Click video below to view the full service video for Sunday, January 12, 2019, posted on our YouTube Channel
The season of Epiphany is hopeful and light-filled. Jesus has come, and calls us into life! And in the northern hemisphere at least, the light is growing. Yet here in Canada this week, the dark clouds of grief hang heavy with the downing of a plane filled with friends and neighbors. At Highlands, our Persian neighbors and friends are in shock. This Sunday we bear Epiphany light, lean into God’s promise, and reach out in compassion.Come and lend your light-filled prayers.
Reflection by Rev. Will Sparks
Here we are in the second Sunday of January, the celebration of Jesus’ birth is just behind us and in our gospel reading already he is 30 years old. They grow up so quickly don’t they. Jesus has headed down to the Jordon River where his cousin is receiving people of all kinds, crowds of people who long for life to be different, long for the messiah to come and turn their world around, long for a sense that their life matters, means something, that they are more than pawns in the hands of dictators like Herod or Caesar. And here is Jesus among the throng, normal as can be. But John hesitates to baptize him. This is no normal situation, but Jesus disagrees. No John, baptize me just like everybody else. That is the way to fulfill all righteousness- this is the right and proper way to proceed. Business as usual.
But then as he is coming up out of the water, something unusual. Matthew’s gospel uniquely states, “Heaven opened to him. And the Spirit rested on him, and a voice blessed him. This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
It’s a beautiful story, full of Epiphany light, hopeful. With the blessing of his maker so clearly resting upon him, what could possibly go wrong. This is the beginning of a story destined for a happy ending right? Um, no actually. It is the light-filled beginning of a story destined to reveal God’s essential character of love, but there are no guarantees it will turn out happy, or easy. Only that God will be in it and will never let go. And that is why we baptize. That is why baptism is our initiation rite, not because it offers any guarantees of safety, or an easy life, or of success, but we believe that no matter what happens, the steadfast love of God does rest upon us and this hurting world, and we are a part of that, and that promise gives us hope.
This has been a shaky week. And as I sat down to begin the process of bringing thoughts of God and the gospel together on Thursday, I confess I had more thoughts of Iran, and our Persian neighbors, and the grief and shock that hangs heavy in the air than I had of the baptism of Jesus and the message of blessing that is said to have come like the wings of a dove.
How, I thought, do we speak of blessing and belovedness in a week like this? How do we attest to what we hold true in the depths of our faith, that it is love not fear that is our beginning and our ending, and blessing not curse that rests upon God’s world, generosity not self-interest that must motivate our lives. How do these essential convictions stand up under the battering wave upon wave of news attesting to the power of fear and violence that seems to be just as woven into the fabric of things. We have just come through a season in which, over and over again the message is that light is coming into the world, and that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out?” This week, the darkness was doing its darnest.
So this week I started out thinking of talking about blessedness and belovedness, and instead with all that has happened what I really want to talk about is hope. Because I think that hope is what we need to lean into more than anything else in this particular season of epiphany.
I have this signed poster in my office that my daughter gave me some years ago. It is a quote by author John Green: “The world may be broken but hope is not crazy.” No it is not crazy and it is the thing we hold on to more than anything else when the brokenness of the world and of our human predicament displays itself as graphically as it did this week.
Do you remember Vaclav Havel? Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright and dissident who was intimately involved in the end of communism and the creation of the Czech Republic, became its first president, but through much of his life lived under suspicion. Well Vaclav Havel has said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
So for Christians, hope is based not upon the results or the outcome, but rather the worthiness of the path we take, the rightness of it and the steadfast love of God in the midst of it.
It is true that the world is broken. This week that brokenness came close to us because members of our north shore community died as a plane was shot out of the sky. This was a terrible thing. And sadly, terrible things happen often. This one has come close to us, but other terrible things happen in this flawed and struggling world.
And yet, as the Spirit singers just sang, we are seekers of light, and bearers of light. And it is tempting to let what happens in this world knock us off our search, but we must not let that happen. We cannot control what others will do and there is so much in this world we cannot prevent, but what we can do is insist that in our little corner of the world, we will declare the universal blessing of God which rests on every child of God, and we will light a candle of peace. And even if events and disasters snuff it out, we will light it again and again not because it will once and for all banish the darkness, but because it is right. We will not let the fear snuff out our compassion. We will not let the hate overwhelm our love. We will refuse despair but instead choose hope because the blessing of God does rest upon this broken world.
There is a beautiful exchange in John Green’s novel, “A Fault in our Stars” in which the two main characters, 16 year old Hazel and 17 year old Gus, both of whom have terminal cancer, are talking about life and death. And it is not a theoretical thing for them. The terrible truth is that these young people will die soon, but their capacity to be real and honest in the midst of this broken situation is inspiring.
“Out of nowhere Augustus asked, “Do you believe in an afterlife?”
“I think forever is an incorrect concept.”
He smirked. “You’re an incorrect concept.”
“I know. That’s why I’m being taken out of the rotation.”
“That’s not funny,” he said, looking at the street. Two girls passed on a bike, one riding side-saddle over the back wheel.
“Come on,” I said. “That was a joke.”
“The thought of you being removed from the rotation is not funny to me,” he said. “Seriously, though: afterlife.”
“No,” I said, and then revised. “Well, maybe I wouldn’t go so far as no. You?”
“Yes,” he said, his voice full of confidence. “Yes, absolutely. Not like a heaven where you ride unicorns, play harps, and live in a mansion made of clouds. But yes, I believe in Something with a capital S. Always have.”
“Really?” I asked. I was surprised. I’d always associated belief in heaven with, frankly, a kind of intellectual disengagement. But Gus wasn’t dumb.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “I believe in that line from “An Imperial Affliction.” ‘The risen sun too bright in her losing eyes.’ That’s God, I think, the rising sun, and the light is too bright and her eyes are losing but they aren’t lost. I don’t believe we return to haunt or comfort the living or anything, but I think something becomes of us.
What I love about that little exchange is that the promise of “Something with a capital S” is not prescriptive or concrete, but is there, “the sun too bright for her losing eyes.”
When Jesus was baptized and when he came up out of the water, “Something with a capital S” blessed him and blessed this life. He proceeded to live and work, teach and learn, laugh and be broken hearted. And ultimately he died, terribly and unjustly. But just as ultimately something became of him. The sun was too bright for even his losing eyes.
We can’t prevent weeks like this from happening. But we can:
– Resist despair
– Resist retaliation
– Reach out in compassion
– Believe in heaven even as the lights go out
– Trust in the risen sun
– Relight the candle again and again and again.
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