John asks an important, honest question, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” He has already recognized what seems like an inappropriate ordering of events. Things are upside down and he doesn’t understand. And Jesus isn’t really going to make things clear to him in advance except by way of confirming that yes, indeed, something extraordinary is at work.
But first maybe we should back up. I mean, we just cleaned up all the Christmas decorations yesterday. The silent night, holy night, wasn’t even two weeks ago and here we are waist deep in the River Jordan on the outskirts of Judea. There was such a long wait for the nativity of our Lord. And then it burst forth suddenly with heavenly hosts singing Gloria. And then begins the Epiphany.
The Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ, is really a collection of vignettes that inaugurate the incarnate life of God. The visit of the Magi, the Baptism of our Lord, and his first miracle at the wedding at Cana, form a kind of triple feast. And each one of them is a scene of the ordinary meeting the extraordinary. Of the natural touching the supernatural, of humanity meeting divinity. They are the opposite of esoteric and vague, they grounded and rooted in human experience in ever widening circles of revelation. The meeting place was here on earth, on this same planet we still use today; in the very human bodies that we still inhabit; all of the senses that we use to perceive this world were turned to perceive another world.
This should come as a surprise to no one, but I really like liturgy. In fact, the Anglican tradition’s rich, sensual liturgical life is what beckoned me into the peculiar and frequently bewildering relationship that eventually brought me here to SSJE. That is, the peculiar and bewildering relationship with Jesus Christ.
And so it should also not surprise anyone that this morning’s reading from Isaiah has from time to time arrested me—particularly as I have almost always encountered it within the context of Christian liturgical action—that is, corporate worship.
I remember learning to drive before the advent of personal GPS devices. I remember getting directions that involved both signs and physical landmarks to get from one place to another. Take a left on River St. and go down until you see the mailbox with a yellow bird on it, then we’re three houses down on the right. Nowadays, I’m more likely to just plug an address into my phone and let it guide me moment by moment down the comforting little blue line until I get to the red destination pin. I hardly have to pay attention to my surrounding at all while the little voice just coaches me turn by turn. But, in truth, I’ve become overly dependent on it. I get a little anxious when I try to do without it because it forces me to put my trust in a different system of navigating that doesn’t offer real-time reassurance. There is simply much more trust involved. Trust that the signs will be there when I need them, trust that I will make the correct turns, and even trust that if I get off track, I’ll be able to get back on course and reach my destination. Looking for signs and waiting for direction can be a precarious thing in the spiritual life.
Do you find yourself waiting on a sign from God? Or, have you ever suddenly beheld a sign that arrested your attention and pointed you in a new direction. God’s engagement with people often catches us unaware or seems absent when we want it most. We may feel like things are going just fine until suddenly our circumstances change and we are gripped with uncertainty and fear. Or, we may be so much on auto-pilot that we don’t realize when a new course of action is necessary. Todays readings highlight both of these kinds of encounters with God and help to point us to Jesus who is an unfailing sign to return to the heart of God.
How does Jesus show us the nature of God? One resounding answer is: as Light. Reflected light, shimmering into the world we see and know, igniting into conscious awareness. The primordial light shining in the darkness of John’s Prologue; the light that replaces that of sun and moon in the eternal city of the Revelation to John; the light of Christ we kindle at Easter; the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Philip is done with all the poetry; all the elusive and allusive imagery John’s Jesus has woven to evoke, to awaken, to captivate, to bestow the relational knowing of God found in and through himself. Philip wants a clear shaft of light outlining a straightforward vision. Before Jesus leaves them, Philipp wants just a single flash of definitive truth.
But this is not the way John’s Jesus reveals God. Instead, the words and the works of this Jesus are like the sides and angles of a prism. The clarity of a prism enables a beam of invisible, light to pass through. But it also refracts that light into something new: the visible color spectrum. “No one has ever seen God,” we read again in John’s Prologue. “It is God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, who has made God known.” Jesus refracts the Father’s invisible light, scattering constellated colors that draw our eyes toward their source. It is the interplay of the pattern that beckons us – through dots we can connect, the words and works of Jesus that reveal the truth in the measure we can receive it. Receiving the light is the long slow work of conversion, not epiphany.
Today’s Gospel is in many ways Matthew’s ‘annunciation.’ When we speak of the annunciation we think of course of the Gospel of Luke and his account of the angel appearing to Mary. But for Matthew the angel appears to Joseph – in a dream. “Joseph, take Mary as your wife. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus. And he did as the angel commanded him.” But he did a lot more than this. This remarkable man became a true father to Jesus.
And this is enormously important because as Jesus ‘grew in wisdom and in years’ he slowly came to understand God as Father. In the Old Covenant God was ‘Lord’, ‘Creator’, ‘Governor’. But for Jesus God was above all ‘Father’. And he came to understand his mission as opening the way for us to have the sort of relationship with God which is nearest to that of a father and a son. But for Jesus to have come to understand and use this analogy he must have had a wonderfully good and close relationship with Joseph.
I think though that pastorally, this poses a problem. The word ‘father’ arouses feelings which in everyone’s life are necessarily colored by personal experience. Martin Luther for example had a father who would beat him for the smallest offence. He once told a friend that whenever he said the Lord’s Prayer he would think of his own father, who was hard, unyielding and relentless. ‘I cannot help but think of God that way.’
I saw it strangely as if for the first time. I was on the Longfellow Bridge connecting Cambridge to Boston. I usually go over the bridge on the Red Line, the subway, or over another bridge by car. As I stood on the Longfellow Bridge and looked straight ahead, I saw Boston anew. I saw Beacon Hill as a hill not going underneath on the Red Line or sideways. My usual patterns by subway and by car gave me a limited perspective of location, of home. Standing on that bridge, what I thought I knew, now I see differently.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
“Does this song resonate with you?” my friend asked. I took a listen and said “No, I don’t like it.” I listened again. “No, it’s more than that. I’m uncomfortable by it.” I listened again. “Oh, now I know. I don’t like it because it rings true. That song, it embarrasses me, because those words are my life, that’s what I struggle with, that’s what I’m in need of. That song shows my sin. The song also encourages me with the truth of how I’m loved and can love instead of than the distortions and shame I get wrapped up in.”[i]
Sometimes we are quite aware of our bad habits, what we have done wrong, and what we’ve neglected to do. We are also often blind, having covered up, dressed up, renamed, ignored and simply stayed put in patterns that limit what we see.
John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John came preparing the way. Prophets don’t just say: “Repent.” They reveal our sin. They may sing it back to us, making us uncomfortable, helping us remember what we’ve covered up or forgotten. They might bring us out on a bridge so we can see the hill right in front of us.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of his novels set in Narnia, C.S. Lewis tells the story of Eustace, a boy who in his greed turned into a dragon and who limped because of a bracelet that dug into his leg. Aslan the Lion led Eustace in his pain to a beautiful garden and a well with clear water. Eustace wanted to bathe in the water to ease the pain. Aslan said he must undress first. Eustace scratched his scaly skin off, but then saw there was another layer of dragon skin. He scratched two more layers off, but another remained. Then Aslan said: “You will have to let me undress you.”[ii]
Retelling the event later to a friend, Eustace said, “I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away. …”[iii]
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”[iv]
Forgiveness is like God pulling beastly dragon skin off. We can’t do it ourselves. Cleansing sin is intense and hurts at first. It is like a refiner’s hot fire or a fuller’s soap that removes dirt and oil from wool. God goes “going deep to the heart” to relieve, save, and heal. God both forgives by removing, unbinding from what confines and by binding up, an inner healing, where wet with grace we remember ourselves as beloved children.
Dear friends, what change in pattern or perspective prompts you to see differently?
How do you hear the pain of your own heart? What words, music, image, person reflects it back to you?
What is your own story, your own experience, of being forgiven? What is the invitation now?
Our repentance is always in response to God. Seeing the obstacle, hearing the pain, and whatever desire we have to confess comes from God. That is God already at work in you, preparing, sending messengers with saving invitations.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh [yes, all flesh] shall see the salvation of God.”
[i] Sleeping at Last, wrote songs about the nine Enneagram types and unpacks each in a podcast with Chris Huertz. The Enneagram is a valuable tool for self-awareness and growth. Unlike personality profiles based on strengths, each type has patterns of disintegration as well as integration.
[ii] C. S. Lewis (1952) The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’. New York, NY: The MacMillan Company, 88-90.
[iii] Lewis, 90
[iv] Lewis, 90-91
One of the things which fascinates me about the saints is that often those things for which they are most remembered and venerated, probably never happened. We keep today the feast of St. James and John the Apostles. As you know, James is remembered in parts of the Church as the one who first preached the Good News of the Gospel in Spain. It would appear that today only Spaniards believe this, for the earliest accounts of St. James’ travels to Spain only goes back to the seventh century. Truth, at least of the historical kind, seems to be unimportant when it comes to devotion to James, for even today his shrine in Spain continues to be one of the great places of pilgrimage in the Church.
According to that story, sometime after Pentecost, James travelled to Spain to preach the gospel. So far so good. But it gets better. While he was there, the Virgin appeared to him on the banks of the Ebro River, and commanded him to return to Jerusalem, where he faced his martyrdom. This apparition of Mary, known as Our Lady of the Pillar, is the first apparition of the Virgin, in a long series that includes Lourdes, Fatima, and Walsingham. But it gets better. Mary is presumed to have been living in Jerusalem at the time, so this was not so much an apparition, as it was an act of bilocation. Curiously, or not, some of the earliest archaeological evidence of devotion to Mary in Spain, dates to the fourth century, not far from where this apparition is said to have taken place. Another story of James’ martyrdom is that his accuser immediately repented and suffered the same fate as James. Following his death his body was transferred by to Spain, either by angels, or floating in a stone boat.
Given our proximity to the ocean, we might imagine a vast body of water when we read in the Gospels about the Sea of Galilee. But the Sea of Galilee is no ocean. The Sea of Galilee is a lake, a large fresh-water lake in northern Israel/Palestine. The lake is 33 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is fed by the Jordan River which flows from north to south, and also by underground springs.
The Sea of Galilee is as dangerous as it is distinctive: distinctive because it is the lowest freshwater lake on earth – it’s surface almost 700 feet below sea level, with a beautiful shoreline, pristine drinking water, and a plentiful stock of fish. Anddangerous because of its surprising and violent storms. From the Golan Heights in the east, fierce, cool winds meet up with the warm temperatures of the lake basin, sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been tranquil and the sky perfectly clear.
This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples. They had set off in their small fishing boat in seemingly tranquil waters, when suddenly a violent storm arose. Their tiny boat was being battered by the wind and the waves, and there seemed to be no possibility of safely reaching the shore. They were swamped by fear. They had fished on this lake for a living. They knew this water, they knew these storms, and they were terrified!
And you? You probably know how it is to be sailing through life in radiant sunlight when swiftly and unexpectedly a storm arises and you suddenly find yourself swamped by mighty waves and tossed about by terrible winds. Perhaps something tragic or frightening has happened to a family member or friend, or to you; maybe it’s a health issue, a financial disaster, an accident, some kind of assault, or some other unforeseen suffering. There is so much to be afraid of in life, and our fears can seem so great when we feel so small. Fear is no respecter of age, or gender, or social standing. Fear may be the most common experience we share with all of humankind: the consuming, crippling, sometimes-irrational visitation of fear. We can experience fear when we face impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined does not matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to swamp our lives and make us sink. Whatever its source, our fear is real.
Jesus speaks a great deal about fear and anxiety, which is quite revealing. He would have learned his lessons about fear from two sources, one being the Hebrew scriptures. The scriptures which he would have known – what we call the “Old Testament” – are replete with messages about worry and fear. We are told very plainly that we do not need to be afraid, and this is because of God’s promise and provision, God’s steadfast love and unfailing faithfulness. Fear’s tight hold on us is loosened, the Bible assures us, when we put our trust in God.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me,” the psalmist says, “and delivered me out of all my terror.” (Ps.34:4)
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” another psalmist declares. “The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? …. Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; and though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him.” (Ps 27:1,3-4)
“Whenever I am afraid,” the psalmist says to God, “I will put my trust in you.” (Ps 56:3)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” writes another, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult…. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” (Ps 46:1-3,11)
Jesus would have known these words, just as he would have known the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“But now, thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isa 43:1-3)
Jesus would also have learned about fear from his own life. I am not talking about the fear he observed in other people. I am talking about his own personal fear, what he experienced. We don’t know the specifics of what Jesus feared, but we do know that Jesus lived a fully human life, and therefore he must have been acquainted with fear, undoubtedly. If you want to imagine what Jesus feared, use your own life as an example. Of what have you been afraid? If you went back in memory to your earliest childhood, then your adolescence, then coming into your twenties and beyond into adulthood, what has caused you to fear?
Were you afraid there would not be enough of something, or afraid there would be too much of something? Were you afraid because you might be excluded from something, or afraid because you might be included in something? Were you afraid because you might be asked to speak, or afraid because, when you spoke, no one would listen, or no one would understand? Were you afraid because you might be left alone, or afraid because you would not be left alone? Were you afraid because of too much work, or afraid because there was no work, or no meaningful work? Were you afraid because you stood out, or afraid because you felt unnoticed, lost in the crowd, forgotten, invisible? Were you afraid because you were bullied, or because you faced prejudice or persecution? Were you ever so afraid that you feared for your life? Or were you afraid because of your own temper? Some of our fears are pathetic: tiny, tedious, embarrassing to even admit… and yet they are very real. We suffer with our fears – which are the kinds of things Jesus must also have been afraid of, because these are the kind of fears that visit us in life.
When Jesus talks about not being afraid, he is not speaking clinically, nor is the source of his teaching primarily from external observation. He is rather speaking from his own experience. He is speaking about fear from the inside-out, autobiographically. He had as much to be afraid of as you and I have. And then, something slowly happened to Jesus. Something shifted in Jesus in the nearly 20 years between when he was, at age 12, discussing theology with the elders in the Temple in Jerusalem, and when appeared before his cousin, John, to be baptized in the Jordan River. These 20-some years are often called Jesus’ “hidden years,” and we are not told where Jesus was or what he was doing. The scriptures are silent on this period of Jesus’ life. I am certain he was making peace with the terms of his life, and that included facing his fears.
When Jesus finds his voice – at around age 30 – he speaks a great deal about fear, worry, and anxiety: he tells us that we need not be afraid, that we need not worry, that we need not be anxious. Why is that? Because of God’s powerful presence and provision; and because of God’s enduring faithfulness. Jesus learned this. In facing his own fears, he discovered he was not alone.
Going back to the Gospel lesson appointed for today: When a violent storm descends upon the disciples in the boat, Jesus appears to them. The disciples are terrified. Whatever we make of Jesus’ walking on the stormy water, we can see that he is not afraid. Had he ever been afraid of storms on the Sea of Galilee? I’m sure he had. He had grown up in Nazareth, which is not far from the Sea of Galilee. He knew storms, inside and out. But he is no longer afraid of storms. And he tells his disciples, he tells us, not to be afraid. He isn’t scolding us; he is reassuring us not to be afraid, because we don’t need to be afraid. He has come to know this, from the scriptures and from his own experience. And he promises us his power, his provision, his presence to be with us always, to the end of the storm, and to the end of life.
If your life now is swamped with fear, or if you are afraid about an incoming storm in your life – and I presume that all of us are acquainted with fear – remember this: our fear is not an obstacle to God but rather an invitation from God to take Jesus at his word. We need not be afraid. Jesus will know every reason why we could be afraid because he’s been there. He assures us not to be afraid, not to have anxiety, because he is with us: his presence, his power, his provision. For us, fear can seem such an inmovable impediment. But for God, our fear presents an opportunity to show forth God’s presence, and power, and provision; and an opportunity for us to learn to trust. Our fear is God’s invitation, and Jesus will make good on his promise to be with us always. There is so much of which we could be afraid in life, but Jesus assures us not to fear.
Saint Francis De Sales, a 17th century Bishop of Geneva, who lived during a very stormy time in history, left us with these words of assurance:
“Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life;
rather look to them with full hope that as they arise,
God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in his arms.
“Do not fear what may happen tomorrow.
The same everlasting Father who cared for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
“He will either shield you from suffering,
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.”
Jesus has the last word: “Do not fear, for I am with you, always.” (cf Mt 28:20)
We often imagine what it must have been like for those disciples to be living with Jesus during those years of ministry together in Galilee. Particularly in the Synoptic Gospels we come to know a Jesus in all his humanity: his kindness, his gentleness, his anger, his sadness, his love. There are times, especially in Jesus’ healing miracles and perhaps above all at the Transfiguration, when the disciples glimpse something of his divinity, but so often Jesus tells them not to tell anyone of this. More often, Jesus is portrayed as a very human, who draws close to us in his humanity.
But when we move to the Gospel of John, we breathe a very different atmosphere. Here, in this gospel, it is as if Jesus can barely conceal his divinity at all. At any moment his glory is likely to ‘flame out like shining from shook foil.’ In our Gospel today, we have such a moment. Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water, and they are terrified. On seeing Jesus, the disciples were experiencing what Rudolph Otto in his book ‘The Idea of the Holy’ described as the numinous. The experience of the numinous, he says, underlies all genuine religious experience. Scripture is packed with such experiences, and perhaps the first famous one is in the account of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3. The experience of the numinous has three components, which Otto calls ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’ First is ‘mysterium’. The numinous experience is wholly other; entirely different to anything we experience in ordinary life, and it evokes a reaction of wonder. So, the disciples in the boat stare in awe and wonder at a man walking on water. Secondly the numinous is ‘tremendum’. It provokes terror, because it presents itself as an overwhelming power and majesty. And the poor disciples were terrified! But thirdly, the numinous is ‘fascinans’. We are attracted and drawn to it, as something merciful and gracious. The disciples longed for this terrifying figure on the water to come closer to them, and into the boat.
I have a special fondness for the story of Nicodemus, and not just because we share the same name. In 2010, after a few decades of suffering apparent separation between God and me, something happened. It was a very sudden something and it brought spiritual transformation, healing, and gratitude. At the time, the words which came spontaneously to mind describing the experience, the words that felt most true, where that it felt like being born again.
Not long after I found a church and when I told the rector about the “born again” experience she very gently suggested that I call it something else, perhaps a kind of spiritual awakening. I assumed she offered that advice because of the political reality associated with the phrase “born again.” Still, I’ve never forgotten that first Easter I celebrated, how there was an overwhelming and joyful recognition of the baptismal dying and rising of my self in Christ.
Back in the fourth century the sacrament of baptism was seen as the culmination of a Lenten journey, a journey of instruction, spiritual exercises, and ascetic disciplines. Those on this journey, the catechumens, were baptized on the Easter Vigil, a celebration of their participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. As a symbol of this dying and rising, they would enter a pool of water on one side, as entering into a tomb or womb, before emerging on the other side.