Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany February 10, 2019
Alice J Stewart
Many years ago I read a science fiction story where a fourth primary color was discovered. Which is absurd. There really are only three primary colors. But the story got me to thinking. What could a fourth primary color possibly look like? It couldn’t look LIKE anything. It’s impossible to imagine. But if I ever did see it, I think it would change how I see everything. And I don’t think I would be able to describe it to anyone who’d never seen it because, being a primary color, it would be utterly unique.
Unique. Unimaginable. Life changing. We hear the same sort of thing today in Isaiah and in Luke. Isaiah and the first apostles encountered the divine. They saw and understood something completely unique and unimaginable, which changed them forever.
During a period in our lives many of us putter around with a half-formed notion of God, the Holy Trinity, and all this religion stuff. For some of us, this puttering lasts a long time. And then one day we have an “aha” moment – an “epiphany” – where we begin to see who God really is.
These “aha” moments can include just about anything, from an individual vision like Isaiah to a shared witnessing of the miraculous as Luke describes in the calling of Peter and the first apostles. But usually our epiphanies are not nearly so spectacular.
That which sparks our “aha” moments, that which gets us into the realization that we’re in the presence of God, isn’t really that important. The important thing isn’t how we know the unknowable, but what happens after we do. The important thing isn’t how perfectly accurate we are in describing our experience, but that we don’t keep it to ourselves.
It seems to me that our reactions to an encounter with the divine, our reactions to a deep awareness of God’s loving presence, follows something of a pattern in scripture and in Christian experience.
First, we may be amazed. We may be filled with trepidation or joy or just awe. Like seeing a fourth primary color, a bit of shock is to be expected when prophets and apostles and ordinary Christians encounter the divine.
Our next reaction to an encounter with the living God is to see ourselves and everything we’ve ever known in a completely different light. In Luke, Peter is so amazed by the miraculous catch of fish that he is overwhelmed. It’s just too much. And he tells Jesus to go away because, Peter says, he is a sinful man. Isaiah, too, cries out that he’s steeped in sin and so is everyone he knows. We see our own sin, our own shadow side, when we are confronted with the divine who is utterly without sin. When we “see the light,” we see our own shadows.
And then, like Isaiah in his vision, we are filled with the desire to be rid of our sin. We’re willing to undergo any sort of purging of that sin. We want to be purified, even if it’s painful, like Isaiah and the burning coal. We want to walk away from the sinful part of our lives, like Peter and the others who left their secular lives to follow a sacred path. When we understand that God can and wants to forgive our sins, when Jesus removes our sins and gives us his own eternal life free from sin, then we are ready to be used for the glory of God.
When we meet the living God, when we see our sin and repent, when we’re forgiven and filled with eternal life and divine love, it’s almost impossible to go back to living the way we had been living. We are willing, eager even, to live a new life and to spread the good news. And this desire is our next reaction.
Isaiah was willing to become a prophet. That’s not exactly a fun job with great benefits, but Isaiah was willing. Eager, even. And the first apostles were willing to walk into the complete unknown, away from their families and livelihoods, unable to imagine what their lives and their selves would be in a few short years.
They didn’t do these things because they were gluttons for punishment. They did these things because that’s what we humans do when we experience God’s holiness in the person of his son, Jesus Christ.
What do we do when we’ve encountered the living God? What do we do when we realize that we have met Jesus? It helps when we have others to help us deal with the aftermath of that experience. The church is vital here. The church can be a safe place to talk about it. Even the Anglican church, although we don’t shout about these things from the rooftops.
When it happened to me, I was at a big cathedral on a small island in the middle of the Pacific ocean. I hadn’t been there very long so I didn’t know anyone. I felt really weird talking about this to a stranger. I thought maybe they’d think I was crazy. It took me a little while to open up.
But in the meantime, I read about all these people over the last few thousand years – perfectly reasonable people from Saint Paul to CS Lewis – who’d had the same experience. These people knew something completely new, something they could never thereafter un-know, something they could never forget, something they never walked away from. These people’s lives changed dramatically, and they didn’t keep it to themselves. They spent their lives trying to articulate the experience and consequences of being loved and known by God, of the good news of salvation through Christ.
These saints and apostles and everyday Christians tell us in scripture and Christian literature that Christ died. That Christ rose. That Christ appeared to many and will come again. And they knew they sounded a bit crazy. It sounds like a crazy story to us modern people. How could it be actually true? I’m here to tell you, it sounded like a crazy story to perfectly normal Jews and gentiles a couple thousand years ago too.
Two thousand years ago, the early believers were people who had jobs and families and paid taxes and stubbed their toes. They were not the kind of people who were trying to invent another religion. They were not the kind of people who were prone to wild visions and feverish rants about the dead being raised. They were not unstable, and they had everything to lose.
The apostles and Paul and all the faithful after them believed this story, this good news, because they had an encounter with the living God incarnate in the risen body of Christ Jesus. They met Jesus and could later never un-know it, never forget it, and never walk away from it. An experience they shared with others, in their words and in their lives.
These ordinary people’s lives were radically changed by Jesus, just as our lives are changed by Jesus. They entered the waters of baptism and received the Holy Spirit, forgiven and full of eternal life, just as we are forgiven and filled. They gathered together in prayer and to share the body and blood of Jesus Christ, just as we are gathered. Here. Today.
Here, today, we are encountering the living God. I pray that we find ourselves unspeakably amazed. I pray that we recognize and confess our darkness and sin rejoicing in the light of God that removes every shadow. I can’t wait to see how our ordinary, reasonable lives radically change as we take the body and blood of Christ within ourselves. I can’t wait to see how we who are gathered here today share our encounter with the risen Christ in our words and in our lives. Today and forevermore. Amen.