by Sharon Marr
(Based on Matt 3:13-17)
With thanks to Debie Thomas.
Last week we were encouraged to think of a word that has been on our heart this Advent season, and the word I thought of was relationship. That it had been at the foremost of my mind was unsurprising because I was about to meet a half brother I never knew I had, that afternoon. But … it was even more than that. I have been considering for some time, as part of my mind wanderings, the importance of Relationship, the belonging to, being part of a whole. Then I personally witnessed just how important relationship is, when my new 66 year old brother broke down and wept at our father’s grave here in Tairua. Relationship. And then again when he and his family met my brother and sister and son and families. Relationship. We need to belong. We need to know who we belong too. And then I read today’s Gospel – all about the restoring of relationship. How wonderful. Is that not a true Epiphany moment?
Epiphany: meaning ‘appearing’ or ‘revealing’. During this brief Epiphany season, between Advent and Lent, we leave mangers and swaddling clothes behind and turn to stories of shimmering revelation. Kings and stars. Doves and voices. Water. Wine. Transfiguration.
In Celtic Christianity, Epiphany stories are stories of “thin places”, places where the boundary between the mundane and the eternal is very porous. 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.
Christian historian John Dominic Crossan says Jesus’s baptism story was an “acute embarrassment” for the early Church. What scandalized the Gospel writers was not the miraculous, but the ordinary. Doves and voices? All well and good. But the Messiah placing himself under the tutelage of a rabble-rouser like John? God’s incarnate Son receiving a baptism of repentance? Perfect, untouchable Jesus? What was he doing in that murky water, aligning himself with the great unwashed? And why did God the Father choose that sordid moment to part the clouds and call his Son ‘beloved’?
I suppose every age has its signature difficulties with faith. When we’re not busy flattening miracle into mirage, we’re busy instead turning sacrament into scandal. After all, what’s most incredible about this story? That the Holy Spirit became a bird? That Jesus threw his reputation aside to get dunked alongside sinners? Or that God looked down at the very start of his son’s ministry and called him Beloved — before Jesus had accomplished a thing worth praising?
Let me ask the question differently: what do we find most impossible to believe for our own lives? That God appears by means so familiar, we often miss him? That our baptisms bind us to all of humanity — not in theory, but in the flesh — such that you and I are kin, responsible for each other in ways we fail too often to honour? Or that we are God’s beloved — not because we’ve done anything to earn it, but because our Father insists on blessing us with his approval?
Here’s my real problem with Epiphany: I always, always have a choice — and most of the time, I don’t want it. I want God’s revelations to bowl me over. I want 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 charity. 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, I’m at liberty to reject him and walk away.
The stories of Epiphany are stories of light; and yet, quite often, they end in shadow. 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 centre of a thin place, and see nothing but our own ego.
We speak so glibly of faith, revelation and baptism. As if it’s all easy. As if what matters most is whether we sprinkle or immerse, dunk babies or adults. As if lives aren’t on the line.
Until Christianity became a state-sanctioned religion in the fourth century, no convert received the sacrament of baptism lightly; one 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 neighbourhood, a forest, a hilltop. The voice that might be God might also be wind, thunder … indigestion. Or delusion.
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.
I remember our grandson Steffan … when he jumped off the Tairua bridge for the first time, aged about seven, and nearly drowned. When asked why he had jumped when he couldn’t swim, his answer was, “I didn’t know I couldn’t.” Let us, beloved family, have that same trust to plunge forward. Regardless.
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 we might hear the only Voice that can tell us who we are and whose we are … Drawing us into relationship. Listen: We are God’s own. God’s children. God’s pleasure. Even in the deepest water, we are Beloved.