First Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

january 13, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 43:1-7

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Psalm 29

A while back I heard a short radio documentary. The feature began with a story about the reporter’s four-year-old nephew. The little boy was visiting a toy store with his mother and there he was terrified by a hideous creature, by a large statue of Frankenstein’s Monster standing by the entrance. The boy’s fear was so great that he ran deep into the toy store to hide. And that would have been an okay strategy, except that it created a logistical problem: there was only one door and, in order to leave the store again, it was necessary for him to pass the monster once more.

After a great deal of negotiating with his mother, the little boy made it clear that walking past Frankenstein’s Monster a second time was an impossibility. And so, his Mom picked him up and, his face buried in her shoulder, she carried him past the awful creature and out of the store.

For a long time thereafter, the boy was fixated on the experience, almost paralysed by it. Over and over he would say, “Mom? Remember the monster?” And he would retell the trauma of that day at the store again and again and again, much as you or I might retell the story of a car accident – such storytelling is how we wrestle with such an experience, how we make sense of it.

But one day something remarkable happened: the retelling suddenly shifted. Just at the moment in the story when the toy store monster made its shuffling evil entrance, the fear fell away from the boy’s face like a sheet of ice and it was replaced by something else. I’m going to guess that his expression was a combination of mischief and glee. (Is there a name for that look, for that mixture of emotions? There should be.) And he announced to everyone listening:

I saw the monster. And I peed all over it!

And in that instant, the monster lost its power over him. Like David letting the rock fly which fells Goliath, the little boy claimed the most improbable of victories by doing something new.

The reporter then spoke to a researcher by the name of Timothy D. Wilson who explained that the technique that her nephew had employed is what, in his research, he calls story editing. Story editing takes two major forms.

First, story editing may involve doing what the little boy did, taking a negative experience and writing a new happy ending to it. In the revised story, you have the perfect rebuttal to the guy who insulted you, you don’t drop the game-winning touchdown, you are able to defeat the monster in the store. That kind of story editing is a way of escaping from an experience which is haunting you, of gaining power over that experience. And as simple, as silly even as it may sound, Wilson told the reporter that it works.

The second kind of story is something that Wilson has focused on a lot more. It involves taking a limiting narrative in your life and reframing it. An example of such a limiting narrative might be, “I’m no good at math” or “I have a hard time making friends.” Within the church it might be – and this is a story that is often told with shame – “We’re an aging congregation.” The researcher said that he has taught this kind of story editing on a large scale with of first-year university students, with people who are often carrying the story that goes something like, “I’m out of my depth.” Wilson invites the students to take this narrative of limitation – a story that I suspect that all of us struggled with at age seventeen or eighteen, and that many of us may struggle with still – and to craft it into a new story, a story whose thesis goes like this:

“Everybody struggles at first.”

Wilson said is that, compared with a control group, he discovered measurable improvements in the outcomes of the young people who adopted the new story. That they did better on tests, on essays, on oral reports. They were happier. “Everybody fails at first” was a story that set them free.

Over these last several weeks of Advent and Christmas, we have once again walked with the holy family to Jerusalem, there to witness the Christ child’s birth. Today, we fast forward two or even three decades to Jesus’ baptism. With the exception of Luke, who gives us the awesome account of Jesus as a child teaching in the temple, we really don’t know anything about the intervening time. There is a gap in Jesus’ biography. We don’t know what history Jesus brings with him as he steps into John’s arms and the Jordan River.

We are pretty used to picturing Jesus as an almost impassive figure. Years of art have encouraged us to do so. In one painting after another, Jesus has this look of distant and holy patience on his face. Occasionally he smiles, although he almost never laughs. And, at the end of his life, he suffers. But, even then, even on the cross, the theme of impassivity remains – Jesus on Golgotha still has an otherworldly patience, a borderline terrifying serenity. And maybe artists are right to depict him that way.

What I don’t think I have ever seen is a painting us Jesus looking befuddled, looking confused, looking lost. Why not? If we take seriously scripture’s claim that Jesus was fully human and not simply an all-powerful god disguised as a human being, then, much as he shared in our pain, much as he shared in our joy, Jesus must have also shared in that sense of lostness that is sometimes part of everyone’s life. There must have been a time when Jesus was the Ancient Near East’s equivalent of a nervous first year university student.

And that makes me wonder: could the account that we just heard of Jesus’ baptism be an example of story editing?

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

All three of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – begin Jesus’ ministry with some slight variation on these words of assurance. Now, I don’t doubt that God speaks these words in order for all of us, gathered with the crowd on the banks of the Jordan to eavesdrop, in order that we all might understand early on who our protagonist is. But what if God also speaks these words because he knows that Jesus needs to hear them?

What if Jesus comes to the Jordan labouring with the fears that so many of us have. The fears that say that God couldn’t have a purpose for someone like me, that God might not be able to forgive someone like me, that God might not even be able to love someone like me. And there, in John’s arms, God says to Jesus:

Let’s edit your story into something new. You do have a purpose. You are forgiven. You are good enough, you are worthy enough, you are loved enough to take on the ministry that is before you.  

Son, I’m proud of you. You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.

What if, in that moment, Jesus defeats the monster which has held him back? And that frees his ministry to begin, a ministry which will transform the world?

Here is the promise of the Gospel, the good news. God comes to all of us and invites us to edit our stories as well. Most of us don’t get an experience as profound as a voice speaking from heaven. Rather, most of us hear God through the voice of friends, through something we read, through an experience of beauty.

You may be lost. Everybody, God says, gets lost sometimes. Most of us get lost more than once. Sometimes we need to get lost. Sometimes it is in getting lost, in those experiences that we would never have chosen, that we learn the most about ourselves, about our neighbours, about God. You may be deep into grief. Everybody experiences grief. You may be full of doubt. Everybody experiences doubt.

These things do not define you, they are not who you are, they are not your story. Your story, God says, is:

you are loved.