Epiphany: “Come See Your Union with God”

The main insight here–that Jesus shows us who we really are–owes a lot to Robert Scharlemann (The Reason of Following) and Karl Barth (“His story is our story.”)  But the insight fits particularly well at Epiphany, rather than Ordinary Time especially.  

Matthew 3:13-17

Today we celebrate Epiphany, which is the concluding side of the Christmas season. If Christmas basks in the shear event of God uniting with humanity in Jesus, Epiphany draws that out the meaning of that union: what does it mean for Jesus to show us God? And it can be a time for us to reckon with all those hopes and expectations we expressed in Advent, some of which might need to be revised and reshaped now that Christ is come. You realize now that you got the best present ever on Christmas morning, but as you consider this unexpected gift, you might need to go back to your wish list and figure out why you asked for those things that are not Jesus. And that may take some time.

But let’s focus today on that first question: what does it mean for Jesus to show us God? It means God has commenced a new unity with all of humanity. The message of Jesus’ birth is not just, “Lucky Jesus,” or “Lucky Joseph and Mary.” It’s “Lucky us! Lucky all of us.” It is Peace on Earth and Good will to all! God has taken up residence with us on our planet, and that is valid for all times, including our time, including even times before Jesus—something that is mind-boggling. But it actually happened and can best be seen—Epiphany means show forth—in Jesus’ time and person. So in Epiphany we turn back to the story of Jesus to begin to see—again, as if from scratch—what it looks like when God and humanity get together and do things right.

We look to Jesus to see our humanity united with God. And that is going to really twist our minds about who we are. What Epiphany means for us is that who we are, most essentially and truly, is not something happening now. It happened long ago. Our story is not properly ours. It doesn’t feature me and you as the key characters. Our story is God’s story, and it features Jesus as the protagonist.

This will seem strange to us. We are so used to tell-all autobiographies and biographies. We are used to thinking that everyone has a unique story, and everyone is the author of her own life. We live in a world of self-made individuals.

But Epiphany is getting at the truth about us that lies deeper than what I’ve done. And the idea that our story not be about “me” is really not that strange. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are instructed to present their offerings to the priest, as we did back in November, and to tell the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites, as if it happened to me: “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord bought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm.” Or when we tell the story of who we are as Americans, we talk about our “founding fathers” and some mothers, as if they were our literal parents. So it’s not completely weird to tell a story about who you are without any reference to yourself as a character.

Epiphany is telling us that God’s story about humanity—and us—in Jesus is more important and more real than our personal “me” stories. Now don’t worry; God will give you your story too. God embraces and loves your story—where you grew up, the choices you made, your struggles, your joys. And I’m going to devote Lent to helping you bring God into your personal story and daily life. But your story is not going to save anybody, except maybe you. Only the story of Jesus becomes a story capable of saving all of humanity—so the Bible believes.

Because the story about Jesus is the story we look to as Christians for a definitive picture of who God is when humanity is properly united with God. (Now, “union with God” may sound very mystical. It can be. May you all be filled at some time or another with an overwhelming sense of being one with God. A great scholar of religion, Houston Smith, died just last Sunday. He believed mystical union with the absolute was at the core of all religions; and then he had Timothy Leary give him mushrooms to help him attain that union. But you don’t need drugs. Union with God mostly looks like everyday life, not trippy. Even Jesus didn’t hear God’s voice booming from the sky on most days. Mostly his life happened on a normal human stage, among the fear, sweat, and chuckles we are familiar with; but Jesus lived human life on the edge, breaking open people around him to life that was raw and direct and honest before God. That is union with God, Jesus style.)

Jesus is divine and human, which means, Jesus reveals to us God and humanity when they come together in truth. And so in the coming weeks we’ll see Jesus live out our life for us. Jesus is baptized, because he is doing human life right, or as he says, he is fulfilling “all righteousness.” And then he begins proclaiming the Gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God—because Jesus wasn’t just about Jesus; he is dedicated to the order or realm that he points to. And he really enacts this realm as a community that he gathers around himself. And so he begins to call his disciples. The story is not just about Jesus, it is about the fellowship that has Jesus as its focal point. And so we can more easily see ourselves in this story by identifying with the disciples, since they were not so perfect and so lordly.

And so starting in Epiphany we are looking again to the story of Jesus to get a sense of who we really are, as individuals and as a church. But that doesn’t mean we are just reading a story far removed from us. It’s not like seeing a play by Shakespeare to derive some incisive truth about what humanity is; at the end of Hamlet you say, “Ah the humanity!” Jesus isn’t just a beautiful story that we marvel at. His story impinges on our story. It makes a claim on us. It says, Here is your savior; now this is what life really looks like. You can’t help but hear the implicit rejoinder: and what are you going to do about it?   His story whispers to us, between the lines: “Your life apart from this story is at best just another story. Hopefully, your life apart from Jesus is a story of an ordinary human being that is doing some good, and not too much harm. At worst, your story may be a mess, a lie, and a travesty of humanity, set woefully at odds with God.

Now, you might hesitate before accepting the story of God in Jesus as your primary story. Jesus lived so long ago; and the world is so different today. So I hear people say, “We need to update the story of the Bible for today.” True enough. We don’t need the biblical story to explain for us how all the species of animals arose, or to tell us what maleness looks like and what femaleness looks like, as if those ideas of male and female should never change. And going even further, we need to challenge the biblical story on its own terms. (Matthew’s Gospel really stretches the details to make them fulfill Old Testament texts. At the end of chapter two, he has Jesus go to Nazareth because of a prophet who said, “He will be called a Nazorean.” But that clearly refers to the Nazorite vow, and is spelled differently from the two Nazareth. Just for instance.) But: if you want to see what salvation looks like, what things look like when God and humanity come together the way they are supposed to—even though it may have happened long ago and in a very different culture—then you do not want to try to just look around you. God and humanity are not perfectly in sync in Granby—as if you could just feast your eyes on it! I mean, it’s a nice town and all, with a lot going for it. But this town is messed up, like pretty much every town everywhere. And we are doing this town and ourselves a terrible disservice if we see the church’s job to just bless our town with assurances that this is God’s country, as they say. We do our town a disservice if we don’t confess to ourselves and offer to our neighbors another model, one different from what we see around us, for what it looks like when humanity lives rightly, and in union with God. And we need the story of Jesus to be that model. We have to interpret and reconstruct the model of Jesus, that picture of Godly humanity. Because scripture is not perfect; it’s human. But we, stuck in the midst of a flawed world and distorted culture, desperately need a word of God to come upon us from outside, and Scripture is the most readily available source for that outside word. Because if we just rely on good ol’ Granby wisdom, we are going to miss out on true God and humanity togetherness.

So the story of Jesus is our real story, one that makes a claim on us and that we need to hear. So as we take another look at this story, we will rightly be thinking about—not who I am in all my complexities, or who you are, or even who this church is in the complexities of our neighborhood and world today—although we should never stop thinking about that. But we will rightly think about who we are essentially as a church.

And so, as we look afresh at the story of Jesus, this is also a time to think carefully, me and you, about our ministry together. You’ve known me for more than a year. We’ve hit our first bump in the road. That forum on the flag didn’t go so well. It got several of you worried about my leadership from the pulpit; some of you respectfully told me that I am being too political from the pulpit. I think I’ve been misunderstood on that score, but I will be very careful. I appreciate the honest concerns as well as the expressions of support. But I do not want to create a rift between supporters and detractors—“Are you with the pastor or against him?” I want to bring a word that brings us together, not by saying what everyone wants to hear, but by bringing us all to unity in Christ. My installation is coming: Sunday, February 5th. When I finally start my official, acknowledged and blessed ministry here, I want to bring us together in Christ, and grow from that very potent, fearsome unity.

So we need to work towards clarity, both you and I, on what we are going to do together. I came to this church with a strong vision, one received warmly by the search committee, who were looking for vision, not just maintenance. I’m still adjusting that vision to make it fit here. I’ve been helpfully reminded to keep it as plain as possible; I think I’ve just read way too many books in too small an area. So I need to keep working on having a conversation with you in this room, not with all the books I’ve read. That’s one of my weaknesses as a pastor. And I’m still adjusting my vision to where you are as a congregation. But I hope you will own up, like I do, both as individuals and as a congregation, to the fact that you are not at the end of your Christian journey. Because otherwise there is nowhere for us to go together.

So that vision that is going to be installed here is still coming into focus. I need to formulate and adjust it so that most of you can consider it and decide for yourselves how you want to respond. Where I see this church going won’t be exactly what some of you have in mind; but be assured, whether you take instantly to my vision or resist it, I will always be your pastor and companion in your own faith journey. And I won’t drag this church in a direction we are not ready to go.

Let me today just talk about something very basic to my vision for this church. I believe that when you come to church you should experience something really powerful. Not just a modest pick-me-up, a little boost or mild assurance. If that’s what you get, it doesn’t sound to me like the Creator and Deliverer and Lord of all; one God, almighty and glorious and awesome to behold. What you get in church should be earth-shaking, even if some days it doesn’t rock your world and pretty much looks like ordinary human life. But every Sunday God ought to be touching your deepest concerns. I know many of you have serious personal concerns; and I know many of you have grave fears for our world, for America and for the future. Good! Not that God encourages us to be full of fear, pessismism, and to be sure, paranoia about the forces of destruction all around us. God has got a message of comfort and confidence about this world, because God loves this world and has pledged himself to it by being humbly born in its midst. But the way to that comfort and confidence is found by bringing all your deepest fears and problems before God. God can’t unite with your problems and your fears and overcome them if you don’t bring them to God. God isn’t going to overcome our problems if we bring them before the New York Times editorial page instead. Or Sean Hannity. Or Facebook. Or by gossiping, whether in person or via your favorite feel-good web site. Bring your fears and your problems before God, because God, in uniting with Jesus, has in effect said, “We’re going to deal with this, you and me—all those who follow my son.” / I don’t know how exactly God is going to deal with our problems. Some things might be judged, some pardoned. Some things purged, others purified. Some things blessed, others cursed. But God-with-us is going to deal with them, so bring ‘em here, bring them into this story and let God deal with them. And it all begins when a voice from heaven and a dove from the sky descend on this Son of Man and tell us, as one, “We’re all here. Let’s go.”

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