Today is the first Sunday in the church’s season of Epiphany. An epiphany is an event that reveals something about who God is and who we are in relation to God. Following Christmas and leading us all the way to Lent, Epiphany is the time of year when we read the gospel stories that show us the real nature of Jesus as God’swith the fundamentals of our faith. And for many out there who are living through dark days – it is good to get back to what is most fundamental.
In our gospel for this morning, the baby we left in the manger has grown into a young man about to embark on his short ministry. Knowing that he has a special role to play but perhaps unsure about the nature of that role, Jesus approaches John the Baptist and asks to be baptized. As Jesus comes up out of the waters of the river Jordan God reveals Jesus’ true identity proclaiming: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Here we are shown that Jesus is not just a great prophet, a profound teacher, or a worker of miracles, but God’s own Son in human flesh. At the same time, Jesus has submitted to baptism not because he has guilt to wash away, but so he can identify with the spiritual needs of all humanity. So he can fully be one of us.
As a new Epiphany season begins in this new year, there are many among us who are living through difficult times. The news seems to be getting worse rather than better. I know that there are some here who are struggling because they have had to fire co-workers and colleagues they care about, but in this imploding economy they have no choice. I know there are some who have recently lost their jobs and are wondering where they are supposed to go from here. I know there are some who have lost so much of their savings and investments that they wonder if they can continue to care for themselves and their families. I know there are some among us who have recently lost someone they love. I know there are others who are currently keeping vigil as someone the love slips from life into death. For many these are days of crisis, sadness, worry, and depression. Times when it is easy to wonder what life is all about, to wonder if there is any meaning to it all. These are exactly the times when it is so important to reconnect again with the fundamentals of our faith.
Over the years I have shared with some of you an experience I had near the end of my time in college. It happened during a dark period in my own life. It wasn’t that I was sick. As a young man in my early twenties, I was actually the picture of health. There had been no tragedy. In those days I had yet to experience any major trauma, my family was whole and well. I wasn’t in any trouble. I was in fact a good student and fairly well behaved. But I was in crisis non-the-less. It was a crisis of the spirit. As I look back on it, I can see that it was one of those turning points in life, one of the moments when life becomes clearer and more real.
It happened in a very casual way and although it was a profound experience, there are no words I can share with you that will do it justice. One night, lying in my bed unable to sleep, a sense of despair that had been building inside of me for months seemed to reach its peak. I experienced this despair as a crisis of meaning. Although I had been born and raised inside the church, aware of God’s presence all my life, I was no longer sure there was any divine force in the world that cared at all about the existence of the universe. My studies were interesting and my mind was full of powerful ideas. As a philosophy major, I lived in a world of ideas. But they all seemed hollow and pointless. I knew one day I would die, as did everyone, and therefore nothing I did in life would have any permanence. If I were to build great buildings, sooner or later they too would crumble and fade away. If I were to compose beautiful prose, sooner or later they would be forgotten. Nothing seemed to have any durability and therefore nothing had any ultimate meaning. All of it, everything, would one day be ashes and dust, gone and forgotten. You could say I was having a bad day.
But lying there in this sort of late adolescent existential funk, I heard a voice that was not my own inside my head. The voice simply said – “That is why I came.” That’s all. That’s it. No heavenly chorus, no blinding lights, just a voice that said – “That is why I came.” I knew it was the voice of Christ or at least a voice about Christ. All at once everything became clear. My life, your life, all of life has ultimate meaning because God has walked among us in the form of a human. In the incarnation human life has been hallowed. Our struggles, our joys, our sorrows, our accomplishments, and our failures all have meaning because God has embraced them, claimed them, owned them in the act of being born as a small child in Bethlehem. But more powerfully still, I realized that my life has ultimate meaning because God loves me. God loves me so much He was willing to become like me, so that I might never be lost.
I wish I could impress on you how important that experience was for me. But I can’t. Simply put, that moment, that night, so many years ago, was my epiphany. That was when I knew, really knew deep in my being, that God is love and I am a beloved child of God.
In this New Year, I pray that all of us can once again know deep in our hearts that no matter what happens we are the beloved children of a loving God. Our lives and how we live each day matter because Christ has hallowed human existence. Through Christ’s holy life our lives have been made holy. We have been baptized into Christ. We are bound to him and he to us. We have been washed in the waters of grace, love, and forgiveness. As such, there is great joy and meaning in living even when we can’t seem to find it. And the same power of God that descended on Jesus in the Jordan that day, that same Holy Spirit, is available to all of us this morning. So remember the old proverb – when you are sure you can’t get through another minute and you do, that is the power of God sustaining you. When you are sure you can’t find the light and you do, that is the Light of the World directing you. When you are sure you can’t take one more breath and you do, that is the power of the Spirit breathing through you.1 God loves you, that is the truth. May you too come to know it deep in your heart. Amen.