January 28, 1996 message
Last December, Verlin Tombaugh stood during "Joys and Concerns" and challenged us to speak louder and more clearly during worship, remembering those who struggle to hear. Did you hear his concern? I did. In response, I toyed with the idea of putting wax in my ears some Sunday to experience what it was like to be hard of hearing. As it turned out, one week I didn't need to go that far. Instead, an ear infection took its place. Sitting with my family, I had a hard time catching all that was said. Furthermore, there was a loss of that sense of direction our ears provide. All sounds seemed to come from the same place, at times a cacophony of confusion. Add to that, inner noises stepped out front and center, threatening to blot out other sounds. How does one sing in harmony when you can hardly hear other voices? Let me tell you, it was frustrating.
Of course, some of you are well aware of what it's like. You struggle with this on a weekly basis. I remember Everett Coffman, now at rest in God's arms, telling how he didn't like going to church anymore. More than all the newcomers or the new hymns he didn't know, he just couldn't hear what was going on, and what he did pick up amid this crowd didn't make much sense. Bill Albright has shared a similar frustration.
"Open my ears that I may hear" is not some vague request for many of us. Likewise is "open my eyes that I may see" an ambiguous supplication for brother Alvis Reed, whose vision is inoperatively blocked. To restore sight to the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf - these were a part [weren't they?] of God's Messianic task called forth in Isaiah (29:18, 35:5, 42:7), and fulfilled by Jesus (Matthew 11:5).
I bring this up for two reasons. The first is to keep us aware of the barriers we may unconsciously erect that prevent some persons from hearing good news or seeing evidence of God's presence. Do you hear that concern? When, for instance, you share from the heart during "Joys and Concerns," remember to speak loud enough so that all may hear. Likewise, we need to keep persons like Alvis in mind when we do our planning. Just having a facility that is handicap accessable doesn't mean our work of including others is complete. Pray that God might more fully open "our" eyes and ears.
That prayer is connected to my second reason for bringing all this up. As the old hymn says, it is "glimpses" and "voices of truth" that we seek open eyes and ears to see and hear. In those phrases we find the meaning of the word "Epiphany." Literally, an epiphany is an appearance, a manifestation; that is, it's a way something is made evident to the senses, which include sight and sound.
When we speak of Epiphany in church, what's the first thing you think of? The three kings, or the Magi who visited the infant Jesus. In the Christian year, there is an actual day called Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas. On that day we remember those wise men who followed the star to Bethlehem. We recall that they were not Jewish. They were outsiders, gentiles. That they came to Jesus was not just evidence that this baby was special. We tell their story as an example of how God was revealing the good news of Christ to the entire world, from the very beginning, Do you hear?
Now, in the Christian year, Epiphany is not just a day - it's also a season, extending from January 6 to Ash Wednesday (which this year is February 21st). On that day begins the more familiar season of Lent. While Lent is a time for repentance, Epiphany is a time for opening our eyes, unstopping our ears, unveiling our hearts - seeking out how God is manifesting/revealing himself around us. Before the inward movement of Lent, comes the outward movement of Epiphany. Without this opening of our ears, eyes, minds, and hearts to the presence of God in this world, the repentance called for in Lent can be little more than staring into our navel.
During the season of Epiphany we recognize that God sent his Son to save the entire world, not just our little corner of it. While we look and listen for evidence of God's truth in our midst, our senses are open to indications beyond our limited horizons. What, for instance, is our Savior doing in Bosnia? In the Sudan? Or even in the house next to ours? Are we listening? Are we looking? "Open my eyes that I may see ... open my ears that I may hear ... glimpses/voices of truth."
One of the stories of Jesus we tell during this eye opening/ear unstopping season is of his baptism. Did you hear Matthew's account earlier? Longer than Mark's or Luke's, Matthew goes further than them, perhaps seeking to answer some questions many believers in those early days might have had, questions many of us might have today. After all, why would Jesus go for baptism by a preacher who focused solely upon repentance and forgiveness of sin? Did that mean that Jesus, himself, needed to repent, to turn toward God, and be forgiven? If so, what would that say about who Jesus was, or who John was? Was John, therefore, greater than Jesus, instead of being merely his forerunner, the one who prepared the way?
These were and are important questions to be answered. How we respond to them says something about us, about what beliefs power our living. You see, Jesus can be for us merely a human teacher who discovered, through his experience, how to live. For many, that's all Jesus is, a good rabbi with good advice - a wise man.
Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't follow his teachings, or that Jesus didn't stand within the great wisdom tradition of Judaism. What I am saying is that Jesus was and is more than just a teacher. Matthew in particular, and scripture in general, goes on to claim much more. Look and listen to this scripture again. Jesus came to John to be baptized. In the story, John had just spoken of his baptism as a form of repentance, and then went on to say some fascinating stuff about the coming Messiah who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When Jesus came to the river, John asked a question which carries many questions within it: "Why do you come to me for baptism when I should rather be baptized by you."
Let me put Jesus' answer into other words. "I'm not coming for repentance or forgiveness," Jesus said. "I come to this point because it's right, it's what was meant to be - it is what God wills. That which God has planned is beginning now." Mind you, with those words Jesus did not answered every question. However, for those listening in (that is, the early church for whom Matthew wrote his gospel, and even us today) - our door has been opened enough to allow a peek through the crack at what happens next.
At this point in the story, John fades into the background. When Jesus came up from the water three things happened. It says the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended, and God spoke. Are you looking? Are you listening? "Open my eyes that I may see ... open my ears that I may hear." This is what we might call an epiphany. Glimpses and voices of truth. Now, it's up to our imagination to fill in some of the blanks.
First of all, what does it mean for the heavens to open? We're talking about more than a ray of sunshine here. The boundary between heaven and earth evaporated. Actually, it's beyond our human ability to comprehend such a reality. Still, we pray for open eyes to see what we can.
Then there's the Holy Spirit descending. This is the only place in the Bible where the Spirit is pictured as a dove. All four gospels agree on this detail. Other images, such as fire or wind, are used elsewhere. Why a dove? Perhaps we can remember Noah's Ark and the dove which returned, signifying an end to judgement and a new beginning. Or, along with the rabbis in the Talmud, we can liken the Spirit brooding over the waters of Creation in Genesis 1:2 to a bird nestling her young, thus signaling the beginning of a new creation. That's a powerful image, a dove landing on his shoulder. Of course, our words are always inadequate to describe an epiphany. Still, are your inner eyes open? Do you hear?
Then there are the words, powerful words. Mark and Luke put it in first person terms: "You are my Son," as if God meant these words only for the ears of Jesus. Matthew, on the other hand, put it in third person, as if the voice is speaking directly to us about Jesus. "This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Are you listening? "Open my ears that I might hear voices of truth thou sendest clear..."
In a way, my friends, we are all hard of hearing. We find it difficult to catch what God really says - how God is speaking in and to our world. We struggle with that inner sense of direction, trying to figure out where the truth is located. Furthermore, there's often a cacophony of confusion around us (as well as within us). Worst of all, we often wonder if the voice we hear is merely an echo of our own. "Open my ears that I may hear"... That prayer addresses a handicap with which we all struggle.
"This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased." These epiphany words are meant for us. Do you hear them? It's not just that we are spectators watching a heaven and earth encounter. You see we, each one of us, are encouraged to affirm this voice, to confess that these words are our truth. Do you hear, my friends? If so, can you say with your own voice that Jesus is God's Son? Can you profess that this Son is "much loved," that is - he is an intimate part of God, the very expression of God's awesome love in this world? Furthermore, can you say out loud that God delights in revealing himself to the world through Jesus?
If so, here is my challenge to you for the coming week: Keep your eyes and ears open for how this Son is at work in the world around you. Then be prepared, if you dare, to speak out loud what you have seen or heard. Please remember, though, if you share this during "joys and concerns," make sure that you speak such that all can hear your words.
Are your eyes open? Do you hear? If so, then be a witness.
©1996Peter L. Haynes
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