Image via Wikipedia“People of the Light”
A reflection for the First Sunday after the Epiphany
Genesis 1.1-5 and Mark 1.4-11
“In the beginning, darkness covered the face of the deep. Then God said, ‘Let there be light.’” So goes the first part of the Genesis creation story.
Light is a powerful symbol and has great significance for our faith. In the creation story, God created the light and then separated the light from the darkness. In Isaiah 60, the prophet says to the people of Israel, “Darkness shall cover the earth.” He also says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The great symbol of the season of Epiphany is the star, the light that led the magi to Jesus. Light leads us into the very presence of God.
We are people of the light. What does that mean to us? We find clues in Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus. John the baptizer proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John had it all wrong. John thought that Jesus was about power. John and his followers anticipated a Messiah of power, one who could stand up to the Roman Empire, one who could meet force with force, one who could establish peace by means of the sword. John looked for a Messiah who would stand against the forces of evil and oppression.
Isn’t that what we do? We define ourselves by that which we are against. We are against terrorists. We are against those who would jeopardize our freedom or our way of life. We are against dictators and communists, against our enemies and those we fear. The problem with defining ourselves by what we are against is that we end up looking in the mirror only to recognize that we have become the enemy. We become so against someone or something that we demonize it so that we can destroy it. Once we decide to destroy it or them, we have become children not of light but of darkness.
In contradistinction to our way of being, Jesus does not stand against John the Baptist. He submits and receives the baptism of John. After this, Mark tells us that the heavens were torn apart and that a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is an important detail for several reasons, not least of which is that the Greek word translated “torn apart” is used only twice by Mark - here, and at the crucifixion, when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. Mark connects Jesus’ baptism to his death. Just as Jesus stood for the people rather than against them at his baptism, so he stands for them rather than against them at his death.
John told us that Jesus was powerful. However, when his enemies came to destroy him, he did not define himself by what he was against. He did not say, “I am against violence or terrorism and therefore I will resist it even if it means becoming violent myself.” Instead, Jesus said, “I am for peace. I am for love. And regardless of what happens to me, regardless of what you do to me, what I am for will govern my response and my behavior. And, under no circumstances will I demonize the enemy and resort to violence, thereby using what I am against in order to protect what I am for.”
On the first Sunday after the Epiphany, many churches will celebrate the sacrament of baptism. As we have said, baptism and crucifixion go together. We are not baptized into a culture that uses violence to combat violence or destruction to wipe away all threats. We are not baptized into a way of life that exercises power to control or protect. We are baptized into a way of living that uses love and peace as the means to bring about God’s vision for our world. Great spiritual leaders, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized that love is the force that ultimately will defeat the forces of chaos. Love is the light created by God in the beginning, given by God to God’s chosen people, and shared with us so that those who live in darkness can see the truth.
Imagine with me for a minute what our world would look like if millions of people in America and around the world said that they were no longer willing to fight violence with violence. What if millions said that they were no longer willing to stand against their enemies but rather would stand for love and peace. Would it work? Frankly, I do not know what would happen. However, I do know that the way of violence and hatred does not work, that responding to worldly power with worldly power does not disarm the evil that is around us, and that God calls us to a different way.
Speaking of millions of people admittedly is a little far fetched. So, let’s think instead about the dozens or even hundreds of people that comprise our spiritual communities. Or, let us start by talking about each one of us, about ourselves. What are you against? What gets you blood boiling. What creates passion such that you want to stand up and say, “No, I won’t stand for it”? Now think about what you are for. Are you for love? Are you for generosity? Are you for peace, justice, and those other things that we affirm in the baptismal covenant? If so, how can you use what you are for to make a difference with what you are against? How can you allow what you are for determine how you will respond to those whom you are against?
This does not have to be complicated. Are you against the colleague who gets under your skin? Are you against the mother in law who can be so annoying? Are you against the terrorists who threaten your way of life? Being against people can tear us apart, rob us of our joy, and take away our ability to live with the freedom of soul. Instead, try being for loving the colleague. Try being for loving the mother in law, try being for loving the terrorist. Let love determine your response. Be a person of light, of love, of conviction not against but for. Then, you and I will not become the enemy. We will not compromise what we are for so that we can fight for what we are for. That does not make sense. Jesus offers a different way. Jesus did not stand against those who crucified him. Rather, he was for love, for forgiveness, for peace. May all who are baptized into the light and love of Christ do likewise! Amen.