"Have You Ever Had An Epiphany?"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 12, 2003

Psalm 29: Mark 1:4-11


     The celebration of "Epiphany" in Christian tradition celebrates the first time that Jesus was presented to those outside the Jewish faith.  Last week we noted that such people came from the East.  The three Wise Men were the first Gentiles to experience Jesus. However, anyone who understands what it means to experience an epiphany has to do a lot of mental gymnastics in order to associate a sudden flash of insight with the coming of the Magi. 

     Confusion has resulted, because in the 4th century a major theological shift was made by the Church in an attempt to refine its message.  The new emphasis was that Christ came for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, thus celebrating the arrival of the Wise Men became the focus. 

     But four hundred years prior to this change, Epiphany was one of the three most significant days of the Christian-year; the other two being Pentecost and Easter.  Originally, Epiphany was associated with Jesus' sudden insight into his identity following his baptism by John the Baptist.  In this context, the word epiphany makes sense. This brief Church history lesson will provide a backdrop as we now turn our attention to the lesson for today.

     All of us are familiar with the Gospel account of Jesus' baptism. Something extraordinary happened to Jesus. The passage said, "As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit of God coming down on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased.'"

     What we are going to consider today is how this episode in Jesus' life can be translated into a form that may prove helpful for us. Was this experience an example of how God entered into the mind of Jesus or was Jesus ready to open his mind to possibilities that might come from God?  Whatever happened during his experience, we learn that Jesus did not return to his carpenter's shop.

     We  know a very similar experience happened to Saul of Tarsus which was so dramatic that it made him physically blind.  In the Book of Acts, we read, "As Saul was coming near the city of Damascus, suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, Saul!  Saul! Why do you persecute me?  I am Jesus, whom you persecute.  Get up and you will be told what you must do."

     We could add to these two episodes the story of Moses at the burning bush.  Each time it appears as though God intentionally broke into the lives of people and directed them to do specific tasks.  Is this the way God relates to us?  If so, why does God appear to be far less dramatic in people lives today? 

     If we are looking at Moses, Jesus and Paul as our role models for how God interacts with human beings, many of us could say, "I have never had God break into my life with such clarity and decisiveness."  Perhaps God has, but our fixed role models have prevented us from understanding who has been allowing the change agents to appear in our lives.

     If our knowledge of the Scriptures can ever mislead us, it comes precisely at this point. The minute we package God and the way God communicates, we enter a cave that may forever cloud our understanding. With God, there is an infinite number of possibilities for communicating to us and they appear specifically designed for each person.  

     Let me give you an example of what can happen when our awareness is broadened beyond the confines of traditional Biblical references.  A woman named Sarah came into Dr. Wayne Dyer's office one day when he was still a practicing life-education specialist. She told him her story-a story that was strikingly similar to that of other women. 

     Men came onto the stage of her life armed with all the great lines, the fabulous restaurants, the Kennedy Center tickets and exciting stories of adventurous ski vacations.  As time passed, she found herself being whisked away into a world that had all the ear- marks of a bogus three dollar bill.  But she did not see it that way.  He called.  He brought flowers.  He sent notes to her at work. The relationship lasted less than a year because she learned  through some happenstance that she was one of several of  his "playmates."  

     This happened to her again and again.  She wondered why she kept attracting men into her life who had no understanding of commitment, nor did they have the kind of faithfulness she had been raised to believe is possible.

     After hearing her story, Dr. Dyer said, "If you tore the page about men out of your biography, who would you be?  Who are you? What is your life about? How do you define yourself?"  Dyer was preparing her for an epiphany.  He told her that such men are a dime a dozen and they will line up at her door as long as she was willing to open it to them. 

     He said, "You are finding exactly what you are looking for, a plastic savior who will spare you from having to grow up." These words were extremely confrontational and very painful for her to hear.  Because she was in love with being loved, she had engaged in the same behavior over and over again until one by one her male companions stopped calling.  Each time her relationships ended, she felt rejected and devastated.      

     Wayne guided her to focus her energy of producing something of quality with her life rather than waiting for someone else to give her a life. She had a sudden flash of insight.  This epiphany was as powerful as a burning bush or coming up out of the water and being told that she was God's daughter whom God loved very much.  The context for Sarah' epiphany was much different from the ones experienced by Biblical characters, but her life-change was as authentic and as far reaching as that of Moses. 

     Remember, Moses had been raised in the palaces of Egypt until he learned that it was his people who were enslaved and being physically abused.   Jesus had been in his father's carpentry shop for probably 15 years earning a living for Mary and his siblings.  Saul was a highly educated Roman citizen.  All he was doing with his life thus far was rounding up the followers of Jesus and taking them to the authorities.  All three of these men were ripe for an epiphany.

     God's will is that we grow, that we expand our consciousness, that we awaken and develop the skills that often lie dormant within us, that we stretch in our faith, trusting absolutely that many of the painful episodes in life are part of the growth process.  Whatever form in which we want God to come, learn to look elsewhere.  The form God uses with us will be very different from the ones used with Moses, Jesus and Paul. God confronts us within the painful circumstances we are now facing.

     If this had not been true for Jesus, he could have just as easily gone back to his carpentry shop glowing and smiling, telling everyone, "God just talked to me! He told me that I am His Son and that He is happy with me. Because of this, I am going to be the best carpenter the world has ever seen!"  That did not happen.  Why? 

     Jesus was ready for an epiphany.  He possibly had many thoughts of discontentment.  His life was unfulfilled.   Moses could hardly keep his mind off his people being held in bondage in Egypt.  Paul could not get out of his mind the image of Stephen being stoned to death with words of love and forgiveness on his lips.  One of the gifts God gives to us is mental, spiritual and emotional pain.  Such pain is telling us that an epiphany is not very far away.

     People often misunderstand the meaning of their pain.  It is a warning that something is wrong.  It tells us that an immediate change is needed.  People often say, "I need to leave the area or a relationship, or a job," without realizing that the change being called for lies within them.

     There are also people who interpret their pain as a sign of their righteousness.  Pain has become such a part of their identity that they protect it.  They feel entitled to it. They talk about their experience by saying, "See what burdens I have to carry?  See how mistreated I have been?"

     People will wear their pain with pride until they meet a Dr. Dyer, a Dr. Phil or a Dr. Laura or anyone who loves them enough to blow the lid off their cover by confronting them about behavior that will lead them nowhere.  People who emotionally choose to stay where they are, continue to do so by exercising their own strong wills.  God's will is that we stretch and grow.  All living things grow beyond where they are now.  It is only our life form that  has the power to choose otherwise.

     Epiphanies can come during any period of despair, discouragement and frustration.  We have to deal with ourselves because we are the only ones who can do the changing.  God can give us one hundred burning bushes, but some of us prefer to cry out that God has abandoned us.  We need someone to help us adjust how we are perceiving the cause of our pain.

     There was an older lady in a church who really disliked worship.  It was boring to her.  She thought it was a lot of hoopla about nothing.  She had tried various worship experiences in  most of the churches in town and found all of them simply intolerable and a waste of her time.  "People sit there," she said, "looking at the back of each other's heads, sing a few hymns, and then they have to listen to some drivel from a preacher who frequently has little of interest to say!"  She had no problem speaking her mind.

     She eventually came to the United Methodist church where she did not care for the minister.  One Sunday as she was leaving she said to him, "You sound like a good salesman.  Why don't you sell shoes?"  He laughed and said, "I've heard about you. Why don't you work in our nursery during our worship service?"  There was a long, awkward silence.

     It was as if a bolt of lightning struck and lighted up the heavens all around her.  God came to her in that question.  She needed something in her life.   She had been reared to believe that she had to get it from hearing a minister preach.   That is not what she needed.  She needed to give herself away.  She needed to feel useful.  She agreed to do it and she was in that nursery every Sunday for what turned out to be years. This was her gift and she absolutely loved it.  It became her calling.

     The other night I was reading the instruction manual for a new radio we have.  It said, "Your unit has an internal AM and FM antenna.  If your signal is weak, slightly turn the radio until the signal is stronger." That bothered me because radios have to sit a certain way to look right, but as I turned it, the signal did become much stronger for the AM frequency. 

     People who are aware that God operates in their lives are far more skilled at using their intuition to discern a new direction than for people for whom God remains an unknowable abstraction.  We have to be open to the possibility that God is trying to communicate with us.  The signals are all around us but the receiver needs to be turned in a direction that brings greater clarity.

     If we have tunnel vision and bring the same old responses to life as we have for years, remember that God has equipped us with an internal antenna.  Rather than blame someone or something, as Moses, Jesus or Paul could have done, we need to open our minds to the possibility that God is the one who is inviting us to change.  It has been God who is knocking on our door. All we have to do is open it.  But if we do, watch out!  An epiphany might be waiting on the other side.  If we trust God, maybe we ought to go for it and open that door. 

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

    Even though the year is new, O God, we still enter our worship experience with minds and hearts that need to be coaxed into solitude.  There are times when it is difficult to be open to your guidance.  There are those in our midst who challenge our ability to love them.  The demands of life appear to take from us more than we are willing to give.  Move us beyond such thoughts.  Enable us to grasp that our reservoir of understanding and kindness is never empty.  As we follow the Master, may we do so with the sense of joy, not sacrifice.  May we seek what we can give rather than what we are owed.  May what our spirits radiate serve you and everyone who fills our lives with their presence.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

    How easy it is, O God, to bury ourselves within our over-scheduled lives.   So many times we have allowed our busyness to define us, to direct us or to feed our need to be needed.  We can forget so easily that you have a plan for our lives.  How quickly we can believe that our established pattern for living is your plan, when it is not.   

    Guide us toward learning how to communicate more effectively with all those in our lives whom we have to love.  Help us to take time to read books that touch our hearts and nourish our minds.  Teach us how to use the word "No" more often when inviting voices call us away from many of the people and activities that we hold dear.  Before we judge our church too critically, help us to examine what we have done lately to contribute to its many ministries.  Before we believe that you are too distant from us, help us to remember when it was that we made you real to someone in need.  Before we settle into the New Year with many of the same habits, guide us to do one thing more creatively so that we could get started doing it today.

    This year, enable our faith to be much more than a spectator sport.  We only know you, O God, when we give you away.  Bless us with energy in abundance each time we serve one another.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .