Epiphany is a season celebrating how God touches our lives. The season begins with the celebration of the kings visiting Jesus at Bethlehem, next we heard about Jesus’ baptism where the voice of God proclaimed that Jesus was God’s son, last week we heard about the calling of the fishermen to be disciples. Epiphany is about big moments that point to Jesus’ divine significance all of which involve people making steps to follow his example. It is about expressing God’s mission to all corners of the world.
But as we hear today’s gospel lesson, we get a glimpse of Jesus’ authority with the common people he encountered. When telling stories like this one, I struggle with not knowing what Jesus said. For some reason the gospel writer didn’t include his amazing words, a surprisingly unjust oversight. There are times when I wish I had the words he spoke because they were so powerfully persuasive about the way God is involved in human life and they provided the purpose of existence, so strongly, that the people who heard them knew it without question.
They knew it, even though Jesus didn’t come to them as an authority (at least not one chosen by the society). Here was this stranger who appeared in the gathered community, a place where people gathered to listen and interpret God’s Word (a place similar to this one), and after speaking these amazing words, he was deemed to be the ultimate authority. So much so that the real authorities, the ones who made a good living doing that work, were scared of losing their power and influence in that community.
We often look to authority figures, in our church the deacons, priests, and bishops but there are authorities in other parts of our lives, as well, (we look to these authorities) to tell us what we are to believe and how we are supposed to live. But Jesus didn’t fit into that category. He wasn’t a member of the Sanhedrin, he wasn’t a scribe, he wasn’t a customary religious authority. But when he spoke, he attracted all the attention and people intuitively knew that what he said was truth.
And because of that, people began to follow him. That is the reason that the disciples dropped their nets, as we heard in last week’s gospel, to follow Jesus. It wasn’t because he was a celebrity but about what he said and how he said it. Who does that today? To whom do we listen?
Of course that is a personal question. Next week, for instance, there is a certain sporting event which grabs the attention of a good number of Americans (and even people from other countries). The Super Bowl, this year, pairs the New England Patriots against the New York Giants. According to an online survey, 53% of the respondents believe that the Patriots will win, but in the northeast which includes both Boston and New York, the Giants are favored 52% to 48%. Yes, the game may be exciting (it could come down to a last second field goal or even overtime), but it also might be a blowout. No matter what happens on the field, there will be another competition taking place, a competition that will attempt to sway our choices. Of course, I am talking about the commercials.
I’ve mentioned commercials before in other sermons because I see in the covert manipulations of our minds, hints of what is at the heart of human interaction. And, the Super Bowl is the premier showcase of our marketing geniuses. Anheuser-Busch, Coke, Pepsi, Monster.com, Volkswagen, and even Century 21 have purchased 30 second spots for approximately $3.5 million each. Marketers are the present day authorities on the inner desires of the masses. Every image and every word in an ad is tested to ensure maximum persuasive power. And no matter how much we deny their influence on us, they will work. If they didn’t, companies wouldn’t spend their money.
Advertisements change our minds, but there are other things that have authority in our lives. Whether it is family, money, prestige, cars, fun, art, music, or any number of other things. Consider what it is for you. Then consider if that is what you want your true top priority to be. I could stand up here and tell you to prioritize God (it would be good if you did), but the question is how does setting God at the top help us develop into a deeper and more fulfilled people?
That is a good question and one that gets to the ‘why’ of faith. Being God centered doesn’t mean that we can’t have other interests, but prioritizing God grounds us in how we balance the human desires, the fun of life, with a commitment to serve and be dedicated givers to community. God helps us find ways to make those two become one, a reorganization of our many priorities in a way that makes them fulfilling.
Fulfillment through God is a long-term commitment. It doesn’t happen overnight or by making two payments of $19.99. It is not made by showing up to church once in a while, but by carving out regular time in every day and every week to pray and seek God. We have learned the secrets of deepening our spiritual lives throughout the centuries and one of the most important things to do is to practice it in community. Following God is not something that you can do alone, or by just reading a book. By its nature, spiritual life begins in our hearts, but to grow must be made manifest in a community of believers who provide the basis for continued growth. This kind of interaction is a promise we make in baptism.
We can see this in the example of Jesus from today’s gospel lesson when he visited the synagogue. We are not just responsible for your own faith journey, but we are also committed to support the spiritual growth of the people around us. And that means that we must not only come to worship, we must also live it when we walk out those doors in our relationships and our vocations. We must become teachers and authorities to the people around us. This can be tiring work. It is a lifelong journey and there will be times when we want to get off the path because our priorities have changed. When we forget about centering our lives on God and instead are consumed by various other desires.
It is an appropriate time of year to talk about reprioritizing. This week (on Thursday, February 2) is the day we remember Jesus’ Presentation at the Temple, when Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus to God’s mission and when Simeon and Anna recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of long ago prophecies. Most of you probably didn’t don’t know that. You may have thought that I was going to mention that it was Ground Hog Day: The cross quarter day between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, the moment when light/warmth gradually begin to make a marked rebound. Ground Hog Day is a big deal when the winter has been harsh (not so much this year).
No matter what we call it, the beginning of February is the time of year when we are reminded that things we were once excited about, have gotten to be old hat. It has been four weeks since we made New Year’s resolutions. I noticed it in schools, it is the point in the year when students can’t remember the enthusiasm of the first day but also can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. How often do we start something with great enthusiasm only to find ourselves days/months/years later wondering to ourselves if it will ever end?
This is nothing new. Take for instance the Israelites in our Old Testament lesson. They spent a lengthy time at Mount Horeb (otherwise known as Sinai). It was such a long time that they were tired of hearing God’s voice. Instead, they wanted assurance that there was going to be an authority, like Moses, to lead them to the land promised to them at the time of Abraham. Getting to that destination was one of the main reasons that they followed Moses out of Egypt, but in the passage we heard, they felt like they were wasting their time in the presence of God. The story of Moses and the Israelites at Horeb is one of the most amazing encounters with God recorded in Biblical history. But even with that kind of encounter, the people were bored and impatient. They wanted someone to point them in the right direction but were concerned with how long it was taking.
They were unwilling to acknowledge the extraordinary, but instead wanted to know when and with whom. We hear these rumblings today with those who seek God and certainly from those who don’t. The benefits of a spiritual existence and the practice of it are hard to make tangible, they take time (it isn’t like learning trivia, it is harder to grasp), and often demands of us a transformation of our routines. What we want, no matter how much we deny it, is to be told where to go and how to get there to our greatest benefit expending the least amount of time and effort. And when there are conflicting paths on that journey, we struggle to determine who is the ultimate authority in the game (in other words who can get us there most efficiently and at the greatest benefit).
Making that evaluation is a difficult task. Essentially, you can determine authenticity if what the prophet says comes true. Of course then it is too late. What we have determined and learned through Jesus is that we have to take a leap of faith in determining our authorities. Just like the people in the synagogue, the disciples called by Jesus from their nets, the wise men from the east, Simeon and Anna at the Temple, we have got to know who our authority is and we have to take steps to listen and follow. We must make a similar leap of faith to discern the true and rightful authorities in our lives.
There is no room for “just following orders.” God tells us to know God’s commands, listen carefully to the needs around us, listen to authorities, and then take a leap of faith, discern the truth using God’s gift of reason and listening to God’s voice in our hearts.
Evaluate priorities and determine ways to realign life around God. That will often mean taking new leaps of understanding and recognizing the authentic prophets who are present in our lives. It is about taking a risk that may take us further away from our goal or closer to it. That kind of wandering is normal as we progress deeper in our spiritual lives. When we change ourselves, we not only build our own spiritual life but because we are in a community, we also share God’s light with the people around us.
During this season of Epiphany, remember to share the light of God with everyone you encounter. Listen carefully to how you might reorient and reprioritize your choices in the shifting landscape of the journey, a scenic journey leading to a deeper faith and understanding. Carve out moments in every day to center in prayer on how all of our choices can reflect who we are in faith. Open your heart to hear God’s voice and expect that to transform your life.
The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard (email@example.com)
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church (www.stpatrickschurchdc.org)
January 29, 2012