Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

Embodying Epiphany

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Grunewald, Matthias. Detail from "Isenheim Altarpiece." Public domain image by The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons.


These days I am wondering how much Epiphany reveals about us.

Granted, Epiphany is about Jesus, what Jesus is revealing about himself, what manifestations about Christology are worth note. But in this season, what are we directed to see, to recognize?

It’s one thing to acknowledge Jesus’ glory, Jesus’ identity in the season of Epiphany. It is quite another thing to take on Epiphany in our own lives.

How much are we willing to give witness to Jesus’ epiphanous moments? Or do we sit quietly in the many justifiable backgrounds, unwilling to testify or desperately hoping someone else will? Deciding to let our role reside in observation rather than risk pointing to those places and moments when Jesus truly reveals who Jesus is?

Do we have the courage to ask: Who do we need to be because of Jesus’ Epiphany?

This is what John (the Witness, not the Baptist) implores us to be. Believers willing to confess in whom we believe and why. Believers willing to point to the Truth. Believers vigilant in seeking out where and how we are called to say “behold, look,” there Jesus is.

In other words, when we allow Epiphany to be a bystander event—one where we can sit in the bleachers and watch the game; one where we simply buy tickets, because that’s what we have always done, and already know the outcome—then, I suspect, we have dismissed or missed the meaning of Epiphany altogether.

Enter John (not the Baptist), regardless of what we think about John (the Gospel writer). However we interpret John (the Witness), John (the Gospel) is clear—will you be like John or not? Will you witness to what you have seen? Because abundant life is at stake.

Back-peddling. Avoidance. Whether that be sexism in the church, misogyny in the church, racism in the church, heteronormativity in the church, anti-Semitism in the church, Epiphany reminds us that God needs our willingness to witness to the Truth. Fear of offense. Fear of losing numbers. Fear of decline.

That’s what the higher ups tell you, but really, Working Preachers, you do not have the luxury of worrying about those things. The doom and gloom disseminating from our denominational administrations, synods, dioceses, judicatories? Well, they get paid to prognosticate. They are charged with data analysis. They are deemed dependable of determining the church’s future. And as a result, we have accepted that the future of the church is spreadsheets and bell curves.

But we know, and John knew and believed, a different message. You have to preach hope. You have to preach the promise of the Gospel.

The true demise of the church is not declining membership or churches closing or diminishing seminary enrollment. It’s when preachers give up on the Gospel. It’s when preachers question their epiphanous role. It’s when preachers think that their voice can never compete with the dominant voice that claims to be Christian. And, it’s when systems say that they support you, but then go on to tell you a story that undermines what you know to be true, the truth that keeps you going—that God will never, ever give up on bringing God’s Kingdom to all.

Let me be clear. This is not a rally for a particular Christianity over another. It is an invitation to imagine:

  • That our voices might matter in the public arena.
  • That we might indeed believe that what we have to say can contribute to theological dialogue.
  • That what we preach, how we shape the ethos of a congregation, might indeed move out into a world that needs to know it is loved.
  • That we are willing to take the next step that puts our theology on the line, not for the sake of saving theology but for the sake of imagining theology in new and different ways.

What if the future of the church was given to you? Surely, seminary faculty, ecclesial staff, could come alongside you. And we should, if we are doing our job.

But imagine if you were the ones offering eschatological imagination? Articulating the activity of God? And, one would hope, refusing to hide behind hopeless predictions. Refusing to succumb to stated inevitables because at the end of the day we trust the Spirit.

I find myself barely able to catch my breath when the breath of God is not assumed. I find myself in want for the Spirit when the church narrates only death. I find myself in search of other truths when in fact the Truth reveals itself in this text and always.

Dear Working Preachers, what will this Epiphany be for you? Will you go through the motions or will you point to how all of us are called to point—to give witness—to how God is present, to how Jesus reveals God, to how the Kingdom of God is here and now and actually makes a difference for our here and now?

Embodying Epiphany has been and still is the church’s challenge, the preacher’s challenge, the challenge of all who dare testify to Jesus as the “I AM” in our world. The Word made flesh.

And so, a sermon on this Second Sunday after Epiphany should communicate this need, this urgency, and this necessity. If we don’t, we capitulate to the assumption that God’s revelation doesn’t matter or worse, that we are incapable of seeing it.

Karoline

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