1st Sunday after Epiphany

January 9, 2005
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 42:1-9
Reading 2: 
Psalm 29
Reading 3: 
Acts 10:34-43
Reading 4: 
Matthew 3:13-17
By Tari Lennon

I think it was John Cobb who once observed that we tend to make fun of those scholastic scholars who had nothing better to do than sit around arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin while at the same time we ignore the preoccupations with the trivial that characterize so much of academia today. I would carry that observation one step farther and assert that preoccupations with the trivial have come to characterize our national life. The complex and profound issues of our time have been so co-opted by politicians and misrepresented by the media that the nation itself has been reduced to two primary colors.

Our religious ancestors would not have understood such machinations. Regardless of the limitations of their scientific understanding and notwithstanding their lack of psychological sophistication, they possessed a capacity for complexity that should humble the most educated among us. And grappling with the deep things of life was not restricted to life crises but seen, rather, as a function of the imagination--imagination and its intimations of the divine.

What the church has come to designate as the season of Epiphany  is a showcase for that imagination. I would argue that regardless our “churchy” celebrations of Christmas and in spite of the religious spin on those celebrations,

Christmas is a cultural and social event. It evokes a lot of sentimentality and provokes a lot of spending but does not invoke much in the way of religious grappling or imagination, unless of course, you think that figuring out how reindeer fly is a worthy mental exercise.

Because Epiphany is just sort of passed through or ignored outside of Greek or Russian Orthodox traditions, and because of the singular focus of the season—Light—it still has the power to claim us for religious grappling and imaginative undertaking.  Having said that, however, I do want to offer a caveat.  In recent years I have heard epiphany explained as an “aha moment.”  Those “aha” moments are usually personal in nature and are about gaining an insight that will facilitate some kind of decision or action.  In comic strips, those moments are symbolized by a light bulb going on over a character’s head.  That is not what our ancestors had in mind for this season. (Although, the light bulb connection is not all bad.)

The 18th century Hasidic Master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once said: “For the true believer, believing is seeing.” (Advice, p. 11).  That is what Epiphany asserts, as well.  Emerging as it does out of the Christmastide, Epiphany insists that our new awareness of “Emmanuel,”  “God with us,” changes forever not only what we see but also how we see.  All four of today’s readings attest to that realization.  Regardless of textual criticism, e.g., the context for the “servant songs;”  the very structure of Matthew’s Gospel, (relying on Mark, while using “Q” and “M”, then creating 5 “Jesus” speeches connected by fragmented narrative; the echoes of Canaanite mythology in Psalm 29; the new meaning given a phrase ordinarily used when referring to Zeus and Osiris in Acts (10:36), all of the the texts point to a new way of seeing as a result of a new way of believing.

One of the marvels of Whiteheadian thought is how everything gets used. Nothing is wasted. All of the past is brought forward and inheres in this  moment. To repeat the 29th Psalm is to gather up everyone who has said it before us and to give new voice to the visions and beliefs they brought to the recitation. The same can be said about each of the readings. As we bring all of our ancestors forward, the reading becomes an exercise in hallowing and lends itself to a sense of wonder and gratitude. The moment is not about meanings. It is about shared hope.

Whether we are talking about Peter overcoming his Jewish bias to reach out to Gentiles; or “Matthew” seeing the distance between heaven and earth bridged by the relational humility of John and Jesus; or (II) “Isaiah” consoling an exiled and fragmented people with the promise that their suffering will transform them into beacons of justice for the entire world; or the psalmist’s understanding natural occurrences like thunder, lightning, and wind as expressions of God’s creative power, a power God wants to share with people, we are talking about a long history of shared beliefs that change the very way in which we view life and life’s events.

The fact that our ancestors got some things wrong—they thought heaven was a canopy hanging over a flat earth and that the male, lord God lived above that canopy; or that Isaiah was written by one prophet; or that Matthew was the first Gospel historically; or that Peter was the first Pope—these are secondary to the larger truths we have inherited.  Over the long sweep of history there have been millions of us who have believed and continue to believe that there is a God who never lets us go and wants us never to let go as well; a God who doesn’t just share power but insists that we discover our own power in the stuff of our lives; a God who likes to be surprised by the not yet of our choices; a God who takes the leftover bits and pieces of our broken relationships and shattered dreams and dares us to look at them through our tears--tears that create a prism through which all the colors of life can be seen.  We share all of that with all who came before us and all who will come after us.  What a glorious moment this is. Do you see that?

The Rev. Dr. Tari Lennon is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds degrees in theology, ministry and psychology. She retired from parish ministry after 43 years and now convenes Open Gatherings which draws people together from all faiths and nonfaiths to explore topics of spirituality, relationships, and personal ethics.