SJF • Epiphany 2a • Tobias Haller BSG
John the Baptist said, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed...”
As I said in my sermon two weeks ago, Epiphany means “showing forth.” By implication, something that is now shown once was hidden. Now, it’s clear that curiosity is very much a part of our human makeup. Even very young infants appreciate a game of peek-a-boo, and what game is more universal the world over than hide-and-seek?
The very idea of something hidden being revealed builds up anticipation. Perhaps I am aging myself, but I can well recall, not so very many years ago, car manufacturers would all bring out their new models at the same time each year. And in the weeks before the new models were set to debut, the car ads on TV would feature the new models — draped in sheets, so that all you could see was the outline of the car’s shape. And only after weeks of anticipation would the sheets be pulled off to the oohs and aahs of the eager public.
Of course, here in church we are interested in more important things than cars. But it seems that God works in much the same way as the car dealers, taking advantage of the human desire to look into secrets. We curious creatures want to break the code, Da Vinci or otherwise, to solve the mystery, finally to see what it is hidden under that sheet. So God takes advantage of our curiosity, and hides, and then reveals himself.
God, who remains to us unknowable in full (because a limited human mind cannot contain the infinite actuality of God) still allows himself to be known in part. As author H.G. Wood observed, “God would not be God if he could be fully known to us; but God would also not be God if he could not be known at all.” The question is, How do we know God? And the answer, as we will see, involves both God and us in give and take, a divine game of peek-a-boo or hide-and-seek or tag that God plays with his beloved children.
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The starting point, in this as in all else, lies with God. Our knowing God begins with God knowing us. God knows us completely, all that we are and all that we ever can be, because “God made us and we are his.” As Isaiah says, God called his chosen servant Israel before he was born; while still in his mother’s womb, God gave him a name. God didn’t simply see the future Israel; God saw all of the possible Israels that yet-unborn child might become, and worked with loving care to “form him in the womb to be his servant” like a potter slowly modeling a pot as the clay spins under her firm hands, urging the clay, balancing her own strength against the resistance of the clay so that it takes shape exactly as the potter wishes.
Yet clay would be no use to a potter if it didn’t also have its own inner strength, its own cohesiveness, its own native ability to take on form. God knows us, and knows what we are made of, and knows that what we are made of is suitable for the work he has for us to do. God does not sculpt with Jell-O; but rather with more enduring and solid stuff — for even if our flesh is grass, even if Adam was made from clay, still we are inbreathed with God’s own breath, and capable of bearing God’s likeness. What we are made of, that inner reality of what it means to be human, lies is our being made after God’s image, which means that we are able to know, and to love. So God’s revelation to us begins in this: God knows us, and so, knows that we are capable of knowing him.
If you are traveling in a foreign country and don’t speak the language, what’s the first thing you look for? Why, someone who speaks your language, someone who knows what you’re saying, right? God comes to us precisely because of all things in creation, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, we were made to know God, and to love God.
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So the game of hide-and seek continues. God has found us, “searched us out and known us,” God has tagged us, and we are now “it” — and it’s our turn to seek for God. So when we run after God with our questions, like the disciples of John we run after Jesus full of excitement and wonder. And how does Jesus respond? Well, the game of tag continues, and rather than giving a pat answer right away, he says, “Come and see.” God in Christ keeps the game going. Just when we think we have him cornered, he is off in another direction.
But not without a leaving a trail! When we get to where we think God is hiding, we find another clue to yet another hiding place, clues in the form of words and acts, of Scripture and Sacrament, each one an invitation to come to know him better. God continues the ongoing revelation, as he opened himself and revealed himself to his people Israel, step by step as they grew to know and love him better, and then in Jesus himself, and in the Spirit who continues to lead us into all truth: adding moves to the game, recurring surprises and unforeseen turns of events, each of which brings us deeper into a relationship.
Like all relationships, the relationship each of us has and all of us have with God — personal relationships and corporate relationships, as Israel and the Church have learned — will have their ups and downs. There have been times in my life when it seemed like God was completely hidden again, completely distant from me, utterly silent to my search for an answer. There are times I’ve felt like “It” in a game of hide-and-seek, in which all the other kids have been called home to supper, and I’m all alone in the gathering dusk, looking for people who aren’t even there anymore.
Isaiah experienced the same sort of desolation. Look what he says in today’s reading: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing.” He feels like he’s wasted his time trying to redeem Israel. They just won’t play! Then look how God responds, finally, out of that silence and desolation. God doesn’t just say, “There, there. Yes, you’ll redeem Israel; yes you will.” No, God tells his servant, “It is too easy for you to redeem just Israel… I’m going to give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!” God doesn’t just restore the relationship, God raises it to a higher level.
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Like all good and lasting relationships, the relationship we have with God grows and expands in unexpected ways. And the primary way that relationship grows and expands is in community, the community of the church. For it is here, where the Word and Sacraments are shared, that the knowledge of God is opened up, that the love of God takes form. Here we become God’s agents for letting God be known.
What’s the first thing you do when you’ve had a wonderful experience? What was the first thing Andrew did after meeting Jesus and spending a day with him? He went and found his brother Simon Peter. Building on his own relationship with God, he opened that relationship to his brother, bringing him into the growing circle of disciples. The church reaches out to those who feel abandoned, surprising and reminding them that they are not alone.
What, after all, is the church? It’s as if you finally found all your friends, who you thought had gone home for the night, all hiding in the same place — and it turns out it’s a surprise party just for you! This is how the church grows, sharing the knowledge of God; and it is the only way in which it grows right and true and firm and secure.
A church that grows on slogans and gimmicks, on false promises or glitzy promotions, will quickly crumble when problems arise. But a church that grows in the knowledge and the love of God will endure. This is the kind of church we are called to be: a church built upon the truth that God has known us and chosen us; a church built upon the relationship each of us has with our loving God and Father in heaven and upon the relationships we have with each other; a church in which each and every one of us, illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known and loved, worshiped and adored to the ends of the earth.+