Epiphany 1, Year A
In my last church, I worked closely with the youth group. I took them on mission trips, retreats, lock-ins. For some reason, no matter how positive or meaningful the experience was, I would walk away feeling a little disappointed. We usually had a Eucharist at some point in the week and I would hope that there would be some change. All of a sudden things would fall into place for the youth. They would break into tears and hug one another while we all praised God. I just wanted a few tears, some acknowledgment that this was meaningful, maybe transformational. Not once. Finally in a moment of desperation, I asked them, when were we going to have the moment…the moment? They looked at me. They looked at each other. They rolled their eyes and we moved on. I never got that moment, at least not the moment I expected and wanted.
There were a lot of expectations about what the Messiah was supposed to be. Some thought that he would be a king, like King David. Some expected a military leader who would lead an army and overthrow the Romans. Some expected a god with supernatural powers who would require that everyone submit to him. There were a lot of hopes and dreams about who the Messiah would be. But what we can safely say is that no one expected a carpenter. No one expected Jesus.
We don’t know that much about John the Baptist. Given the relationship of his mother and the mother of Jesus, we know they were related in some way, but it’s possible they had never met before (at least not outside of the womb). It would seem from the text that John knew that Jesus was the messiah, but he was also surprised by the encounter. John the Baptist prophesized about the Messiah, but talked about someone different than the Jesus we encounter in our Gospel. Just a few verses before the ones we heard today in the Gospel, John said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” It makes Jesus sound fairly intimidating, almost otherworldly.
The very next verse, Jesus showed up right in front of John. There was no fire. There was no winnowing fork. There Jesus was, looking just like any other man. The weirdest part, the most unbelievable part was that he was asking John to baptize him. I wonder if John was disappointed in this moment. I wonder if he looked at Jesus and thought, is this the Messiah that I have spent my life preparing for?
Obviously, we cannot know the mind of John. It did appear that he was confused as he protested baptizing Jesus. He felt that it was Jesus who was supposed to be baptizing him. He even argued a little. But to his credit, he relented and baptized Jesus as that was what Jesus asked him to do. If I were John, I would have expected something dramatic to happen. If this is the Son of God, surely this cannot look like every other baptism. The text says that the heavens opened, a voice came from above and a dove descended. That sounds impressive to us. However, it could have simply been the clouds parting, a bird flying over and a voice that only Jesus and John heard. It was probably something fairly subtle because there does not seem to be any major reaction. In fact, as soon as this was over, Jesus simply walked into the desert by himself. It was obviously an important moment for Jesus and John the Baptist as Jesus was identified as the beloved Son of God, but I am not sure it had the fanfare that we imagine, that people wanted for the Son of God. I imagine Jesus walked away and John stood there, pondering what it all meant. We know that later John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Apparently even John needed Jesus to assure him, to remind him. We all need that assurance of the holy and divine. It’s one of the reasons we come to church.
It’s hard to believe, to have faith. If John the Baptist had a hard time 2000 years ago, how much harder is it for us now? We want what Jesus had, a voice from heaven, a parting of the heavens. We want what Mary and Joseph had, an angel descending and explaining things. We want a star to shine so brightly that we can follow it to the place where our faith will be sealed. We want miracles and signs. We want certainty and assurances. When I worked with those youth, I had an image of what faith was supposed to look like. The more I focused on it, the more disappointed I was.
It’s normal to want a miracle, a sign, drama, or in my case, tears. Instead of looking for miracles and drama, we might just need to change our expectations. I’m not saying you can’t keep praying for miracles and searching for signs—you should if that is what you need. But you also need to look for the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. At Jesus’ baptism, maybe some people saw the clouds parting while a few saw the heavens opening. Maybe some heard the wind whistling through the trees, while others heard the voice of God.
I never had that spectacular earth changing moment that I wanted with the youth. I can’t be sure that they felt anything at all. But when I left, they made me a collage, of words they associates with me. Obviously there was chocolate, and shoes, but the words that came up over and over again wasn’t miracle, or transformation, of even faith, it was “my priest.” I was their priest even when I was begging them to just shed a few tears, even when I was crying because I was disappointed it how it all came out, I was still their priest. They could see what I could never see because of my absurd expectations.
Epiphany is supposed to be about revelation and insight. But sometimes revelation and insight comes with changing our expectations, or maybe releasing whatever expectations we have. No matter how amazing they are, they fall short of the glory of God. They even fall short of the glory God sees in us. Each of us ordinary human are glorious in God’s eyes. We just can’t see it.
I think what made Jesus’ baptism special, what made it holy was that it was extraordinary not because of the majesty or the drama, but that the ordinary and the extraordinary were all wrapped up together. Jesus showed that he didn’t need fire and a winnowing fork to be glorious. He didn’t need people falling on their faces in front of him to prove who he was. He just needed an ordinary river, with an ordinary prophet and an extraordinary God who was there no matter who could or could not see that God.