First Sunday after Epiphany

January 8, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Let’s start with some stories this morning.

The first happened to me when I was a college student. It was my junior year. And that year I shared a room with my good friend, Stacey. It was a tiny little dorm room. So to make more space, we’d build a loft bed so both our beds were raised up really high – high enough so you could stand comfortably beneath them. And at one point during the year, I got really sick. I don’t remember what it was. A flu or something. But I was miserable. So miserable that there was no way I was going to be able to climb the ladder up to my bed. And I remember one afternoon just reaching up, grabbing the corner of my blanket, pulling it down on top of me and just falling down on the floor to go to sleep. And that’s the state I was in when Stacey came home that evening. He saw me there. Pathetic. And without a word, he reached up and grabbed his own blanket and slept on the floor as well. And I’ve always remembered that moment. It’s almost sacred in my memory. It didn’t cure me. It was of no practical good. It was just love: “You’re miserable, Eric. And I know it. And I’ll stay here beside you.”

It’s similar to what my parents are doing this weekend. They’ve gone down to the desert in southern California to visit some really good friends who they’ve been friends with since before I was born. And their daughter, who was younger than I am, died a few weeks ago. Which has been as awful as you’d expect to be. There’s nothing like the pain of losing a child. She lived somewhere in LA, several hours drive from where her folks live, and they asked my parents, “Will you go with us? Will you drive there with us to collect her ashes?” My parents aren’t chaplains. They’ve never lost a child. They don’t have any experience with this kind of thing.  So what did they say? They said, “Of course we will.” And like many of us would be, they’re a little anxious about it: What should we say? What shouldn’t we say? It’s a really long drive and it might be really uncomfortable. But they’re doing it, because they love them, and that’s what they have to offer: to join them in their place of pain.

Or then there’s the story of a friend of mine. I don’t remember all the details. It was a long time ago. But both she and her husband were really sick – like stuck in bed, immobilized sick, and they had a baby who I think was only about one-year old at the time. And there must have been something significant going on because both her parents and his parents were scheduled for back-to-back visits. And so she called both sets of parents to let them know just how sick they were, and her mother said, “Oh, thanks for letting us know. We’ll plan on getting a hotel, then, instead of staying with you so you don’t get us sick too.” But when her mother-in-law heard, she said, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. I’ll change our plans and come down right away.” And so she came, earlier than planned, and stayed in their house, so she could take care of them, as well as the baby. And like I’d experienced with Stacey, it was a formative moment for her. “My own mom was just concerned about keeping herself safe,” she said. “And I understand. But my mother-in-law – she just put fear aside so she could love us.”

And I tell all these stories today because, each in their own way, gets at the heart of who Jesus was and what he was doing in his ministry. One of Jesus’ titles is Emmanuel. It means, “God with us.” And I truly believe, if we want to understand the ministry of Jesus and why he did what he did, it must be rooted in this underlying spirit of love – a love expressed with profound solidarity. It is not love in theory, or love from a safe distance. But love with us. Christ showed us the face and the nature of God, with us in everything and every moment of our lives. And our deaths. And the life to come. God with us.

And it is especially true today, in remembering his baptism.

The ministry of John the Baptist was something of a national renewal movement. Everyone was coming out to be baptized in the River Jordan. They were confessing their sins and taking a ritual bath as a kind of sign that they were repenting. They were admitting the ungodly ways they’d been living and committing themselves to living right. And part of the motivation behind it all, was their hope that, by collectively choosing to repent and live righteously, they were preparing the way for the Messiah, who would come and save them from their oppressors. This commitment was the sign that they were ready for him to come: See how worthy we are of your ministry.

But unbeknownst to them, their Messiah was already there. In line with them. Along the muddy banks. Waiting his turn, to be baptized just like they were, in those muddy waters. Waters (you may say) that were already quite filthy from all the sins that had been washed off the people.

And when it’s Jesus’ turn, he wades in, too. John didn’t want to baptize him.

“You don’t need this. I can’t do this for you.”

“Yes you can. C’mon. Get it done.”

And down he goes, into the water. For their Messiah was Emmanuel, God with us, in everything and every moment of our lives. Experiencing what we experience, even when it is risky and will cost him much.

For not only is baptism a form of cleaning, a kind of bath. It’s also a form of death, a kind of drowning. For those being baptized that day, they were dying to their old lives, and rising to a new life, a new kind of righteous living. And so with Jesus, he was dying to himself, dying to the safety of living his own life in quiet obscurity, however he chose, and giving himself over instead entirely to the will of his Father in heaven, which was to live in total union with us, and lay his life down.

And just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased (Mt. 3:16-17).

“Well done, son. I’m proud of you. This is who we are: always with them. In everything. Always giving ourselves to them, giving ourselves away to them. But this is what you need to understand: this kind of love is really hard and it’s really scary.”

So what does God do next, now that Jesus has committed himself to this ministry of obedience and solidarity? The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he will be famished and tempted by the devil.

It’s as if God is telling him, “Son, this is what it’s always like for them. They’re always in the wilderness. They’re always hungry. They always feel separated from one another and from us. They’re always being tempted – scared and confused and grabbing on to whatever they can to survive, even when those things are pulling them further into their suffering. Son, it’s going to be really hard to live as they are living.”

When I was in seminary, I remember one history class where we were talking about the black plague and how all the priests were fleeing London, to get away from it, leaving the people to die there alone. And in the class, there was this kind of self-righteous swagger, “Oh those bad priests. They didn’t know what they were doing.” We were these cocky seminarians, confident that when the time came, we’d be the good priests, who did it right.

But the truth is, it’s really scary to give ourselves away in solidary with someone who’s suffering. If I were a priest in the black plague, I’m quite sure I’d want to run away, too.

But if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this kind of love,

to have had someone lay beside you when you were miserable

to have had someone join you on a journey to do something you dreaded

to have had someone care for you when you were sick, and likely becoming sick themselves

then you know of its power. You know this kind of love must surely be the way of God. For it surely was the way of Christ.

It is a fearsome thing to say we want to be like Jesus. Our instinct will always be to resist it, to trust the tempter’s voice instead, to save our lives, however we can.

But the pulse of God’s heart beats within us still: to love, to love, and to love again.