You may have heard of the fellow in Michigan who wanted to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. And so he decided one year that he would eat a car. He decided upon a slant-six Plymouth Valiant. He actually had one in his back yard. It didn’t work anymore and he had intended to have it towed to the junk yard, but had just never gotten around to it. But now he decided he would simply eat it and thereby enter the world’s record books. So he filled out the papers and documented everything before starting. It was an incredible undertaking. It is not easy to eat a car! He had to grind down the pieces to almost dust before they could be consumed. He found that if he poured the grindings into something like peanut butter it could be consumed without too much problem; egg salad was a no go. It ended up taking him more than a year; it took a number of years. But finally, finally, he actually ate the entire automobile. After he finished, he sat there thinking about eating that entire 6 cylinder car and all of the sudden he slapped himself in the forehead and said, “Gee, I could have had a V8!”
Epiphanies happen when we have that bolt of lightning, that flash of understanding and we suddenly see things more clearly and we suddenly get whatever it is. We are celebrating Epiphany today; it is Epiphany Sunday! Epiphany in the Christian tradition refers to the manifestation, that is, the unveiling of the divinity of Jesus. It refers to the ‘Aha’ moment that people had when they realized Jesus was divine. That Jesus was a human person was taken for granted. But that Jesus was divine was not only not taken for granted, it was something totally unexpected even for the Messiah. In the gospel reading today we see his divinity at his baptism. We read that Jesus comes to John and is baptized. And just as he is coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In my mind, the key feature in this telling of our Lord’s baptism is the verb that Mark uses to describe the event when Jesus comes out of the water. He says the heavens were torn apart. They were ripped apart. We just finished Christmas and those of us who saw children open their presents saw this verb in action. The child doesn’t spend time carefully undoing the tape so that the paper can be carefully unwrapped from the present. No, the child looks for some sort of place to grip and then pulls and rips the paper apart so he or she can get to the present. The barrier is ripped, torn away. Mark the gospel writer shows us that God in like manner, rips the barrier away to get to us because we could not get to him.
It is like Father Damien, the Belgian missionary to Hawaii, hard place to be a missionary right? But in the 1800s, things were a bit different than they are today. Fr. Damien began to plant churches on the island of Molokai. He planted several churches on the main part of the island, but there was another part of the island that nobody ever went to, at least willingly. It’s a small peninsula that juts out north from the island and is separated from the rest of the Molokai by an almost sheer cliff 2,000-3,000 feet high. The only ways to get to that peninsula were to try to climb down the cliff or go by boat in the open ocean. This deserted peninsula was where the Hawaiians abandoned all their lepers. If you got leprosy in Hawaii, you were taken to this peninsula and dropped off, abandoned. And Father Damien felt a call to the people who were there, the people who had been cast off, outcasts from their society. And he worked there just as he had done on the rest of the island. He built a church with his own hands and helped them build a society – even helping them build houses for themselves – and he lived among them and sought to humbly serve them in any way he could. One day, after he had been there for about 15 years, he was cooking a meal and boiling some water when he spilled the water and it hit his foot. And he realized that there was no pain when it hit. So he tried again. He purposely poured the boiling water on his foot, and there was no pain. This could only mean one thing. He now had leprosy. The next Sunday in church as he began to lead the people in worship, he didn’t give his normal greeting. Instead of saying “My fellow believers” as he had before this day he began with, “My fellow lepers.” He had in every way become one of them to the point of even the taking upon himself their greatest pain, their disease.
And that is the glory of Epiphany isn’t it? It is not an epiphany that there is a God. It is not an epiphany that God is holy and righteous and has a code of behavior that we ought to follow. You see we know that sort of thing even instinctively. The epiphany we need to get, to see again is that God loves us so much to become one of us in order to bring us the help we needed. You and I are loved. God ripped apart the heavens to send Jesus to us. It is the understanding; it is having that epiphany of God’s great love for us that transforms us. You and I can try to become better people but it is seeing and understanding God’s great love that inspires us from within and that changes our hearts so we want to help, to serve, and to care for others just that love inspired Father Damien to go to the leper colony.
Not many of us are called, like Father Damien to be missionaries to leper colonies. But all of us are called to serve in some way or another. And frankly, many of you do serve. When we go over to our birthday party just look at the paper of our list of volunteers and you will see that. But this is why, this is why we serve. We serve because Jesus, out of love for us came to be a servant and he is our example. If you are not serving in some way, find a way to serve; please come talk to me, or even just look at the different areas on the list and talk to someone who is part of the ministry you are interested in and they will be able to steer you to the person to whom you need to talk.
This is the weekend of Epiphany. And the glory of Epiphany is when we get, when we begin to understand that God himself came, ripped aside the barriers, and lived among us and served us because of his great love for us. Therefore in response to his great love for us that he has shown us through Jesus, let us give and serve our God. Amen