The heavens are opened quite often around here.
Now, I know it doesn’t rain as much as everyone says it does. Today, for example, yet another beautiful clear day. But on Friday afternoon, it was raining again.
On Friday afternoon, I was driving through downtown Seattle to the Church of Steadfast Love. The Church of Steadfast Love is housed at the Compass Center and is a congregation that, in its own words, “seeks to break down the barriers that separate housed and homeless.”
On this particular Friday the congregation was holding a Service of Remembrance, a time to remember, honor, and pray for those who in the last year had died on the streets or who had died as a result of being homeless.
I was running late to the service, and I parked my car in a lot under the Viaduct, which provided a partial shelter from the pouring rain.
It really was only a partial shelter. I stepped out of the car and into a puddle of water. I paid for my parking and got the receipt all wet. I walked down the street and narrowly dodged the waterfalls created by gaps in the awnings.
By the time I made it to the chapel, the service had already begun. The sanctuary was full, so I stood just outside the door with some other latecoming stragglers and watched the service unfold.
Two men stood up, and performed an Irish folk song. We recited a Psalm and read part of Paul’s letter to the Romans. A guest preacher gave a homily. We prayed.
And then the names were read aloud, the names of those who had died, read aloud one by one. As each name was read, one of us would get up, walk to a table full of candles, light one for that person, and then place the candle on the altar.
Nothing else was said during this part of the service. No songs were sung; no gentle music played. Just candles lit, and names read aloud.
Outside the heavens were opened, and water fell from the sky, like a voice that was trying to tell us something.
For the last few weeks we have been reflecting on seeing. Not merely seeing with our eyes, but perceiving the world in a new way. On Christmas Eve, the shepherds saw an ordinary sky lit up with the blazing lights of the heavenly host. On Epiphany, the magi saw an ordinary star shining with such light that they crossed a continent to follow it. Ordinary people seeing ordinary things in a new way, their vision made new by the light of Christ.
Today we change senses, slightly, from seeing to hearing. In today’s Gospel reading, the light of Epiphany comes not through the eyes but through the ears.
We first hear the voice of John the Baptist. His words might sound familiar to you. We heard them only a few weeks ago, on the Second Sunday of Advent. On that Sunday the focus was on the Baptist’s message to the people: “Prepare the way!” he said. “Bear fruits! Share your coat! Share your food! Be fair! Live justly!”
But now, as the light of Epiphany grows, John the Baptist’s voice fades. Or rather, John the Baptist’s voice is shut up.
In the verses that are curiously left out of our reading for today – they would fit right there between verses 17 and 21 – something dramatic happens. In these invisible verses John provoked the ire of the ruler Herod, and Herod – this is a direct quote – “shut him up in prison.” John does not merely fade away, he is silenced. But, as Luke will tell us later in his gospel, “if you silence these, the stones will cry out.” The stones… or the sky.
As the prison bars slam on John the Baptist, the camera pans back to the people, a great mass of ordinary people. And there Jesus is, among them, praying.
Unlike the other Gospel writers, Luke tells us no story of John baptizing Jesus, no words exchanged, no formal passing of the torch. Jesus is simply baptized with everyone else, bathing in the river with all of the other ordinary people seeking a fresh start in the cleansing waters.
After his baptism, Jesus prays. Maybe he is praying for a fresh start, like the others. Maybe he is praying for the others. Maybe he is simply praying. And as he prays, the heavens are opened.
Who knows what this looked like? Maybe the heavenly host returned in their blazing lights and appeared like they did to the shepherds. Maybe the clouds parted for a moment to reveal a brief ray of sunshine. Or maybe it just started to rain.
A pigeon flew by. Pigeon: the word we use for dove when the dove is ordinary. The pigeon descended to earth, maybe just to peck around, as pigeons do. The Holy Spirit: Present in the ordinary creatures of the world.
And there was Jesus, in the midst of the ordinary creatures, praying.
And then, suddenly, a voice.
We should be clear about what kind of voice it was, what words it said. It wasn’t a voice that told Jesus to do something, good or bad. Those temptations would come later.
This voice was less like an order, and more like a simple truth dawning, like the sun over a darkened sky.
The truth the voice said wasn’t new. Luke has already told us, a few Sundays ago in the lectionary, the story of Jesus as a boy, sitting in the temple and calling it his Father’s house. For man who was once a boy like this, what the voice said wasn’t news so much as a reminder, a reaffirmation, a rebirth into a truth he knew but needed to hear again.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Put it another way, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, from our Old Testament reading for today. Isaiah is speaking to a people who long for the return of their estranged Creator. Through Isaiah, the estranged Creator finally speaks. “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
They are simple words, really. Nothing special, on the face of it. We might hear them fly past our ears a hundred times a day, on the bus, on the radio, at the coffee shop, at the movies, in the rush of the wind, in the fluttering wings of an ordinary bird. They are simple words, really! Ordinary, everyday words.
But when you have come looking for a fresh start – to a new year, or to a new day – those words can mean everything. Even if you have heard them before. Maybe especially if you have heard them before.
Martin Luther once wrote that “a truly Christian life is nothing less than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued.” A fresh start, every day. Every day, hearing the words again, and letting them wash over you like water from above:
At the end of the Service of Remembrance at the Church of Steadfast Love,
after we named all the beloved of God who had died on the streets in the last year,
those of us who had gathered made together
a Declaration of Recommitment.
We used different words, but essentially we recommitted ourselves to the covenantal promises of our baptism.
To live among God’s faithful people,
To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
To serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
And to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
They were just words, ordinary words spoken by ordinary people.
Outside the heavens were opened, and water fell from the sky, like the Spirit of God descending to earth in bodily form. Thanks be to God.
2 years ago