The Reverend John Allison
January 10, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and was morning, the first day.”
These words, these very familiar first words of our Bible, would likely have been a great comfort to the people of Israel during the time of the Babylonian exile when it was written. Their temple had been destroyed; their way of life completely up-ended. Subject to captors who not only worshipped a different God but also followed a different calendar, this account of God’s first creative act, of Light, of illumination, of bringing order out of chaos, would have been a seed of hope. The continual cycle of day and night, that we so easily take for granted, is God’s first creative act and through it, we, just as the Israelites, are reminded that God brings order to the chaos of our lives, to the chaos of our times.
It may be difficult to remember that God is with us when we see and experience disease and death or in the midst of violence and political unrest. It may be difficult to remember in any number of the tragedies we face in our lives and hear of in the news each day, but voices emerge from each kind of tragedy that offer a vision of hope and consolation that open a path to restoration. These voices, sometimes from scripture, sometimes as answers to our prayers, represent a kind of embodiment of the love of God in which we are called to participate, and this is especially important to recognize on this first Sunday after the Epiphany.
On the first Sunday after the Epiphany, The Baptism of Our Lord, the first public act of Jesus ministry, is always read. Here the reality of God’s Kingdom is revealed as Jesus is proclaimed God’s Beloved Son. Much like that first day as recounted in Genesis, Jesus’s Baptism points us to God bringing order from chaos. More specifically, Jesus enters the muddy brown water of the Jordan, the waters of chaos, with us and calls us to rise with him in the Spirit—a new creation. That’s the new life into which Baptism calls us. It marks the beginning of Jesus’s ministry and for us the beginning of our life in Christ. As Jesus rises up out of the water the heavens open and the spirit descends and a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” We’ll hear these words again at the end of the season at another pivotal time in Jesus ministry, the Transfiguration, and it’s the bookending of this season by this declaration that serves to orient us during this season of manifestation.
In this season after the Epiphany we celebrate specifically the ways in which Jesus is the earthly manifestation of God. Over the next several Sundays our Gospel readings will all show some aspect of that manifestation in the person of Jesus. That showing, that Epiphany, is built on the foundation of the Incarnation. God has come to us and taken on human flesh and in that we are called to glorify God with our whole being. God is with us, Incarnate, in all the good and all the bad, and God’s love continues to be manifest—Epiphany.
I point this out partly because both of these terms, Incarnation and Epiphany, have some bearing on how we might understand what it means to be called to participate in God’s love. And, also, because both of these terms have over time taken on secular meanings and common usage that soften their impact. And soft they are not. Common they are not.
Most specifically, I want to talk about Epiphany as a way of seeing, as recognizing God's incarnate love here among us. In this season we are reminded again and again of God's presence among us, reminded that as disciples, as followers, we are called to see God's image in the world around us, in one another. In our Baptismal Vows we affirm that we will "seek and serve Christ in all persons." And we say yes, with God's help. I will. But how? What gets in our way? It's certainly not always easy.
This word Epiphany is, as I said, one of those distinctly theological terms that has taken on a common meaning that in some ways is only a pale shadow of how we use it in the Church. In common usage, it means a sudden realization, often of a mundane nature. "I had an epiphany! I just remembered where I lost my keys!” Or something like that.
For me, coming from a faith background that didn't emphasize the liturgical seasons, that really didn't recognize them at all, for much of my young life that's what I thought epiphany was. It wasn't until college, where I was an English major taking a class on James Joyce, that I realized the deeper dimensions of the word. For Joyce there were moments that one could observe, some seemingly quite trivial in nature, that shone with a radiance that reflected some greater truth, we might say, reflected God’s glory. As a writer he believed his task was to illuminate those moments. He did that certainly in his novels and short stories but also his journals were filled with such moments, epiphanies that he collected, seventy-one in all. Some were snapshots of real life that pointed to something larger, something so powerful and indicative of a higher reality that they take on the character of a mystical vision. Others were moments so banal, so ordinary that one might miss the beauty to which they point.
And really that's what good art does, whether it's writing or painting or photography. That's what poetry does. That's what scripture does. It teaches us to see. It touches us deeply, points us to something beyond the page or the canvas that is not always so easily apprehended in our day-to-day lives. We see it in the simple three-line Japanese haiku or the careful brush strokes of the Old Masters, in the Psalms and in Jesus's parables. Indeed, we are witness to it ourselves, witness to these shimmering moments, if, to paraphrase Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Can we see the order behind the chaos? Can we see God’s beauty in the ordinary? Can we see it in the troubling?
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber tells a story in one of his books of a Rabbi and his grandson. The grandson was playing hide and seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for the other boy to find him. He waited and waited. He waited for a long time and then finally came out of his hiding place, but the other boy was nowhere to be seen. He realized that the boy had not looked for him from the very beginning, and this made him very upset, and he ran crying to his grandfather and complained about his friend’s lack of willingness. The Rabbi’s eyes teared up and he said, “God says the same thing: I hide, but no one wants to seek me.” Are we actively seeking?
Are we awake to God’s presence with us? That was the theme of Advent as we prepared for the coming of Christmas, of the Incarnation. Watch! Be alert! Every week the readings urged us again and again to be watchful. And it's still worth asking, how are we doing with that? What are we seeking? It may not always be what we expect, but are we ready anyway? Are we ready to seek and serve Christ in all persons? The persons we least expect? That’s a question we’ll affirm in our Renewal of the Baptismal covenant in just a few moments, and today, as we remember Jesus’s Baptism, may we remember that we are baptized through Christ and in Christ but, also, with Christ.