Welcome to Epiphany, the festival and season of striking manifestation! Traditionally, the celebration of God coming to us as vulnerable human being revealed not only to God’s people, Israel, but also to the gentiles. In this time between Christmas and Lent we encounter stories that shine with the compassionate power of Jesus through radical teachings that illuminate living in God’s Kingdom on earth. The stories show “proof” that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed one, leader of God’s people come as a servant to liberate and heal, to teach the forgiveness and mercy of God’s love.
In this week’s lectionary texts we are provided with a clear image in Isaiah of what sort of servant God has sent to lead the people. A person so full of God’s spirit that his strength brings forth justice, breaking the bonds of oppression and prejudice, yet is not bombastic or careless in his revolution. He will not break a bruised reed or put out a wick struggling to burn. He brings God’s vision of wholeness to the world. Peter’s sermon in Acts makes the prophetic description of this servant specific as he rehearses the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Servants who are later revealed as royalty are prominent characters in European folktales. It is often the youngest, poorest, or seemingly most foolish character who eventually saves the kingdom from destruction. The servants can be male but as just as often female.
Psalm 29 gives us startling visual images of the power of God’s voice. This images spur our auditory imaginations. What does a voice that breaks cedars, shakes the wilderness, flashes flame, can be heard over water sound like? This is voice of power and majesty but it does not necessarily have to resound like the voices of James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman. What other sounds, other voices, that can portray power and majesty?
The God whose voice we hear and “see” in Psalm 29 speaks again in the gospel story from Matthew announcing that Jesus is God’s beloved. This year as I read again the baptism of Jesus, I find his personality as a literary and theological character (not to mention a very personal prayer presence who connects me to the mystery of God) enriched by the description of the servant in Isaiah. This is the One of such strength and such powerful gentleness that the world’s peoples can be made new by his presence.
John’s initial resistance and then his conversion to Jesus’ request is symbolically striking to me. John has been preaching repentance and offering the ancient Jewish practice of the ritual washing for purity that evolved into one of the signifiers of conversion to Judaism. John, himself, encounters repentance, “metanoia”, through giving this ancient practice of baptism to Jesus rather than receiving it himself.. In the Greek, “metanoia” is to “go beyond into a larger mind” and in doing so receive a larger, higher vision of life. By going beyond what John perceives as the traditional practice and baptizing Jesus, John encounters the voice and presence of the Holy. As we imaginatively hear the water of the baptism splash and feel the drops trickle over our own wet hair and faces, can we imagine Jesus’ request for baptism as a symbolic bridge between leaving behind old ways for radical new ways of being in relationship with God?
Given that water is a primary gospel image this week, I want to share one of my favorite water stories. It is actually entitled “The Tale of the Sands.” In this tale water in the form of a stream that is winding its way through a desert is the primary character. The story unfolds as the stream finds its way blocked by a swamp in the desert. No matter how forcefully the stream pushes against the swamp, it cannot make its way through but is only absorbed into the soggy sand. The wind whispers to the stream that if it will allow itself to be carried by the wind over the swamp up into the mountains. At first the stream resists, saying that if it is carried by the wind it will not be its unique self any longer. It will lose it’s self. The wind replies that in the mountains it will be reborn as rain. Either way the stream cannot stay the same. It can be transformed or die. The stream realizes that deep within its memory this has happened before and finally agrees to be carried by the wind. The tale ends by noting that the way of the Stream of Life is written in the sands.
There is also a Jewish story from Afghanistan of a poor man who makes his living by serving others and by trusting God day by day for his livelihood. One evening he unknowingly welcomes the Shah, who is traveling his kingdom in disguise, into his humble home. The Shah cannot believe that such a poor man can be so happy and sing such praises to God. So he conspires to test the man’s faith in some comical, but pointed ways. The story of how the poor man persists in his faith in God echoes the image of Isaiah’s strong, but gentle servant. I read this story under the title “The Wooden Sword.”
“The Tale of the Sands” is found in the book, Tales of the Dervishes; Teaching Stories of the Sufi Masters over the Past Thousand Years by Idries Shah (Penguin Book: NY, NY, 1967).
“The Wooden Sword” can be found in Elisa Davy Pearmain’s book Doorways to the Soul, 52 Wisdom Tales From Around the World (Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, OH, 1998).
Questions for the Preacher/Storyteller
- Do you remember a story from childhood that contained a servant who humbly becomes the hero and saves the kingdom? What are the qualities of that character? Does he or she accept help along the way or listen to wisdom that others ignore? Who are their helpers? Can the remembrance of this story be a proto-type in creating your own story about a servant such as the one in Isaiah?
- As you consider the sound of God’s voice in Psalm 29, consider the voices in your congregation. How might the sound of God’s voice be given new life through the unique voices of people in your church? Are there some people who do not have as powerful a voice as others in our society, or even our churches, who need to be heard as the voice of God?
- If the gospel story is an invitation into the larger vision of what God is still manifesting in the world through God’s chosen servant, how is this invitation being played out in your congregation? What stories come from your church and its ministry that illustrate acceptance (or rejection) of God’s invitation to “metanoia”, repentance is the fullest sense of the word?
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2014. May be reprinted with permission only.