Martin Marty: Look! An Epiphany!


"Epiphany." We celebrate a holiday with that name on January 6; and since this is the Second Sunday after Epiphany, we are getting used to the word, or if it is familiar, we are refreshing our understanding of it. We can't say that "Epiphany" is much used and heard outside of church, although now and then an excited writer or actor will reveal that he or she experienced an "epiphany." If we spend a moment discussing it, we are not wasting time, as if with an idle scholarly diversion. No, it helps us to crack open today's crowded and rich text from the Gospel of John and, along with that, to ponder the decisive turn in Christian history and Christian faith signaled by "Epiphany." We might simply have passed the word by, noting it the way we see a notice on a church bulletin board outside a sanctuary. But now we are, as it were, invited in to ponder it and let what the word means stand a chance of changing our lives.

As trackers of words usually do, we open a dictionary or google the word. We read what is called the "simple definition" for Epiphany. It tells us that "epiphany is a Christian festival . . . in honor of the coming of the three kings to the infant Jesus Christ." And then there is another definition. An epiphany is also "a moment in which we suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way." Our text today will help us do just this. Reading on, refreshed by a definition and before we hurry away from the dictionaries, we learn, or re-learn, that behind the word "epiphany" is a Greek word which tells us that it refers to an "appearance" or a "manifestation." Even deeper behind that is the Greek word for "show." The Gospel chosen for this day helps us "suddenly . . . to understand" the coming and meaning of Jesus in a very clear way. It is a time when we team up with the "three kings" in the Gospel story to have Jesus "shown" to us and the nations.

Readers, believers, and searchers of all sorts--and now we among them--have always needed and welcomed such help, because without Epiphany among us, Jesus Christ would be merely a name among names, a man among men; and thus, after two thousand years, he would be quite forgettable if not totally forgotten. We needed and need to understand Jesus, if we are to experience our God and to be graced by God.

We get much help in this discovering already from the first chapter of John. It tells a story about John the Baptist, who was the promised forerunner of Jesus. The way this Gospel tells it, without the testimony of John the Baptist, we would only get a glimpse of Jesus passing by. To all appearances, he is an ordinary guy. We need John the Baptist, who credited the Holy Spirit for pointing Jesus out as such an ordinary guy before he lavishes titles on him and describes some of his actions and works in words that begin to show him in a fuller light.

Jesus. "Ordinary?" It takes some imagination for us to begin to work our way back to see something of what John the Baptist and others followers came to see about Jesus, the man from Galilee in their midst. This required imagination came clearer to me than ever before when I was reading a modern commentary on this chapter and when one casual line in it took me by surprise at the point where it talks about Jesus walking in Bethany near the Jordan. That is where John was baptizing and where on one particular day, if any one was trying to figure out what he was about, he would not have looked all that important. However, John the Baptist told them that they must take note that among them stood, as he put it, "one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me."

That is hardly a full epiphany, a showing forth of all that Jesus was and is to mean to us.  The Gospel is simple as it deals with this "pre-Epiphany," let's call it. The evangelist reports: "The next day he [John the Baptist]' saw Jesus coming toward him. . . ."  The above-mentioned commentator on these words, Charles E. Campbell, accurately notes, "At this point there seems to be nothing really special about Jesus. . . Jesus is apparently just a guy walking around Bethany. . . ."

Hold it there! Jesus is "just a guy?" Do we, dare we, refer to him that way? If you have trouble with slangy terms about Jesus, as I do, for instance when I hear otherwise reverent believers refer to him as "Jesus my pal," you will have joined me in bristling to hear Jesus here described as "just a guy." But after we have gotten past the super-casual slang about Jesus, we can understand what point Campbell wants to make about him. At this point, we read, Jesus has "no great credentials, no 'signs and wonders,' nothing to make him stand out from the crowd." So we too might well have seen him or we may still see him thus, if we discount the witness of John or the gift of the Spirit to which he refers. But here is the Epiphany, in the text for the day: John, pointing to this ordinary "just-a-guy" sees him as a revelation of God. John has more to declare, and other witnesses said still more, but we are alerted from line one about the man coming toward him, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."

John had much more to say in what comes to us even in the first few lines of print; and again, we feel prompted to say and ask: Hold it there! Where did this Lamb of God language come from and what is it to say among ordinary people like us on an ordinary day? "Lamb of God." Here we have some demanding and delicious homework to do, following trails and traces in the Bible. There are so many of these that they cannot be detailed in one sermon or, perhaps, one lifetime of biblical scholarship. We have to recall that John 1 and all the rest of John is not doing on-the-spot reporting, not signaling Instagram or "Breaking news!" This first report and reflection as we have it in this gospel was probably set down about seven decades after this incident and after the first recording of any part of what all John was to say.

"The Lamb of God"--to some eyes and in some ears when they read and heard John's Gospel, the title could have reminded them of the "Suffering Servant," who was called the Lamb of God in Isaiah 53. The Bible gives us plenty of choices for reflection, because any number of other meanings of the "lamb" show up in centuries-old texts from the prophets. They described a variety of saving roles and descriptions. For instance, we may think also of the Lamb mentioned in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation. This Lamb, we learn, was sacrificed to redeem people; but we learn there that he also lives to rule among them, as did and does Jesus after his Resurrection. In any case, in the rich mix of meanings associated with John's declaration, one verb and phrase stands out: Jesus is revealed--here is an epiphany if there ever was one!--revealed as the Lamb "who takes away the sin of the world."

Here is where we come in and where the many meanings of Epiphany hit us. Figuratively, we too stand in the crowd near Bethany and hear the voice of John the Baptist. Literally, we too stand in the crowds of today who share the needs that we can easily picture those of long ago having had and having brought to Jesus. All of the people then feared death. We picture them regretting that they were not living life to the full. They were burdened by their failures and their guilt. They needed someone or something to take away all of these, which then, as now, could be code-named "sins."

Further, let's stay in the company of people on that day in Bethany. We can observe more features of their lives. All of them, if they were thoughtful, regretted that they had misused people around them. Among them were: parents whom they resisted, spouses whom they offended, children whom they misled. There were also neighbors whom they neglected and strangers whom they despised, often in the name of God. Enough of them were, like us, fault-filled as they neglected obligations to work for the common good: they in Bethany and the Roman Empire, and we in our imperfect nations and neighborhoods.

We know that the people of Bethany and their contemporaries in Judaism knew the Laws of God, as in the Ten Commandments, and never followed them all. They had God revealed to them on Mount Sinai and knew God's working with the people of Israel, and yet they neglected or despised God's prophets. We can go deeper. We picture them, like many of us on many nights, having gone to bed yet having trouble dealing with the guilt of the day, or we imagine them having risen that day without bringing fresh resolves or disciplines. Add all this and multiply it by people of all generations, and you will see how John the Baptist's word about Jesus, the Lamb of God, was urgent: he was to "take away the sins of the world." So we can also picture them leaving the scene and rejoicing, with the weight of their faults lifted, their sins gone, as they were forgiven by this Lamb of God.

Of course, there is more, and some of the features in the life of the Jesus to whom John pointed may be more vivid on this Epiphany season day than usual. Epiphany is rich in promise, and John's words point to the riches. Like John of the Gospel, who was not present at the baptism of Jesus, we get to experience what he describes in picture form: "the Spirit descending and remaining on Jesus," who is with us every time we worship or pray or serve others in his name, or ponder his work among us.

Think: how did John the Baptist experience his "Epiphany?" He said he "saw the Spirit descending" from heaven and staying with Jesus. That is the only revealing spoken of in this story that some would call "supernatural." The rest was all natural, in the natural transmitting of good news from a brother to a brother, and then to another. Immediately following this text, we read of how the disciples from the first spread the word by witnessing to what they had seen and heard. They did not do magic tricks. They did not try to "prove the existence of God." They did not look for complex languages or unfold glorious images from great art. They just followed and invited others to follow. They were commanded to see and they saw.

So it is with us. We learned from scriptural unfoldings that "no human had seen God." God was "declared" to them, witnessed to by people who had experienced Epiphany. After the Resurrection, the disciple named Thomas stood in for us as he posed a test: he would not believe in the Risen Christ unless he put his hand into Jesus' wounded side. But then he saw Jesus and forgot about all about the tests of touch and argument. He saw and said of Jesus, "My Lord and My God." When we are invited to Epiphany, as we are today, we follow, and the rest is history--our history, the story of our lives.