3 Epiphany, Year 1, RCL
26 January 2020
Recently, in my perennial quest for something undemanding to occupy myself with at the end of the day, I started watching Time Team. Time Team is a BBC show that is about 20 years old, and the premise of it is that a team of archaeologists is invited to a location and given three days to dig it all up and figure out what was going on in the past. They find Roman villas in farm fields, barrows on hilltops, castles in back gardens — the general impression I get is that you could dig up any random square yard in Britain and find about five eras of human occupation.
But though Britain might be rich in archaeological finds, it’s not always easy for the Time Team to figure out what they’ve got. It’s not like Stone Age folks looked at their watches and said, “Welp, it’s the Bronze Age now, better throw away these flints.” And even when you do have a situation where Britons of the Iron Age do something of the sort and start imitating Roman styles and technology to build houses and towns, it’s still not always clear what was going on in the location under study. It takes all the archival research, all the magnetic and radio imaging, all the digging, and a serious amount of mental agility to answer the questions posed by the site.
An ongoing joke among the archaeologists is that when they don’t know the purpose of some feature, they fall back on saying it was for “ritual purposes.” But, being scientists, they don’t usually stop there. They keep digging, and when they can’t dig any more, they let the remaining questions rest unanswered for the next people to tackle.
Of all the seasons of the church year, the season of Epiphany is the most like an archaeological dig. It digs down into specific prophecies and relates them to specific incidents in the life and ministry of Jesus, showing all the layers in between and illuminating how we see and do things today. “Behold a triple mystery,” says one of the antiphons for the season’s daily offices. “The wise men come with precious gifts; Christ comes to the waters of Jordan; and water is changed into wine.” Those seem like three pretty different things at this distance. You have to dig down into the layers to find out what was the point of the Magi, the significance of the Jordan to the people living near it, and what kind of story is being told when jars meant for purification suddenly hold rich wine.
Today’s readings are another keyhole trench into the manifestation of Jesus the Savior of the world. The location: Zebulon and Naphtali, the region occupied by two of the ancient tribes of Israel and now called Galilee. It’s an area that seems to be known for being dumped on throughout the ages. Tricky to farm, maybe. Equally difficult to defend as a whole, but it seems like it might be a good place to become anonymous in. In today’s Gospel reading, the top layer of the story is that Jesus finds out that John the Baptist, his forerunner, has been arrested; so Galilee is where he goes. Specifically, he goes to Capernaum, a fishing village by the Sea of — Galilee or Tiberias, depending on who you’re talking to. The town’s name later gave rise to a word that means “a disorderly accumulation of objects,” and that seems to be about right for our little archaeological dig. A place where misfits wind up, you might call it.
And this is where Jesus winds up. But instead of becoming anonymous, he starts preaching. Fishermen drop their nets and follow him. People are healed. Synagogues are electrified. Matthew draws a line between this and a passage in Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”
Right, so we have something brewing in a fishing village in what everyone thought was nowheresville. What does it mean?
There’s a clue in what Jesus is said to have preached in this place. His message was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is pretty close to the message John the Baptist was preaching before he was arrested. But where John’s message seemed to start an argument about who really needed to repent, Jesus’ message here seems to be received as exciting news. A lot of people here don’t have a high horse to fall off of. They are not offended by the idea that they need to repent. What gets their attention is the part about the kingdom of heaven coming near. They don’t have to go to it: it’s coming to them.
“One thing I have asked of the Lord, one thing I seek,” says the psalmist. “That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” But the temple has come to the Galileans instead. The major site is not the major site — at least for this part of the story.
It’s Jesus who is the vector for this encounter with God.
Now, because we know what happens after this, we want to know where it fits in. We know that Jesus went from here eventually to Jerusalem and the cross. In fact, the end of the Epiphany season is concerned with the Transfiguration, in which Jesus, preparing for his final journey, is manifested in his glory to his closest disciples, the ones he calls in the gospel today. These three are witnesses at the beginning in this place, and at the end in Jerusalem.
The place and the witnesses point to Jesus, and they point to the cross.
The cross is what we are being asked to look at. It’s the focal point of any season in the church year, but in each season the context is different. In Lent, we look at it in the context of sin and repentance. In Easter, we look at it in the context of victory. At Christmas, we contemplate the poignancy of God’s sharing our humanity, even to death by torture.
During Epiphany, we look at the cross in the context of illumination, of suddenly understanding ourselves and where we are and who we are with. We let go of our previous assumptions about what’s under our feet and dig down and shed light on what it means to encounter God. Paul tells the Corinthians, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” He doesn’t say “to those who have been saved,” he says “to those who are being saved.” We ourselves are being excavated, conserved, brushed free of obscuring dirt, and lifted into the light of God’s understanding. That is, if we invite God to come and work his triple mystery in our hearts. If what we want is to bulldoze the whole thing and build a resort, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
But we don’t want to see God’s wisdom revealed just to satisfy our own needs and curiosities. No, we want to be vectors of the power of God too. We want to magnify the illumination for the benefit of the world. We want knowing what we know to do some good. We want to be witnesses in a way that matters.
And that is what we pray when we pray today’s Collect.
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.