Reflection for Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023
I always say my parents were regular church goers. They never missed a Christmas Eve or Easter morning. Otherwise, not so much. That’s my way of explaining why my initial contact with the word “epiphany” came in English 101 at Santa Barbara City College. Our professor, an Irishman, had us reading James Joyce’s collection of stories called Dubliners. The characters in the book are always having epiphanies — great and small revelations in their everyday lives. But these revelations never seemed to make the characters any happier, or any different. So it was new to me when I started going to church and learned that an epiphany could not only be a welcome revelation, but a life-changing one.
In the Bible, an epiphany often seems to come with a set of instructions. The Magi certainly received very specific instructions both before and after visiting the Christ child. Our reading today from John tells us what God instructed John the Baptist to do when he met Jesus and recognized him as the Messiah. And brothers Simon and Andrew drop everything to run to Jesus. It all seems so clear.
Yet I have to admit that I’m not sure I would want to be the recipient of such an epiphany. Like my mother, I don’t particularly care for surprises, even pleasant ones. Our family knew better than to give Mom any kind of surprise party. If there was going to be a party, she wanted to be prepared for it. When something out of the ordinary happens, and I’m not prepared, my immediate reaction is to shut down my feelings and go into my head.
This happened recently. I was walking down Solano Avenue when I saw a young woman screaming abuse at someone I assumed was a shop keeper huddling behind a locked door. The young woman was clearly out of control, but I decided to walk around her on the sidewalk. Then, the young woman escalated and started smashing windows with the binder or clipboard in her arms. I tried — unsuccessfully — to take a picture of her as she started screaming at me and then ran off down the street. Afterward, I asked the shopkeeper if she was OK. She said she was and that she’d already called the police and needed to call her landlord next.
Then I resumed my afternoon.
A week or so later, I had my epiphany. I realized how frightened I had been by the young woman and by the sound of the breaking glass. I also wondered if I could have responded better. Was there some way I could have intervened to calm down the obviously disturbed young woman? Would that have been foolish? Should I have tried to call the police sooner? Should I have crossed to the other side of the street? Had I failed in my ongoing goal of doing the right thing? I still don’t know.
As I researched what today’s readings mean, I learned that the passage from Isaiah is sometimes called the second Servant Song and that there is confusion about whether the servant is the people of Israel or the prophet Isaiah. Early Christians saw in this passage a foretelling of Jesus Christ. The passage also contains what some call the Great Commission of the Old Testament: “I will make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” It explains how God equipped the servant for this task, but it also says that the servant will feel failure: “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain for nothing.”
We’ll certainly see the tension between God’s promise to equip us for our Christian mission, and our feelings of not being able to meet the challenge, over and over in the Bible and in our lives. Paul is constantly trying to buck up his converts. How we envy him his confidence. But I suspect that he often felt like he was failing, when he reprimanded people in the church for not acting as well as they were called to do.
Today, Jan. 15, is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. We’ll celebrate his life as a National Holiday tomorrow. Like Paul, he was given not only the confidence to fight for right, but the gifts of personality and oratory to be effective. Yet he too had his disappointments, both in his followers and certainly in himself. He was frightened by the violence he witnessed, and that led to his death. That violence often seems to be all around us, not just in war zones, but in our ordinary lives. We know that, but we tend to put it out of our minds — because we don’t want to live in fear — until we are confronted by a mad woman breaking windows on Solano Avenue. No matter how many self-defense courses we take, or classes on how to deal with violence, as human beings, we are vulnerable. Our safety comes only in God’s promises to us. What kept Martin Luther King firm in his faith – and inspires us today – is the invitation we read in the Gospel from John 2. We can trust God’s care for us because we, like the first disciples, follow Jesus and remain with him. Amen.