9th Jan, 2005

The First Sunday After the Epiphany

Epiphany I – Baptism of Christ
Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

Well, the twelve days of Christmas ended last Thursday with the Feast of the Epiphany. The Christmas cookies and sundry holiday treats have been nibbled away showing their unfortunate caloric results on some of us. The lights, decorations, and tree have come down; making our homes now seem a bit empty and sparse. The presents have been opened, returned, put away, or in use by now. What? You didn’t get three French hens, or ten lords a-leaping? Well, maybe next year.

The season just past gave us what we are promised and always get: carols of joy, the angels’ promise, the shining star, the awe of the shepherds, the homage of the magi. Through that we also get the age-old promise of peace, of joy, of hope… and most of all the knowledge that God will not leave us alone, stranded in darkness and lost in despair.

But like the prophet Isaiah whom we hear a lot from this time of year, we have been visited with visions of darkness covering the earth. As most of us were still extending our Christmas celebration, bloated on rich food, reveling in our gifts, or comfortably surrounded by our families, partners, and friends; on the 26th of December the most devastating natural disaster in modern times struck the people of Southeast Asia.

The 9. earthquake on the Richter Scale and resulting tsunami wrought such destruction that only now weeks later are we realizing the magnitude of the largest tsunami ever recorded. Having grown up in San Francisco where the famous 1906 earthquake there is part of the collective consciousness of every San Franciscan; I was shocked to hear that event was only miniscule contrasted to what occurred two weeks ago, now counted as one of the seven deadliest natural disasters in history. Every day the latest tragic reports tragic boggle the mind. The latest death toll is 160,000 and likely to rise to over 200,000 with millions now struggling to survive.

The image of the little Swedish boy wandering the wreckage looking for his parents is only one of many haunting images. With so many Europeans escaping the cold north for winter holidays in the area it was shocking to learn that over 2,000 Swedes alone died, making their national loss proportionately the second highest after Sri Lanka and the largest collective loss of life for that country since the 18th century. The international community has reeled from this disaster with over 60 nationalities counting victims, making it truly a global tragedy. The news media keeps referring to the catastrophe in terms of “biblical proportions” and I wonder which particular part of the Bible they mean.

When senseless tragedies have struck in recent years, there has been an evil perpetrator at least to whom we can point the finger. With the Columbine High shootings, the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, and the Sep. 11th attacks, there were clearly evil people who carried the blame. But an event such as the recent natural disaster haunts most of us in struggling to discern and understand such broad-scale human suffering. Especially at this time how does the birth and epiphany of Christ offer any hope and meaning to the human condition? That is a question that has been asked many times before in the 2,000 years since Our Lord came among us. In the 13th Chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel we hear this story:

There were some who told Jesus of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all Galileans, because they suffered thus? Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No…’

Then as now, a common simplistic explanation to life’s occurrences is that a loving God rewards good people and punishes bad ones. Therefore, the people who were violently put to death worshipping at the Temple by the Roman authority (Pontius Pilate, interestingly enough) must have had it coming. Jesus emphatically rejects that notion and adds to it another current event of his day. He asks if the eighteen who were killed by the tower falling on them were the worst sinners in Jerusalem.

The questions remain: are my sufferings the result of my sin? Or, does God send suffering as a test of faith? This view sees tragedy as a curve ball pitched to us by God either to see how we will hold up or else as our just deserts. These are unacceptable answers for Jesus. He clearly rejects the connection between our own sins and the bad things that happen in life. Jesus opens up the possibility that bad things happen to good people. In Matthew 5:45 Jesus tells his disciples that our heavenly Father “makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Why do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? Why isn’t life fair? Sometimes we take our free will and make bad choices that hurt ourselves or others. If I put my hand in the fire I will get burned. That’s the way the world works; actions have consequences. It is the result of my bad decision, not God punishing me. God gave us free will and, likewise the natural world. What if I put my hand into the fire and did not get burned? In a world like that I could go out and get drunk and drive my car quite confident that God would protect me behind the wheel. In a world where God makes everything we do work out fine, no matter what choices we make, removing all the consequences of our actions; then our choices would not be real choices and no matter what we did everything would work out just the same. That is not free will.

Much more troublesome are the so-called “acts of God.” But sometimes even their effects may have some complicity on our part. If I decide to go walking in an open field in the middle of an electrical storm and get struck by lightening, it may not be entirely fair to place all the blame on God. Or, if I choose to build my house in a known flood plane on the Missouri River or on a Florida beach and it’s washed away, or hit by a hurricane; I better rethink whether that was a good location to choose.

However, one cannot explain away all the suffering in the world and there are many tragic things that cannot be explained at all. Where is God when we suffer through no consequence of our actions? Right at this time of year, when he have finished celebrating the feast of Emmanuel, “God with us” and have moved to Epiphany “Christ made manifest” we must remain clearly focused on the bold claim of our faith that we have a God with us.

Our with-us God came and lived among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth: it was then and remains God’s boldest experiment. If you are in a quandary of dismay over why bad things happen in life, then maybe you haven’t been paying attention to the story; or else you’ve missed the point. Our blessed Lord suffered the most shameful torture and death yet could have come down off the cross and been carried by the angels to heaven. But God humbled Himself to become human and did not change the rules of the world, even taking on the worst the world had to offer.

So, the victims of Pilate’s massacre and the people on whom the tower of Siloam fell, and, yes, the victims of the earthquake and tsunami can be redeeming as we struggle with trying to understand those events. Jesus says that suffering binds us together in our common humanity…one shared by God through Him and Jesus invites us to come into the very heart of God. That is why He ministered to so many people unfairly suffering. Through all the circumstances of life God is there. God gave us and the natural world free will and so introduced the possibility of suffering in this world. God entered our world, with all its joys and sorrows and suffered as one of us, not just to see how humans live, but to show us how much God cares.

In the unfair, uncertain world we live in, we are called to stay fixed on the certainty of God. As Christians we believe that our redemption by Jesus can try to make human suffering understandable. Because it’s our redemption through the cross that gives us the courage to place our sufferings and the sufferings of others on the broad shoulders of Jesus as he hangs on that cross, taking all the redemptive suffering of the world upon himself, offering it to God. Over the long sweep of human history there have been millions of us who have believed and continue to believe that there is a God who never lets us go. He is a God who doesn’t just shares his power but insists that we discover our own power in all the tangled joys and tragedies of life.

He is a God who takes the leftover bits and pieces of our shattered hopes and broken dreams, our heartaches, doubts and disappointments and dares to look at them through our tears – tears that create a prism through which all the colors of life can be seen.

This is our Lord; that is our epiphany.

Amen.

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