Friday, January 29, 2010

The Epiphany: Speaking the Word of God

Published on Open Salon on JANUARY 25, 2010 12:47AM

Edited from my original publication dated JANUARY 9, 2009


Note: the is a substantially edited repost. It is part of a series which I am continuing to write covering the key events portrayed in the Christian Calendar. The Season of Epiphany this year started on January 6, which it does every year, and runs until Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, which this year falls on February 17.

This post, then, deals with both Christian theology and Christian ecclesiology, with, in other words, the reasons for an aspect of the faith and how it relates to the Church, which Christians believe is the Body of Christ. It is therefore written for Christians and for those who wish to know a bit more about Christianity and the way its worship life is structured.

One final prefatory note: the use of masculine pronouns for God is traditonal. God is neither male nor female. God is spirit. Feminine pronouns for God are equally valid.

Epiphany means manifestation, appearance or, sometimes, unveiling or revealing. An epiphany is when something is revealed to us that was previously hidden. In the Bible the epiphanies that have been noticed by commentators from the beginning, including the writers of the Gospels, are those where God takes the initiative and does the manifesting, appearing or revealing.

There are many Biblical epiphanies recorded. The coming of the three magi to the Christ child is the most well known one to Christians. It is seen as the first revealing of the Christ child to the gentiles, a manifestation of things to come, when the Word of God would be offered directly to others and not only to the Jews.

The Transfiguration is another epiphany. The Transfiguration is that other-worldly experience when Jesus took three of his disciples up on the mountain and was transformed before their very eyes, when they saw Him in a blinding white visage talking to Moses and Elijah and heard the voice of God telling them that Jesus was God's own Son, and, most importantly, ordering them to "Listen to Him!"

Now, there was a dramatic epiphany if there ever was one! If it happened to any modern Christian I dare say that any doubts we had about Jesus would be blown away.

But there is another type of epiphany that is seldom discussed but is likely more important than the ones we highlight in the Bible. That is the epiphany that occurs in the hearts of men and women. It is that “Ah Ha!” moment when something which was hidden from our mind or heart becomes clear, when we realize some truth that had eluded us, perhaps for years.

An epiphany is that moment of bright clarity where the fog is blown away, the unknown suddenly becomes known, the baffling becomes obvious. Such epiphanies for too many of us are, unfortunately, rare events.

The truth is that most of us don't experience mind-blowing epiphanies in our lives; and, when we do experience epiphanies we might not recognize them as such until long after the fact, when we finally wake up and realize that God was working in our lives doing miracles by the dozen that we were too blind or too distracted or too tuned out to see when they happened.

Christians might, given our general blindness to our own epiphanies, spend just a little time looking at the basis of all epiphanies that Christians may ever hope to experience in our lives. Without this basic something a Christian has almost no chance of experiencing an epiphany. And that something is what we call “the Word of God.”

The term, Word of God, is often used two ways. The most familiar, and incorrect, way is that people often call the Bible the Word of God. The other, more important and correct, but often neglected, use of the term is that Jesus is the Word of God.

When that definition is understood then the Bible becomes understood not to be the Word of God, but rather the witness to the Word of God. It is a huge difference. To say that the Bible is the Word of God is to find ones self on the slipery slope of worshiping a book rather than the Messiah. This is not just semantics, but many pastors tell their congregations that it is.

When I taught I was always asking my Sunday School classes some simple questions. One was “What brings us together here every week?” Another was, “Why are we here today, on this particular Sunday? The question was not fair because the answer was so obvious, and so neglected, that the class members seldom got the answer.

The answer, the glue that bound us, and binds us still, is God. I taught them that “We are here because of God. We come to worship Him.” And that led to more questions: “But, how does he convene us?” After all, God would still be God if we never got together.

And I would then tell them that force that draws us and binds us together is the Word of God. God convenes Christians every time they meet on the basis of his Word. In fact, if you think about it, God has always done just about everything He does by His Word.

Go all the way back to Genesis, to the beginning of the beginning, when he convened everything, brought it all together. How did He do that? Through his Word. "And God said, 'Let there be light'." And, there was light. That's how He did all of it, all of creation. He spoke it into being. He spoke it, and it was.

Go back and read about it again sometime; it's really something. Read it through whatever lens you wish, as a literal truth, or, as I do, as a beautiful metaphor for something we are not wired to totally comprehend. He speaks and there it is, all of it.

And then, throughout the history of the Bible, God continued to speak. Things aren’t going so well for the people of the world, and one night he speaks to an old man, "Abraham, wake up. I know you and Sarah are pretty old, but I just thought I ought to tell you that I'm going to make you the father of a great nation."

And what happens? Out of these two nobodies who believe him and act on that belief, a great nation is born; a great nation that God says will not exist for itself but will exist to be a blessing to all the nations.

And so on and on it goes, God keeps speaking His Word to His people, doesn't give up on them even when they are truly disgusting. He just keeps speaking, prodding them along. But, basically, after a couple thousand years they still haven't figured out how to live by his Word, so God intervenes again, sending His Son, Jesus, to save the people from themselves.

John the Baptizer sets the stage, telling the people, "Don't talk to me about your pedigrees, about Abraham, about how any of that can save you from your sin, why folks, your God is too small. You've shrunk him down over the centuries; you’ve tamed him, made him your play thing; you use him as a consultant, a part time nurse of physician, a servant who comes at your whim.

You have gotten so far away from the true understanding of God that the God you now worship is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But the true God of Abraham, the true God of Israel, can raise up a people out of these stones in this river should he wish to do so!"

How could he say such an outrageous thing? Well, John believed that God had done it before. Raised man right out of the stones of the earth, out of the very dust, which He created with a simple word. Sure, he could do it again, and it didn't depend on whether or not anyone believed he could. He was, after all, God, and they weren’t. John believed that God is not to be tamed or made small by the imagination of mere mortals.

John preached that God could start over if he wanted to. He could answer Isaiah’s prayer and tear open the heavens and come down. And, with Jesus, in essence, Christians believe that he did that very thing. He started all over. And He did it the way he always did it. He did it with his Word, but with amazing twist. Listen to St. John as he captures the essence of it at the beginning of his Gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The "Word" described here is a person, Jesus of Nazareth. In the whisper of an angel to a young woman-child, God sent his Son not only to preach the Word, but to BE the Word. Jesus himself IS the word of God.

The question for my fellow Christians is,"Do we get that? Do even long time Christian believers understand that essential truth of our proclamation?"

Can we Christians wrap our minds around that idea, even for a little while? Can Christians understand that Jesus is the very Word of God made flesh. There are huge implications in that simple belief, such as that all the power, all the goodness, all the grace, and, yes, all the judgment of God rest in Jesus, the Christ.

It is such a huge claim, such a huge proclamation, that some people become uncomfortable with it and fall away from the faith, while others experience a personal epiphany because they believe it and lean in ever closer to the Christ. Free will demands that individual choice and God would have it no other way.

It is a hard row for many people to hoe. Listen to John again, only three verses later. John understands the staggering challenge in the claim that Jesus is the Word of God.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

You think it is any different today? Not much.

So, here we are, in the Season of Epiphany; coming together by reading this post about what we might hear when God speaks to us. Often he speaks to console us, to help us through another seemingly unbearable week, to speak to us even as Jesus spoke to the folks in his home town in Nazareth. And how do we react? Do we get so upset that we lead him to a cliff and try to throw him to his death? Or does a light go off within us and we accept the claim and in so doing accept Him?

The interesting thing is that even Christians do not react the same way. Yet God continues to offer his Word to us regardless what we think or do. Whether we care, or even whether we listen and reject, still the Word of God, the very Word made flesh in Jesus, the Christ, comes to us, calls us, with comfort and with criticism, with grace and with judgment.

And sometimes we Christians respond to His coming. We come Church to hear His Word, preserved for us in the Bible, to hear the truths that we can't find in the world. We come to hear and hopefully to learn, and having learned, to believe; and having believed, to trust and obey. Some find that Word in church worship, others on a mountain trail or sitting by a flowing stream.

My wife, Sue, and I find it both in communal worship and in other hardly "religious" ways. Sue finds it walking alone with God on the beach when we go down to Myrtle Beach for a little R and R. We both feel God close when we ride our motorcycles in the beautiful hills and valleys of this lovely place we call home.

One of the reasons that Christians pull themselves out of a warm bed on a cold winter morning and go to church is that, deep down, they know something that they cannot express. They know that they need the Word. Christian faith needs the strengthening, the encouragement, the sustenance that comes from hearing the Word spoken, and preached, and sung.

Our faith needs it because that is precisely the way Christian faith arises: out of the Word of God. Without it Christians wouldn't be Christians and they wouldn't bother. The Word, described in the Scriptures, reaches out to touch you, to mold you, to grasp your life, and, if necessary, to re-direct it.

In reading it, hearing it, singing it, listening to it preached, Christian faith is re-confirmed. We Christians live by the Word of God. And millions of non-Christians who share our heritage in the one God, but not our belief that Jesus was the Son of God, also uphold the truth of God’s Word.

Will Willamon tells a true story of one such believer, a Jew. He tells about a time in Prague after the Nazis had overrun the country and were about the task of rounding up all the Jews to take them to the death awaiting in the concentration camps. In one of the Prague synagogues, just before they were to torch it and burn it to the ground the Nazis spied an old Rabbi sitting in his study preparing his sermon for the next Sabbath.

Deciding to utterly humiliate him, they dragged him into the synagogue, into the holy area of the chancel and made him strip naked, but for his yarmulke. And then they made him stand up in the pulpit. They called in people to fill the synagogue. And they ridiculed him and mocked him and told him, "Say something, old man!" And they taunted him, "Yeah! Preach to us! Preach what you were going to preach at your service. Preach!"

And then he began to preach, to preach something that none of his Nazi tormentors could understand. He spoke the words that, from the beginning, gave life to Israel:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.

And then, in that instant, power shifted from the Nazis to the old Rabbi. In speaking the Word, just in speaking the words, the Rabbi was assaulting, dismantling, all that the Nazis believed. There, in that soon to be torched synagogue, by an old man of the Word who would soon be killed, a new world was being claimed, formed by the Word of God, reclaimed for his Kingdom in the face of every evil.

Nothing those Nazis could do, no reign of terror, no twisted hatred, not even death itself, could overcome the faith of that one who spoke the Word of God. Nothing that day, nor in any day to come, could negate the God’s Word to the world. No sword could stop it; no sin overcome it; no evil destroy it.

In the beginning was the Word; and, in the end, God will have the last Word.

I pray that all have a blessed Season of the Epiphany. It matters not whether you are a Christian, or are one of another faith or of no faith at all. God’s blessings fall on us all. For in the end we are all God’s children, even those who do not know him, or have rejected him. That is part of God's plan too. He knows that if love for him is to be a true love, truly given and truly received, there had to be free will to allow humans the choice to receive or to reject. That free will is offered as a gift, a grace to all of us.