By: Matthew C. Rawls, Director of Youth Ministries
The Second Sunday After Epiphany
There are three things I’ve seen in my life that somehow have exceeded what I thought should have been grossly over-hyped expectations. The first was the Grand Canyon. The second was the Great Pyramids of Giza. The third was a Bruce Springsteen concert.
A Bruce Springsteen concert is something special. When you hear his die-hard fans talk about it, it’s something magical, mystical, transcendtal. It is almost a worshipful experience. I like the Boss’ music, but I don’t necessarily love it. Typically, I have a limit on how much I can listen to at one time. But his shows…they’re something different. It’s 4 hours of non-stop energy, non-stop rock and roll. I was exhausted by the end just from listening. You have to experience it to understand it, but he is just a pure, old-school professional entertainer of the highest caliber. Every concert I see in the future will in some ways be held up to his standard.
When I saw the Grand Canyon I was driving out back out to Los Angeles for my second year of law school, taking the southern route on I-40. About half-way through the trip, I planned an impromptu detour to stop in Las Vegas to meet up with some friends for a few day. Looking at the map, I realized I would pass by the Grand Canyon so I figured I might as well stop and take a peak. I was planning on spending just a few minutes there, so I could check it off of my “things to see before I die” list. I had seen so many pictures of the Grand Canyon that I figured I understood and just needed to see it. So I pulled up at the visitor center parked and walked out to the closest observation deck.
And then I stopped dead in my tracks. I was not at all prepared for what I saw. In real life, the Grand Canyon is stunning. Not in the colloquial way we so often use that word. It’s stunning in the sense that I was physically stunned. For a little while I couldn’t move anything more than my head and my eyes as I tried to comprehend the hugeness and magnitude of what I was seeing. No picture or story or explanation of the Grand Canyon can ever do it justice. It’s so much more than that. Before I experienced it for myself, I could never have understood.
The Great Pyramids are slightly different. I went to Egypt right after Christmas, 2010. This was just weeks before the Tahrir Square uprising and the start of the Arab Spring, though we had no idea of that at the time. I flew out to meet some friends the day after Christmas, and managed not to get a minute of sleep on the flight over there. By the time I go to the hotel where we staying, it was 2:00 a.m. local time, and I’d been awake for at least 36 straight hours. I fell into the bed and slept hard…for about 4 hours. Our tour guide picked us up at 6:30 am that next morning to start our tour. We started with some older pyramids. So bigger, some smaller, but all part of the procession of Egyptians developing the pyramid technology. By the time we made it to the great pyramids, my mind had finally woken up enough to begin to grasp just how crazy what I was seeing actually was.
Like everyone, I had seen countless pictures of the pyramids. I’m sure I’d even done school projects describing them and how startling it was that the ancient Egyptians had been able to construct them.
But again, pictures couldn’t come close to capturing the reality. When I was there, the area where the pyramids stand was a gigantic tourist trap. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people were there at the same time. There were merchants ever 5 feet pushing their wares. There was probably a half-mile of busses parked in the parking lots. I’m sure this probably tarnished the experience a little…but it didn’t matter. The pyramids transcended the crowds, and noise, and lines and peddlers. All of that sort of disappeared as I began to grasp what I was seeing. They’re huge. The stones used to build them are huge. And they’re in the middle of the dessert. It’s almost truly unimaginable how they were able to build them 3,000 years ago. Our tour guide gave us his “theory”: he said he thought the ancient Egyptians had figured out some sort of anti-gravity device, the technology of which has been lost over the millennia. While I’m sure the real story is much more mundane, when you’re looking at the pyramids up close, it almost makes sense. That’s how magnificent they are.
I think this feeling of surprising awe might have been how the disciples in today’s Gospel reading felt when they met Jesus. In the liturgical calendar we are in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is the season after Advent. In advent we remember, celebrate and meditate on the birth of Jesus. In the Epiphany season we remember, celebrate and meditate on the revelations of who Jesus the Christ was, and what he was doing on earth. It starts with the arrival of the magi and ends with the Transfiguration.
The Gospel reading this second week of Epiphany talks about the baptism of Jesus. John describes his revelation of seeing the Spirit of God descend like a dove upon Jesus. And John made it clear what this revelation meant to him. It was his personal moment of Epiphany. This is the Son of God. This is one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Each of these statements is in itself enough to make a sermon out of.
But what I love the most is what we see in the encounter the disciples had with Jesus.
The first two, Andrew and the unnamed disciple, had been following John the Baptist. They would have heard him discussing Jesus, the long awaited one. The one John the Baptist said he was preparing the way for. They would have heard his discussion of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the man who “comes ahead of John the Baptist because he came before”, the one on whom the “Spirit of God” descended, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” the “Son of God.”
That’s a lot of hype. It is an audacious amount of praise to heap on someone. I imagine if I were one of those disciples I would be curious. I would want to meet this person John the Baptist was talking about. It would be something you at least need to check out to check off your list of things to do before you die. But it would seem that there was no way a person could live up to such an audacious amount of hype.
But, like the Grand Canyon, like the pyramids, Jesus met and exceeded these expectations. Something about Jesus was enough that we know these disciples stayed with him and followed him. Not just for a few days, but until his death. And his resurrection. And beyond. These disciples became some of Jesus’ apostles, his twelve closest followers, and later they were some of the founders of Church. We still have churches named after them. St. Andrew’s. St. Johns.
Whatever their expectations were, Jesus met and exceeded them. Meeting Jesus was profound enough that it changed the course of these men’s lives.
Andrew, was so moved by the experience that very day that he went and found his brother, Simon, and told him he found the messiah
It’s when Simon meets Jesus that we see just how profound this encounter really was. It’s when we see the true meaning of Epiphany.
The first thing Jesus does when he meets Simon is he changes his name. Try to imagine that. Your brother comes and finds you and tells you have to meet this person he just met. He’s dragging you there as fast as he can. And when you meet this guy, he doesn’t say “Hi. Nice to meet you. Tell me about yourself.”
Nope. Jesus basically says: “Hi. My name is Jesus. I know your name, but it’s not right. It might have been right before but not anymore. I’m giving you a new one.
That’s how profound it is when we truly encounter Christ for the first time. We can hear all about him, and the religion founded in his name. That’s like the disciples of John the Baptist. But, like the Grand Canyon, like the pyramids, like a Bruce Springsteen, just hearing about it doesn’t suffice. You have to encounter it in real life to truly begin to grasp what is.
When we truly encounter Christ, it changes everything.
When Simon meets Jesus, he literally had his name changed. Jesus saw Simon and knew him completely. He knew who he was and who he had been. He also knew who Simon would be. Jesus knew that through Simon’s encounter with him, he would be so profoundly and irrevocably changed that his old name was no longer sufficient.
Christians throughout the last 2,000 years have disagreed and argued about a lot of things, many of which are alluded to in this passage. They’ve debated about meaning of Christ being God and Man, about the meaning of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, about the Holy Spirit, about baptism, about what it means to follow Christ.
But one thing has always been true. When we encounter Christ, it changes everything. It changes us in profound ways.
Our Epiphany moments all look different, because in many ways they are unique to us. Some people have dramatic conversion experiences that become an anchor point on the faith journeys. They’re like Simon Peter. For them, they were one thing, and then after encountering Christ, they were something totally different. Some of us grow up in the church, and our faith journey is filled with moments of little epiphanies after which we experience our faith in deeper ways. For some of us – this is at least true for me – our faith journeys involve a wandering route. We sort drift in and out of our faith, but these moments of epiphany are what bring us back to table as we realize that life in communion with God is deeper and more meaningful that what we found looking first at ourselves.
But, regardless of the shapes it takes, Epiphanies are available to all of us. As Jesus says in Matthew, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be open for you.” Or, as we hear God speaking to a church in the book of Revelation: “Listen! I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to eat with you and you with me.”
And this isn’t just a one-time thing. Every time we encounter Christ, the encounter impacts us.
That’s why we practice spiritual disciplines. That’s why we read and study scripture. It’s why we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. It’s why we pray. It’s why participate in outreach and service. Because Epiphany is not a one-time thing. It’s not just a season in the church calendar. Encountering Christ is what our faith is about. It changes us and continues to change us. I think that’s what John the Baptist means when he says that Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit. Through Christ, the holy Spirit of God is given to us.
Because, no matter how much we’ve heard about Jesus, when we truly encounter him, it is profound. It’s different and bigger and more than we expected.