Epiphany: It's one of the most "religious" words there is. The Bible gives us Paul's epiphany, the startling vision on the road to Damascus; and then there are those special things that super-spiritual people always seem to experience—epiphanies, words of knowledge, sudden bursts of God-clarity.
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And here we are on the eve of another sort of Epiphany—the liturgical season that has the unfortunate fate of falling between two far more famous church seasons, Christmas and Lent.
Just what is Epiphany about? Jesus. During Advent we prepared for his coming. During Christmas we celebrated his arrival. During Epiphany, we are treated to readings that help us figure out who Jesus is and why he came.
The readings take us straight to the central theme of this season: Jesus' extending God's grace to the whole of humanity. As Episcopal priest John Wall explains in A Dictionary for Episcopalians, "The season begins with the ‘appearance' of Jesus (the extension of his ministry) to the Gentiles, specifically to the wise men of Matthew's gospel. Epiphany thus proclaims that Jesus Christ is the savior of the whole world and that God's promises of salvation to Israel now apply to all the peoples of the Earth."
Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Invited and Convicted
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18
This week's scripture readings clearly chart the Epiphany theme, that of Jesus drawing all of humanity into a living relationship with God. Psalm 147:19-20 proclaims the special relationship between God and Israel. It is with Israel that God has covenanted: God "has done this for no other nation." But that exclusive covenant is expanded in our New Testament readings.
What John boldly declares is the heart of the whole story: All who receive Jesus—all!—are given "the right to become children of God" (John 1:12). God's grace, though marked in a very particular covenant made with Israel at Sinai, is not reserved for the children of Israel alone. Now God has made a covenant with all of humanity. Paul sounds the same theme again in Ephesians: We are "adopted as [God's children] through Jesus Christ."
But coupled with the glorious extension of God's grace to us all are some troubling questions. What does the coming of Jesus mean for the Jews who don't accept him? How will the church speak about Jews and the covenant God made with them in the desert? The reading from John is a difficult passage because of what it seems to say about Jews. For, of course, the church has often assumed that the antecedent in John 1:11 is the Jews—that Jesus came for the Jews, but they did not receive him. There begins a very long, difficult, and consequential story about Jews and their failure to recognize Jesus for who he was, and—this is the consequential part—the Christian violence towards Jews enacted in the name of that rejection.
At the outset of a liturgical season we devote to recognizing and comprehending Jesus' ministry, let us consider an alternate reading of John 1:11. It is not "the Jews" to whom John speaks, but everyone who has rejected Jesus. As Pope Paul VI said in a 1974 address, "Christ came, but by a mysterious and terrible misfortune, not everyone accepted him.... It is the picture of humanity before us today, after 20 centuries of Christianity."
Isn't John speaking to us all? The readings leave us invited and convicted: A bold declaration of the ministry of Christ to extend God's grace to all, and a sharp reminder that we still fail to recognize and "receive" God. The task of Epiphany is no more, and no less, than paying attention, so that we might receive the one who has come to adopt us as members of the family of God.
The Waters of Life
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
This week's readings are water readings: God's Spirit hovering over the first waters at the beginning of Creation; the powerful and majestic voice of the Lord "thunder[ing] over the mighty waters" in Psalm 29; the baptismal waters that cleanse us of our sins; and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Then, of course, there are the baptismal waters that inaugurate Jesus' ministry. This is the first clue the gospel of Mark gives us about who Jesus is and what his task in coming to Earth was. In Mark, there is no angel making prophetic proclamations to a pregnant Mary, no nativity story Magi, and no Simeon dying easier now that he has seen the Messiah. At Jesus' baptism, something special and wonderfully strange happens: "the heavens opened and the Spirit descend[ed] upon him like a dove" (Mark 1:10).
Why, commentators have often asked, did the Holy Spirit appear in the form of a dove? So that we might connect these new baptismal waters with the great flood? The dove gives us our clue about who Jesus is and what he has come to do. The dove, explained third century bishop Gregory Thaumaturgus, shows Jesus to be "the new Noah...the good pilot of nature which is in shipwreck."
I am relatively new to the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. I'm working to get the hang of the Christian year, but I'm still very much a part of the American calendar, the Hallmark calendar, and the academic calendar. If you're like me, you will spend more time these weeks thinking about Martin Luther King Jr. than Epiphany.
But King was an Epiphany prophet. He understood his ministry in the context of Jesus' ministry. It's worth recalling King's response, recorded in A Testament of Hope, to the fire hoses Bull Connor turned on peaceful civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham: "[T]here was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.... We had known water. If we were Baptists or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodists, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water."
King delivered those words the night before he was assassinated. With them, he converted an attack on the reign of God into a sacrament. It is a good model for living into the ministry of Jesus.
1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
God knows us. That's a simple claim, but it has radical implications. God is no distant watchmaker who set the world in motion and then decided to take a nap. God knows us. It's a simple claim, one I often forget. There's no clearer reminder than Psalm 139, which gives us one of the psalmist's most private and stirring prayers:
You created my inmost being;
You knit me together in my mother's womb.
My frame was not hidden from you,
When I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
Your eyes saw my unformed body.
God knows us. God knows us before even our parents know us, and before we know ourselves.
The story of the calling of Samuel takes that insight one step further—God must know us before we can know God. God calls us over and over, but because we do "not yet know the Lord" (1 Samuel 3:7), we mistakenly think the call is coming from someone else. Initially, it was Eli, not Samuel, who realized the Lord was calling the boy. The lesson of 1 Samuel 3, then, is twofold: God knows us and calls out to us long before we know God; and sometimes the insight of a wise friend or mentor is necessary in our recognizing God's movement in our lives for what it is.
This all culminates in the gospel reading, the story of Jesus calling Nathaniel and Philip. Philip tells Nathaniel that he has "found the one Moses wrote of in the law, the one preached by the prophets" (John 1:45)—Jesus, from Nazareth. Nathaniel doubts the Messiah could come from a town like Nazareth, but he agrees to go with Philip and check this Jesus out.
Jesus at once recognizes Nathaniel as a "true Israelite," and Nathaniel insists that Jesus doesn't know him. But, of course, Jesus—the same Jesus who knew the hemorrhaging woman from a slight tug of his garment, who knew the woman at the well from a glance, and who reminds his believers that God can number every hair on their heads—knows Nathaniel: "One day, long before Philip called you, I saw you under a fig tree." With that, Nathaniel understands he's in the presence of the king of Israel. God first knows Nathaniel, and, because of God's deep knowledge of him—the type of deep knowledge hinted at in Psalm 139—Nathaniel is able to know Jesus for who he is.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
One of the trickiest, stickiest problems—or seeming problems—with Paul is his belief that the return of Jesus, the end of the world, is imminent. It is right around the corner. Jesus will return tomorrow, next week, or next year. That belief shapes a host of Paul's instructions. In this week's epistle, Paul is at his most explicit. Time is short, this world in its present form is passing away, so those who mourn, be joyful; those who use worldly things, use them with detachment. But Paul wrote those words two millennia ago, and Jesus has not yet returned.
Are we to dismiss Paul's words on the grounds that his understanding of eschatology, his thinking about final things and the end times, was off by a few thousand years?
Perhaps there is another, roomier way to read Paul. Perhaps his insistence on living as though the end is near applies every bit as much to us today as to the Corinthians to whom he first drafted his words. Perhaps Paul never meant for us to worry about the calendar, to be concerned with which day of which month of which year Jesus would return in glory. Rather we can read Paul as urging his audience—both in Corinth and today—to live eschatologically, to cultivate a sense of detachment from our worldly concerns.
We get a hint of what that detachment might mean when we turn to the gospel reading, for Jesus, too, insists that the reign of God is at hand. Here in the first chapter of Mark we have the powerful story of Jesus calling his disciples, transforming fishermen into "fishers of men" and women. Simon and Andrew follow immediately; their first act of discipleship is to set aside their nets and put down the tools of their earthly trade.
Just as Paul speaks across the centuries, so too does Jesus, calling each of us to leave our nets, our families, and our boats and follow him.
The Communal Good
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Scripture is thick with reminders about obedience and authority. Deuteronomy's discussion of prophets cuts to the heart of the matter. The people must adhere to the prophet's words, remembering that they come from God. (The rest of Hebrew scripture makes clear, of course, that this is precisely what Israel fails to do.) At the same time, the prophet must never forget that his authority, too, is the Lord. The prophet who prophecies falsely, claiming that God said something God did not say, will be put to death.
Mark makes clear that Jesus has a "new authority"—not merely the authority of a rabbi (or teacher), but the authority of one who can exorcize demons. Even "evil spirits...obey him" (Mark 1:27).
Authority encompasses more than the obedience of an individual believer to God; it's not just about me and my Lord Jesus. Like almost everything in the Christian life, there's a communal component. Paul, addressing that factious group of Corinthians, has plenty to say about communal responsibility.
This passage from Corinthians is one I love to skim. First of all, it seems utterly arcane. Meat sacrificed to idols? Who cares whether or not Paul thought it was permissible? Idolatrous meat is not something I encounter on a regular basis.
But I realize I shouldn't skip over this bit of Paul's epistle. If the context is a somewhat outdated question about meat, the point still applies. Paul isn't interested in the legality of food put before idols per se. His larger claim is about communal responsibility. Even if something like that idol's food is nominally legal, we should avoid it if partaking would confuse other, newer Christians.
I love to skim this passage because the question of setting an example comes up in my life surprisingly often. Here's a recent instance: It's late, I've had a few glasses of wine, and my (male) friend and I have just finished watching an old Cary Grant film. Can't I spend the night in his apartment, so long as "nothing happens?" If I stop to think about the 13-year-old I'm mentoring at church, if I stop to think about setting an example, if I stop to think about the Corinthians and their meat—the answer might, maybe, be no.
Which is an annoying answer.
But if an evil spirit can obey Jesus, surely I can too.
Sharing God's Extravagant Love
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 20; 1 Corinthian 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Epiphany is the time in the church calendar set aside for our learning God's character. Our God is the God who rules over even princes. God is the Creator of the earth. God "will not grow tired or weary," and God gives us strength when we "stumble and fall." As the psalmist writes, God calls each star by name, feeds birds and beasts, and nourishes the earth with rain so that grass will "grow on the hill" (Psalm 147:8). And not only does God, in the extravagant language of the psalms, bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted, our God is a God who, in the most concrete way, is a healer. Here in the opening of Mark, Jesus heals Simon's mother-in-law and myriad other sick and demon-possessed folk.
But our readings suggest that sitting around knowing God is not our only task: We are equally enjoined to share that knowledge with others. Jesus' healings may appear to be the centerpiece of Mark's first chapter, but Jesus himself says that his purpose is preaching: He tells his disciples that he wants to travel to neighboring villages "to preach there also. That is why I have come."
Paul, too, emphasizes to the Corinthians the importance of sharing the gospel with others. "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" In the interest of effective preaching, Paul has made himself "a slave to everyone." When preaching to the Jews, he adopts their vocabulary and viewpoint. When preaching to the weak, he "became weak."
Even Isaiah turns preacher in our text with a sermonic refrain repeated in verses 21 and 28. The preacher-prophet insists on the hearing and telling of the story of God: "Do you not know? Have you not heard?"
This injunction to preach is all well and good, but just what ought we be preaching? Pietist August Hermann Francke offered a pointed answer in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1725: The "aim and direction" of all our preaching should be, simply, "to lead [our] hearers to Christ and to his grace."
Do you not know? Haven't you heard?
And once you hear, tell someone else.
‘Wash, and Be Clean'
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45
Two men with leprosy, two contrasting stories of God's healing powers. We've already read two stories of healings in Mark. Is there anything to be learned by slogging through more?
This week's gospel story feels familiar. It has all the ingredients of Jesus' healings: A stranger, a touch from Jesus, a miracle. The story should be outlandish, shocking, or, at least, attention-getting. But to us, even those of us who might approach such miraculous healings with cynical modern eyes, stories like Jesus and the leper are a touch domesticated. We've heard them in Sunday school for so long.
The story of Naaman is more jarring. This story is one of my absolute favorites, right up there with Emmaus, and Jonah and the whale. I admit that I like Naaman for wholly narcissistic reasons—he reminds me over and over of myself.
Naaman is a powerful military leader, a commander for the king of Aram, but he has leprosy. Through the unlikely testimony of an anonymous Hebrew slave-girl, Naaman hears of a powerful prophet in Israel, Elisha. Naaman makes his way to Samaria, is eventually directed to Elisha, and then hears an unexpected message: "Go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan," says Elisha, "and your flesh will be restored."
Seven dips in a river? That wasn't what Naaman was expecting. He was expecting drama, magic. He was expecting the prophet to wave a magic wand and, poof! A cure. When Naaman finds that the work of God is sometimes utterly ordinary, he is not just disappointed, he is "angry" (2 Kings 5:11).
Like Naaman, I often find that I want God to behave one way, and when God refuses to go along with my expectations, I get ticked off. These stories tell us more than that God can miraculously heal our bodies. God also works in ways we don't always anticipate, appreciate, or like.
And there's more at stake here than physical health or glowing skin. In Naaman's healing we have a précis of the tools God uses to work out our salvation. Ordinary tools like water, and ultimately a carpenter from Nazareth. To be healed of sin, we must all submit to the same, not-very-dramatic cure Naaman finally accepted: A simple baptism in water accompanied by a simple faith. As Matthew Henry wrote in his commentary on 2 Kings, "The methods for the healing of the leprosy of sin are so plain.... Believe, and be saved; repent, and be pardoned; wash, and be clean."
Isaiah 43:18-25; Psalm 41; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12
On my good days, I spend time praying the scriptures appointed by the lectionary. And on about half of those days, the lectionary makes me want to scream in frustration. Sometimes a given day's readings don't seem to have anything to do with one another; other days they feel just plain irrelevant to what's going on in my life.
But this week is one that reminds me of the wisdom of the lectionary, for here the readings begin to head out of Epiphany and into Lent, and draw our attention to the forgiveness of sins. As we have dwelled this season on the nature of Jesus' ministry, we now see that his entire ministry points to what Virginia Theological Seminary professor Reginald Fuller has called "the supreme epiphany": The cross.
Isaiah doesn't mince words when it comes to forgiveness. Israel has transgressed, she has failed to bring God sacrifices and offerings, she has failed to call upon God, she has "burdened [God] with...sins." But God's nature is to forgive (in the words of the liturgy, God's "property is always to have mercy"). Isaiah assures us that God "blots out" our transgressions and forgets our sin.
The gospel makes even more explicit the connection between Epiphany and Lent, for in the healing of a paralytic (the fourth healing so far in Mark) we see a crowd of hecklers do the epiphanic task of recognizing Jesus for who he is, coupled with Jesus' bold forgiving of sin. Jesus' healing of the paralyzed man points our attention to the day when he will forgive our sins. And if we understand that, if we understand that Jesus is the one who came to forgive us, we have done the work of Epiphany, and are prepared to enter Lent.