Epiphanies are both unbelievable and entirely ordinary, coming together “by chance collisions and quaint accidents” according to Wordsworth, a comet’s tail molded into something we can use. A gift like that describes the crowd’s experience at Jesus’s baptism, which comes around again this Sunday. The fiery prophet is disconcerting and compelling at the same time. He’s covered in animal skins stitched together on the run, his stomach full of nothing but what he could scavenge, his eyes burning for truth. “Prepare God’s way,” he cries: mountains of privilege lowered, valleys of despair filled in with light. The justice of a level playing field is in our hands, he says. “Turn toward it. And cut down every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit.” The people who stream to him are sure of nothing but their longing for change, to die to one way of living and rise to a new one, to wash off in the Jordan River anything that’s keeping them stuck. The raw materials are water and hope.
And then a man comes along who says, “Stay with me a while. It’s going to take time to forge a new path, not to mention a new heart. Come and see what you can do with God’s help. Seek a way which chooses compassion instead of violence, the common good instead of selfishness, reconciliation instead of pride.” And John knows the One coming into the world when he sees him: this is not the warrior king he was looking for, but the shepherd king that we need. John admits that he doesn’t feel worthy to untie his sandals, yet this morning star surrenders to the Baptist’s washing. “Let’s act together in this way,” Jesus responds. “It helps make things right.”
It’s been a tough week. Uncontrollable fires burning in Australia. Earthquakes in Puerto Rico. Continued mistrust in Washington. Bombs dropping in Iran. Two murders in the first two days of the year in Baltimore and more since. It’s enough to shake your faith and make you go looking for a warrior instead of a lamb. Truth be told, on some days I’d like a God who feels more conventionally powerful, one who stops bullets before they strike, who silences the violent voices inside us and around us.
But my epiphany is this, and it also has something to do with surrender. The story of Jesus’s life is that God’s power has been given over to humanity. It’s been there all the time, but it took a revelation of perfect love to make it plain to us. What John meets on the shore of that life-giving river is the mystery of compassion, of suffering with, of leadership like he’d never imagined, of a shepherd-king who brings every single lost sheep to the center of the party. The star we follow illumines the darkest, deepest mystery of God: true power is discovered in the crucible of vulnerability, wisdom is born of pain, real strength comes from embracing weakness.
The epiphany here is hard won, but sustaining: violence will always engender more violence, even the kind that has hitched its wagon to righteousness, but love will always give birth to more love. Yielding and sacrifice and compassion recreate us, and when we are born again in this way, through us God saves the world.