Today is the third of the four Sundays the Church sets aside for what is called the season of Epiphany. So, given the season, it is fair to ask in what way is this season an epiphany for us?
Epiphany can be a highly charged word. Technically at a popular level the word simply means that moment or time when someone realises the true significance of an event. It is when the significance is life-changing that the epiphany is extreme. In that context a naked Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” and rushing through the streets in delight having just understood the significance of the water rise when he climbed into the bath was for him an Epiphany with a capital letter E. It may be more difficult for generations of high school science students studying Archimedes Principle in arid classrooms to share his original moment of understanding and joy.
Those of you who have seen the film Les Miserables might also find there a different way to relate to the word epiphany. After all, Victor Hugo’s hero Jean Valjean’s moment of epiphany came when the priest he had threatened and robbed, not only forgave him, but unexpectedly gave him the candelabra he had tried to steal. The test of the nature of Jean Valjean’s epiphany comes as our hero throws himself into the life of one who now cares and helps the poor children of post revolutionary Paris.
In Church tradition the wise men – the Magi – realising they were in the presence of the true king, reportedly had their moment of epiphany and went home by a different way. Mary and Joseph finding out why the child Jesus was at the Temple might also be expected to have be experienced something akin to an epiphany – or as it was in the passage today, with Jesus revealing how the words of Isaiah talking of the Messiah might be seen as applying to himself, which may well have been an epiphany for at least some of his Synagogue congregation, and from some interpretations, might even conceivably have marked Jesus’ actual personal moment of epiphany
But an epiphany for one – is not necessarily an epiphany for all. It is not unreasonable to assume for most of the witnesses, spotting a naked Archimedes running down the street shouting out his Eureka, would have simply have found the moment to have been a bit of a laugh – it wasn’t their epiphany no matter what he was shouting. And along the same lines, the Magi were not portrayed by Matthew as having the same feelings for Jesus as Herod was supposed to have done. Nor are there signs that from the moment the child Jesus, after running away from his parents to the Temple, and explaining himself to Mary and Joseph, that the rest of his audience in the temple were now convinced followers as a result of that conversation. Certainly for today’s passage, the section which then follows, shows the crowd enraged by Jesus’ identification with Isaiah’s prophecy wanting to throw Jesus over a cliff. This, if nothing else, surely suggests they did not share the moment as one of personal epiphany.
A moment’s reflection should suggest to us that, if, even hearing Jesus’ words in person, particularly these words from the scripture where Jesus identifies with a prophecy, was not enough to guarantee a moment of epiphany from all in Jesus’ congregation. We who were not there, in our modern congregation would need to take a very different tack before we could call this moment of epiphany –our moment of epiphany.
It may help us if we were to start with the quotation Jesus chose to show the scripture had been fulfilled in the commencement of his own mission. How did it go?
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Surely if this represented epiphany to Jesus, he is identifying with what these days we would probably call a personal mission statement.
So how does Jesus mission statement start? Jesus using Isaiah’s words, saw himself anointed to bring the good news to the poor.
Very well then, if this is a part of Jesus’ epiphany, how might this become part of our epiphany?
Remember, acknowledging merely that Jesus said these words, is not our epiphany. Surely the ah ha moment for us would not arrive until Jesus’ Mission statement switches to become our mission statement.
But there is the catch. It isn’t enough to simply agreeing to recite the same words that Jesus found to quote. Mission statements always risk becoming sufficiently high sounding and politically correct to resonate for the listeners yet can remain devoid of real meaning, unless it becomes clear even to outsiders, that the words of the statement summarise what we are obviously trying to do.
Jesus’ mission statement focuses first on what he calls good news for the poor. Had he left it at the statement, the good news for the poor referred to would have a been total non event. In the same way when a total stranger rushes up to you to tell you something like Jesus loves you, you are entitled to demand evidence. If, as is all too often the case, the stranger is a well-meaning self-appointed missionary who makes no effort to show he or she genuinely cares enough about you to at least learn your name or for that matter anything about your circumstances before telling you how to reorganise your life and be saved, whatever the missionary’s message, it has nothing to do with Jesus’ good news.
Jesus – at least as far as the gospel record spells it out –didn’t leave his mission statement claim at stating the Isaiah prophetic words, no matter how impressive they might sound. Specifically, case after case showed he made time for society’s rejects. The tax collector, the leper, the prostitute, the Roman invader, the Samaritan woman, the hungry on the hillside, the cripple, the blind beggar, the common fisherman…… surely the good news for each of these was that Jesus cared in his words and in his actions. If the poor have heard the good news – the news will be discovered in the first instance from those who care enough to make a difference.
To pretend we share Jesus mission statement relating to good news for the poor, without being able to find signs of similar consideration in our own lives would make a mockery of any claim to share Jesus mission.
And then those next words proclaiming release to the captives…..
The Jesus attitude was to care about those imprisoned – whether the imprisonment is mental, or cultural or religious….. those in fact who are in effect imprisoned because they are not free of forces beyond their control. The release of the captives is also a consequence of those who genuinely care about their plight.
Again the way to show we care is not simply to mouth the same words from Isaiah. If for example, we can take practical action to do something about the imprisoning forces it is simply not good enough to ask a worship leader to pass the responsibility back to God with a platitudinous prayer. By all means pray – but why pray for something we don’t care to do ourselves?
Imprisoned by loneliness and wish to be released? …. surely taking a proffered hand of friendship is to experience release.
Imprisoned by prejudice?…… For the blacks in Southern United States to find that the Civil Rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King was alongside pressing for integration was surely far more liberating than prayers of people unwilling to leave the comfort of their segregated neighbourhoods.
Imprisoned by poverty? The proclamation of release will surely come first from the voices raised in indignation about unjust laws and customs.
And do the blind now see? Even in a physical sense there are those who dedicate their lives to ensuring the blind have access to treatment that would otherwise be denied them. There are for instance teams of trained medical personnel who visit third world countries as volunteers bringing low cost operations for conditions like the removal of cataracts, the provision of glasses and even specialist treatment for a range of complex conditions such as for detached retinas and glaucoma. And yes because I know some of these volunteers, I admit some would not call themselves Christian. Yet surely when Jesus tried to awaken consciences to the point where people would be responsive to the needs of their neighbour, those who do share their skills with the needy may not articulate their own epiphany, yet their actions reflect the spirit of Isaiah’s prophecy.
In each one of these situations: the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed – their situation is met first and foremost by those whose personal epiphany awakens them firstly to the need and secondly to personal response to the need.
In reality those who live out the essence of Christ’s gospel would be far from agreed about their personal beliefs. The Muslim Red Crescentis hard to distinguish from the Red Cross in the humanity of their actions. But as with Jesus oft quoted story of the Good Samaritan, it is not for us to say that the absence of the Christian label makes Muslim compassion somehow invalid. Similarly the evangelical inspired Tear Fund works to meet many of the same dilemmas confronting the more liberal Christian World service…..and that is how it should be.
Make no mistake about it. Some will find true epiphany: that magic moment when suddenly the key to their life purpose falls into place. There are most certainly Christians and others too today whose inspired actions resonate with those words of Isaiah. But it is never the nature of someone else’s epiphany which should take our attention. The real question for each of us separately is whether or not we have allowed our encounters with gospel to speak to our individual hearts.