No Livestream this Sunday – Sorry, technical problems
We all feel somehow called to live in certain life-giving ways. We know, for example, to avoid reading or watching or doing whatever we sense is destructive and unhelpful and instead, to follow what we know is right, good. There’s no great mystery here. And most of the time we do, or at least want to do those right things, and do our best to resist what we know inevitably stops us. We may try not to bear grudges forever, try to forgive as we are able/ turn the other cheek, move on from bitterly resenting those who’ve hurt us. Or, in terms of our stewardship of creation, we may want to lower our carbon footprint, we want to become much more eco-sensitive than we are. We want to be more caring for others, especially the most vulnerable, marginalised. There are no surprises here. We know that our living that like is pleasing to God. Remember how beautifully Matthew’s Gospel spells it out for us with Jesus speaking in chapter 25 of how sacred those caring, responsible actions are, for as we do it to the least of those around us, so, he says, we are doing those kind, good, just, compassionate, merciful things to him!
We know all that! But sometimes our circumstances may be so overwhelming, or we may become so distracted by the demands of our own ego-agendas/all-consuming contexts, you know, whatever is right in front of us demanding our attention, that we begin to lose that focus… and we may lose our motivation to that right living… We may even perhaps find ourselves questioning: ‘why bother? What’s the point? Why not just let all that altruism go and be un-ashamedly self-obsessed. That’s what so many others are doing! Why not just look out for #1?
And so, disillusioned… We may even find ourselves wondering whether all this ‘good’ living isn’t just some human construct, a religious fabrication, something people made up to help make sense of life, get us through those various milestones of life gains and losses? Ever felt like that? I think most of us have, at times. And we don’t like it. It causes is to become cynical, skeptically negative, doubtful, or perhaps even worse, to be bogged down in lifeless, lukewarm indifference.
But then we have passages describing events like this one today! Today’s EPIPHANY [i]reading:
The Church celebrates Jan 6 as ‘Epiphany’ remembering how Jesus was revealed by the Magi as the long-awaited Messiah. The Brittanica Dictionary defines ‘Epiphany’ as: ‘…the moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way’. Wikipedia describes it as an experience of a sudden and striking realization and that …it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. …a most true perspective!
‘Epiphany’ is the experience of getting to see something properly, for what it is. Today’s reading is all about what Jesus experienced at his baptism. It describes the Epiphany miracle of heaven being opened to him and of his getting to see beyond the merely illusory to what is most real…
I love Parker Palmer’s definition of prayer being that which pierces the illusory curtain of what seems to be real in our lives in order to expose and connect us to what is most real[ii]. There are many instances in scripture where we find people experiencing just that kind of breaking through: In 2 Kings 6, as the prophet Elisha was being pursued by the King of Aram and his assistant was so very scared, we read of how Elisha prayed for God to give his fearful attendant just a glimpse, through his fear, of what was & is most real. Probably one of the most famous of these happened on the Mountain of Transfiguration[iii] where Peter, James and John had gone with Jesus to pray and awoke dazzled by Christ’s radiant glory. And again, with the voice saying ‘This is my son, whom I love; With him I am well pleased. Listen to him!
Each of these are about folks getting to glimpse – even for just a moment – what is most real. We’ve spoken before about how Caryll Houselander experienced just that on the London underground – a similar ‘Epiphany’ experience. It’s what Thomas Merton experienced on the corner of Walnut and Fourth St in Louisville[iv] when he was given to see everyone and everything in a special sacred way. For either to have seen this, heaven would have had to have been opened to them!
But, it seems, that it is not always for everyone. Even in today’s text we’re not told that those present at Jesus’ baptism even noticed anything as the heavens opening with God’s Spirit descending like a dove, and the voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be God’s Son, and also that God is pleased with Him. Instead, notice how we’re specifically told that as he came up out of the water after being baptized, the heavens were opened to him and not to anyone else – and that it was specifically he who saw, and who heard what happened and next. Just like for Elisha’s assistant, and for Carryl Houselander, and Thomas Merton so, it seems, this was a profoundly and intimately private experience for Jesus! It was something that God was using to boost his sense of identity and purpose – for Himself!
Maybe ‘Epiphany’ experiences are given to us primarily as individuals and at specific times of our lives, times perhaps when we have most needed them, and that for the rest of most of our lives we remain kind of blind to them. Remember what Jesus said to Thomas the Doubter after he was given his Epiphany of the risen Christ?‘You believe because you have seen, blessed are those who believe but who have not seen!’ I’d like to add, that especially blessed are those who believe because they have been given to see, and or hear, and or touch, and or taste, even feel, God’s presence with them, speaking to them, reassuring, comforting, empowering them!
I believe that we have all had those experiences. And that we do well to recognise them, acknowledge them, feed on them, give God glory for them! I think of that now middle-aged woman who described her experience as a very scared, very pregnant teenager, all alone in a hospital chapel just before her first child was born. She describes how she was given to ‘hear’ God’s voice telling her that she was not alone, that God was with her, and that all would be well. And it was. I doubt that anybody with her would have heard or felt anything that day, but that’s OK because it was God’s message specifically just her!
As we look to this next year and all of what it is going to bring, I wonder how defined you are going to be by your circumstances as opposed to by an awareness of your own belovedness. How aware of you being spiritually grounded, sure of who you are, who God has made you to be, in Christ? As sure as Jesus had John the Baptist going before him to announce his coming, so are we surrounded by people and circumstances that God would constantly be using to herald our awareness of the Christ who is always in all of us.
Believe it or not, as a vital part of God’s creation, we are still among God’s first plan to be the physical manifestation of Christ in today’s world – and as we do come increasingly to see, know, and live that, so God still intends to use us to be making all the difference that God intends.
Disillusioned? Tired? Distracted? Doubting? Indifferent? If that is you, may right now be just about exactly the time for God’s Spirit to empower the Epiphany-awareness that brings you back to knowing just who you actually are and just why you are here! With Jesus, may the heaven come to be opened to you, and as your sense God’s beautiful Spirit coming down on you, in you, hear again those words precious words – reassuring us all of our most sacred identities…
‘This – here, you – This is my child, whom I love; With whom I am well pleased.
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[ii] Paraphrased from memory
[iii] Mark 9:2–13; Matthew 17:1–13; Luke 9:28–36
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being…a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”