?’
This morning is the First Sunday after Epiphany. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means ‘appearing’ or ‘revealing’. That may be where Jill got the idea for last week’s sermon in which the constant refrain was over and over, ‘…and God showed up.’ During this brief season between Advent and Lent, we leave mangers and swaddling clothes behind, and turn to stories of mind-boggling revelation. Distant Kings and never-before-seen stars. Doves and voices as seen in the Baptism of Jesus. Water. Wine. At a wedding. Lots and lots of white during the Transfiguration.
Many of us, early in the 21st century, are still holding on to a vision of the God experience that was hammered out in the early years of the Jesus Movement, primarily known as the Patristic Period, the first few hundred years of the Common Era. Ideas such as ‘God is in control’ or ‘everything happens for a reason.’ My Godly mother who loved God with her very being once commented to Karen that it must not be God’s will for us to have children, after many years of fertility studies to no avail. It was not a comment she ever repeated. Trust me.
In the stories from Celtic Christianity that have become a part of our story in this place, Epiphany stories are stories of ‘thin places,’ places where the boundary between the mundane and the eternal becomes accessible. God parts the curtain, and we catch glimpses of his love, majesty, and power. Epiphany calls us to look beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces of our lives, and discover the extraordinary. To look deeply at Jesus, and see God.
The problem? I have never seen a portentous star in the East. Storm clouds maybe. Stars? No. I have never seen the Spirit descend like a dove, or heard a divine Voice in the clouds. I’ve never watched water become wine, or seen Jesus’s clothes blaze white on a mountaintop. Though I have professed belief in a self-revealing God all my life, I have not experienced him in any of the ways the Epiphany stories describe. As the writer of John puts it, I belong to ‘a people who walk in darkness.’
My experience might be unique, but I doubt it. I don’t know many 21st century Christians who bask in signs and wonders, who complain that God talks too much, or butts into their lives too often. But I know plenty of believers who experience God as hidden or silent. These are faithful people who long for epiphany — not just for a season, but for lifetimes.
I’ve come to a point, not fixed…hopefully that never happens, but to a point in my journey where I do not believe that God is in control of everything that happens in our world. In fact, I would argue that God controls very, very little of what happens in our world.
I imagine you may feel the same way at times. The Holocaust. Apartheid. The killing fields of Cambodia. Aleppo.
So I stand at the edges of this week’s Gospel reading — Luke’s account of Jesus’s sermon at Nazareth — and find myself afraid to leap. How shall I bridge the gap with what we have been told and what I know?
In the Liturgical Calendar, today is The Baptism of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Matthew. If God spoke audibly in the past, why doesn’t he do so now? If he does, why haven’t I heard him? Is God angry at me? Has he retreated? Changed? Left?
Or are the ancient stories of Epiphany figurative? Was the dove, in fact, just a dove, and the voice from heaven no more than a nicely timed windstorm? When we speak of epiphanies, are we really just speaking in metaphors?
Here’s my real problem with Epiphany: I always, always have a choice — and most of the time, I don’t want it. I expect God’s revelations to bowl me over. I expect the thin places to dominate my landscape, such that I am left choice-less, powerless, sinless. Freed of all doubts, and spilling over with faith.
But no. God has not insulted humanity with so little agency; we get to choose. No matter how many times God shows up in my life, I’m free to ignore him. No matter how often he calls me Beloved, I can choose self-loathing instead. No matter how many times I remember my baptism, I’m free to dredge out of the water the very sludge I first threw in. No matter how often I reaffirm my vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons, I’m at liberty to reject you and walk away.
The stories of Epiphany are stories of light, and yet quite often, they end in shadow. The Visitation of the Magi leads to the Slaughter of the Innocents. Jesus’s baptism drives him directly into the wilderness of temptation and testing. Soon after he’s transfigured, he dies. There is no indication, anywhere in Scripture, that revelation leads to happily ever-after. It is quite possible to stand in the hot white center of a thin place, and see nothing but my own ego.
Let us remember that catch phrase we have spoken over and over again throughout Advent: Emmanuel. It means God is with us. Not that God is in control. Or that God will make for us a straight path. It says what it means. God is with us. So that when we say, ‘and God showed up’ perhaps what we mean to say is that no matter what we are going through, no matter the difficulty of this moment or of the moments standing in front of us, we will not be alone.
We sometimes speak so glibly of faith, revelation, and baptism. As if it’s all easy. As if lives aren’t on the line. Until Christianity became a state-sanctioned religion in the 4th century of the Common Era, 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.
I don’t know about you, but I find so much of this maddening. How much nicer it would be if the font were self-evidently holy. But no — the font is just tap water, river water, chlorine. The thin place is a neighborhood, a forest, a hilltop. The voice that might be God might also be wind, thunder, indigestion, or delusion. Is the baby divine? Or have we misread the star? Is this the body and blood of God’s Son? Or is it a mere hunk of bread? A jug of wine?
What I mean to say is that there is no magic — we practice Epiphany. The challenge is always before us. Look again. Look harder. 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 stand on the shore and dip your toes in. You must take a breath and plunge. Yes, baptism promises new life, but it always kills before it resurrects.
What reason for hope, then? What shall we hang onto in this uncertain season of light and shadow? New Testament scholar Marcus Borg suggests that Jesus himself is our thin place. He’s the one who opens the barrier, and shows us the God we long for. He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that can tell us who we are and whose we are in this sacred season. Listen. We are God’s own. God’s children. God’s pleasure. Even in the deepest water, we are Beloved.
For the past few weeks, we sang of the coming of the birth of the child. Well, he came. As was promised. And within a week was on his way into exile to escape being murdered by Herod. Another child’s face as a refugee in the midst of death just as we have seen out of Aleppo. Did God show up that day? Yes. With all of my heart I believe God did. But it was the face of Mary and Joseph and the strength of that donkey that exhibited God’s presence. Herod still murdered the male infants under the age of two.
When I first read Elie Wiesel’s Night and his story about his family in the Holocaust, did God show up at any point? In time, we have come to see where God was standing in the gas chambers and lying in the ovens along side those who died just as God hung on that rope beside Dietrich Bonhoeffer on that fateful day.
Yes. God showed up. And is still showing up to be with us. But this story can only be told because a small group of believers became the remnant of God’s truth. Truth tellers. When all others are looking to the heavens for a miracle, these followers of the Way are looking for all the opportunities to be the face of God, the eyes of God, the heart of God in our world. Then, and only then, will God be present. Through us. Be strong. Be vigilant. God’s love and spirit are going to be greatly required these next few years. We must be the remnant that opens the window for that Spirit to show up. And show up it will. And the people will again see that it was always God showing up, with us. Emmanuel indeed!