Sermons That Work

A Man Was Walking through the Mall…, Feast of the Epiphany – 2011

January 06, 2011

A man was walking through the mall. He came to an escalator and decided to go up a floor. As he approached, he noticed a warning sign: “Dogs must be carried on escalator.” The man grew anxious, desperate even, as he looked around, asking himself, “Where am I going to find a dog?”

The star in the sky, the Epiphany of Christ, is the appearance to all the world, to all of creation, of the Light of extraordinary kindness. God had been here, all along, ubiquitous, yet invisible.

The darkness hid God, occluded, and enshrouded the Divine. You couldn’t see God or heaven. Now you can see both. God as light pierced the darkness, as the North Star pierces the night, directing magi, and anyone else interested or paying attention.

Light is the epiphany, but so is the dove at Jesus’ baptism, and the water turning into wine. And God still seeps, blood-red, into the veins of people who welcome Spirit.

God in Epiphany is here, working wildly in this world, for you and for me. As Isaiah claims: “Your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Why, then, do you still live in darkness?

To celebrate God’s epiphany, priests throughout the church will lead congregations this Sunday in a renewal of baptismal vows. These vows are based upon the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son. I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The expression of faith in God, simultaneously as three and one.

The problem with this expression of faith is that people find it arcane. People find it to be ancient, holding little relevance to contemporary faith. Are we stuck in the past?

In his novel, Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky tells a story of two criminals.

The first criminal is a depressed but intelligent young man, Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov believes all morality is man-made, that right and wrong are bourgeois and do not apply to superior people like himself. To prove his theory, Raskolnikov murders a destitute old woman. Such murder is not a moral issue, he reasons, because the woman is worthless. Guilt nevertheless overwhelms him – enormous guilt, guilt his rational mind cannot resolve.

Sonya is the second “criminal.” She needed money to support her starving little family, especially her younger stepbrother and sister. To feed them, she sold her body; she became a prostitute. Sonya seems almost naïve. She believes innocently in God, and her most prized possession is a Bible. “God will save us all,” she claims.

Sonya and Raskolnikov meet. He is both enthralled with, and angered at her. He is enthralled because of her naïveté, and he is angered because of her faith. In one scene, he insists that she read Scripture to him. But reading Scripture is, to her, an act of intimacy. His insistence becomes a violation, an unwarranted intrusion. She does it anyway, and picks the story of Lazarus.

You recall Lazarus – Jesus’ friend. Lazarus died, and Jesus raised him from the dead. At the tomb, Jesus called out, “Lazarus come forth!” As Sonya reads the story to Raskolnikov, her voice rises in crescendo, until finally she proclaims her own resurrection faith: “… and they believed on Him.”

They believed, and with that, Dostoevsky writes, “The candle-end had long been flickering out in its crooked holder, dimly illuminating in this beggarly little room the murderer and the harlot, who had so strangely come together to read the Eternal Book.”

And don’t we strangely come together, every week to read the Eternal Book? Complicit in some perverse way, through our own crimes and darkness, we are desperate souls in contradictory need of faith.

Raskolnikov finds the Eternal Book unbelievable, and dry. And too often, so do we. We listen to the Eternal Book as though its essence, its life-giving spirit, has escaped like air from a balloon. All that remains is limp rubber, and perhaps a string.

But as Sonya said, “They BELIEVED!” And we so desperately want to believe. We need to believe that there is some truth that extends beyond ourselves, hidden behind darkness – but we are also so deeply afraid.

We long to be noticed by God, deeply noticed, yet so afraid that God will actually notice us. We desire God, yet we hide from God. We are at once Sonya and Raskolnikov; we own a faith we cannot give ourselves over to.

The Epiphany is not about preparing yourself to receive light. It is not about arcane words in the Creeds. Rather, the Epiphany is about the light of Christ dispelling the night in which we find ourselves.

The darkness is dispelled not because we are worthy, but because God chooses for some unknown reason to reach through time and space and into this dark world to save us. To love us. To give himself completely to us. Despite your resignation to darkness, your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

The Creeds – Apostles’ and Nicene – were never about the factuality of the words. You and I are not perfect, and we cannot claim perfect faith. We just don’t believe perfectly. We believe, and yet we can’t quite believe. Like the man who told Jesus, “I believe, Lord; help thou my unbelief.”

Rather, the creeds give you a place to stand, they express your posture of faith, your intent.

The Latin word credo does not mean only “I believe,” but also “I give myself over to.” We give ourselves over to God as Father or progenitor, not because we can conceive mentally of God as source, but because we so desperately need God to be our source. We give ourselves over to Jesus Christ because we so desperately need God to be Savior. We give ourselves over to Holy Spirit because we so desperately need the breath of life.

The story about the man and the escalator – it did not matter that he rode the escalator without a dog, but it did matter that he carry any dog he might have.

It does not matter whether you believe literally in God as Father, or Mother, or Creator – but it does matter that you give yourself over to that God. Your posture is your faith; your faith is the act of donating yourself. It is not, and never was, your mental ascent.

Raskolnikov thought of faith as bourgeois; but he was wrong. Faith is life-giving. People in our progressive world think of faith as bourgeois; but they are wrong. Faith is life-affirming.

The God you fear most is waiting in love and open arms for you. That is the Epiphany. And his appearing has become your appearing.

And so, believe, Believer, in God, the Creator Almighty. For as it says in Isaiah, “your light has come.”

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Christopher Sikkema