January 10th, 2021 homily on Mark 1:4-11 by Pastor Galen Zook
Professor Mary Poplin met Jesus in a dream. At the time, she was a devotee of New Age spirituality. According to Dr. Poplin, she was the poster child for the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.
In a 2017 article in Christianity Today, Mary Poplin wrote,
“As a professor in Los Angeles in the ’80s, a colleague and I would regularly explore the city’s weirdest religions. I would collect crystals and study strange spiritual books…Eventually, I would dabble in workshops where we bent spoons and practiced hypnosis on each other, while the braver ones tried walking on coals.”
She said, “I was seeking happiness, self-fulfillment, and freedom from restraint, all the while deluding myself about my own ‘goodness.’” And yet in certain moments, she said, “I could see glimpses of who I really was. I was not growing freer. My heart was growing harder, my emotions darker, and my mind more confused.”
It was during that season of her life that Dr. Poplin had an unshakable dream in which she saw Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. In her dream, she was standing in a long line of people waiting to meet Jesus, and she writes that when she finally got to Jesus, “and looked into his eyes, I grasped immediately that every cell in my body was filled with filth. Weeping, I fell at his feet. But when he reached over and touched my shoulders, I suddenly felt perfect peace!”
After she awoke from her dream, she reached out to a friend who suggested that she read the Bible. She started by reading the Psalms, Proverbs, and the Gospels, and she slowly came to realize that sin and brokenness were not just realities in the world around her, but inside her as well. A year later, she found herself sitting in a small Methodist church, and when the invitation was given to come forward to take communion, Dr. Poplin prayed to God, “If you are real, please come and get me.” She says, “suddenly I felt the same peace I had known in the dream.”
Dr. Poplin had what we might call an epiphany. A moment of sudden revelation or insight. A tearing open of the heavens, a momentary glimpse of the holiness, and goodness, and grace of God, and of her need for Jesus as her Savior.
For Dr. Poplin, the dream in which she saw and experienced Jesus and her acceptance of the invitation to follow Jesus while sitting in that little Methodist church transformed her life, and she was never the same again.
God Moves in Mysterious Ways
This past Wednesday was Epiphany, the day that we remember and celebrate the pronouncement of the Good News to the Gentiles, as represented by the story of the Magi, or Wise Men, who were guided by a star to come and worship the baby Jesus. Today is the Sunday in which we remember and celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River.
Now to our Modern and Postmodern minds, the story of the star that appeared in the East and alerted the Wise Men to the birth of the new King, and the image of the heavens being torn open and the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove, sounds about as outlandish as a New Age college professor encountering Jesus through a dream.
And yet we know, as the saying goes, that “God moves in mysterious ways.”
William Cowper, in his famous poem “Light Shining out of Darkness,” wrote,
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
God’s sovereign will in sending Jesus to this earth over 2,000 years ago was that the light of Christ would shine forth to people of every nation. At the time of Christ’s birth that seemed improbable. Nationalism, ethnocentrism, violent extremism, and cultural and religious animosities made it such that 1st century Palestine was as divided as world today. The Jewish people hated the Samaritans (their next-door neighbors), and refused to eat and fellowship with Gentiles — which was anyone who wasn’t Jewish. Even within Judaism there were many factions that didn’t get along. The Pharisees and Sadducees had deep philosophical and religious differences, and the Herodians and Zealots — both extremists in their own way — were on polar opposite sides of the political spectrum.
In such a starkly divided and hostile environment, it would seem impossible that the Gospel message could possibly reach people of all nations.
And yet, oddly, miraculously, and rather astonishingly, God caused a star to appear in the East. A star that prompted Magi to leave their land, their homes, their families, to journey to a place unknown, to a people unknown, to worship an unknown and newborn King.
As magi, they had been studying the stars, along with other forms of magic and mysticism, their whole lives. No doubt, like Professor Mary Poplin, they too were seeking happiness and self-fulfillment, and freedom from restraint. But they found that in the end, the truth was not in the star itself, but in the One that it led them to.
“God moves in a mysterious way, [God’s] wonders to perform.” In the case of the Magi, God worked through a star to lead Gentiles to hear and experience the Good News of Christ’s birth. In the case of Professor Mary Poplin, God worked through a dream to break through to a New Age enthusiastic professor.
In the case of Jesus’s baptism, God tore open the heavens, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. “And a voice came from heaven, [declaring] ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:11).
Baptism of the Lord
We don’t know how much of this experience that Christ had in the river Jordan was what we might call an “epiphany,” and how much of it was simply confirmation of what Jesus already knew to be true about himself. We do know that when Jesus left heaven and came down to this earth in human form, born as a baby and laid in a manger, that he gave up some of his divine power and knowledge, at least for a time.
We read in Philipians chapter 2, that “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7).
Perhaps Jesus came to a slow and gradual realization of who he was. No doubt his mother Mary and his earthly father Joseph told him everything they knew — all that the angels had told them. No doubt the gifts brought by the magi added further confirmation and proof of his mission and mandate.
Christ baptism, of course, was not one of repentance from sin, since he was without sin. But in entering in the waters of the Jordan River, Christ was identifying with the narrative history of the Jewish people, who crossed through the Red Sea when they came out of slavery in Egypt — an act that confirmed their status as a free people. He was identifying with the people of God who walked through the Jordan River on their way to the Promised Land. And, he was identifying with the mission and purpose of God’s chosen people, who were chosen to carry God’s light to the nations (see Isaiah 42.6).
We don’t know how many people saw the heavens being torn open that day when Jesus came out of the water. But no matter who saw it, this experience, of the heavens being torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove, was an epiphany — a moment of clarity and revelation. A moment when the truth was made clear. Christ’s identity was revealed. His mission and purpose were made clear.
We Need an Epiphany
As we think about the events that took place in our nation’s capital this past Wednesday (on the day of Epiphany), many would say that the events were a sort of epiphany, an unveiling of the reality of who we are, the state of our nation. The violence and bloodshed, the conflict that we saw played out on the news, represents the reality of who we have so often been as a country, and in many ways who we are now.
Although many of us may disagree on what exactly it was that precipitated the events on Wednesday, and who exactly it is that’s to blame, I think we can all agree that while the bloodshed that we saw on Wednesday may be an indicator of who we are – it is not who we ought to be. The violence was wrong, and we condemn it unequivocally, while at the same time, we long for an end to all of the forces of hatred and nationalism that led up to those events taking place.
In a moment like this, we long for an epiphany that reveals not just who we are, but who we should be, and who God is. We need an epiphany that breaks through all of the lies and falsehoods, an epiphany that proclaims God’s truth and goodness in the midst of all of the pain and brokenness in our world. We need a rending open of the heavens so that God’s light can break through. A voice declaring that Jesus God’s Son, and that we should listen to Him.
At this point in time it might seem impossible that God’s light would break through, that God’s truth would be revealed.
And yet we know that God moves in mysterious ways. A dream, a star, a dove — God can use all of these and more to reveal God’s truth and goodness. History shows us that God can even use people — who have responded to the love and grace of God, people who acknowledge their own sin and brokenness and receive God’s salvation, people who are utterly committed to speaking and living God’s truth and sharing God’s love with anyone and everyone.
And so this morning, we pray. And we recommit ourselves to participating in God’s work in the world. We commit to peace and justice, and to proclaiming God’s Word through word and deed. We condemn the evil and injustice in the world around us, while at the same time acknowledging the pain and brokenness inside each of us. And we remind ourselves of our need for Jesus to continually cleanse and renew us, each and every day.