Type the word 'Epiphany' into a search engine and its meaning becomes obvious. Its all to do with suddenly seeing, comprehending and knowing the essence or meaning of something. Google aside, an epiphany is most often used to describe that instant when intuitively we suddenly realise that we understand a particular bit of our reality in a fresh way. In Christian understanding Epiphany refers to the season after Christmas, when we celebrate, variously, the visit of the Magi and the revelation of God-self in the birth of Jesus, and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. In different ways both of these are epiphanies, with the manifestation of divine reality coupled with the sudden insight by others of that reality.
This mix of divine encounter and human insight is very much the authentic texture of the Psalms and is readily apparent in these extracts from Psalm 40, which is set for next Sunday.
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord. Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me.
Here too we find that in the Bible epiphany leads to action and that it entails change on our part. The Psalmist's experience of God leads him to share it with others. The honest telling of his story, his reality, his epiphany, is integral to the whole epidemic process of epiphany and hence of evangelism.
Consider the pictures of the dandelion. The seed head is a quite remarkable structure; each seed is itself an exquisite evolutionary piece of biological engineering. The fine filaments provide sufficient lift to carry each seed along on the breeze. The seed itself contains the biochemical and genetic machinery necessary for the seed to germinate in the right conditions. Either without the other would be pretty much useless.
The story of the baptism of Jesus in John chapter 1, the gospel for this Sunday, weaves together all these themes. The reality of God's love breaks through with the first appearance of Jesus. John the Baptist experiences an epiphany and he shares it with those close to him, his own disciples. Within the seed of this revelation lies the hope of new life. The story continues: The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”
John shares his understanding of the significance of Jesus, and it is this seed which germinates in the consciousness of the disciples. In the text I feel that it is the question "what are you looking for?" which is the key to their personal epiphany. It is a question which goes deep; a hidden question of longing which drew each of them to follow after Jesus in the first place, perhaps without either of them knowing quite why they were doing it. And the answer to the question will only truly become apparent when they go and see for themselves. Just looking at the dandelion - what is said about Jesus - isn't enough; just like the Psalmist, the seed of truth has to grow within the soil of their inner self.
For me this is the test of faith; not that the intellectual propositions stack up - or don't, but that having followed I have discovered and seen for myself the truth of what is said about Jesus as the human face of God. This epiphany is hard won and costly; it has all to do with the question "what are you looking for?" and the sense of emptiness and incompleteness out of which it arises. Inevitably this leads to the searing self-honesty of which the Psalmist speaks, and to the God whose love is revealed in Jesus. "He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure."