About halfway through last year, I preached a sermon on apocalypse. (Maybe, but not necessarily, about The Apocalypse.) Apocalypse means unveiling or revelation. Yes, I did play off the fact that last year was 2020, because why would any pastor miss an opportunity like that? Many pastors these days are guilty of many things, and puns are quite literally the least of them.
Yesterday was Epiphany. It means roughly the same thing. Merriam-Webster defines epiphany thus:
3a(1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking. (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.
I think if we take into account the literal definitions of each of those words, most of us can agree that 2020 was apocalyptic and yesterday was epiphanic. But I’m not sure any of what’s been revealed in either case have been cause for delight.
This morning I spent some time praying with one group of Christians and then immediately after that I spent an equal amount of time talking and reflecting with another set of Christians, and everyone agreed that what happened yesterday (an attempted coup in the Capitol) was a travesty, but the perspective in each party regarding why or how it was those things was very different. Also, one of the groups was more astonished at what had been revealed about the United States through the events, than the other.
There’s a story in the Old Testament about Moses’ successor Joshua, on the verge of bringing the People into Canaan. Just before Jericho, a random guy with a sword shows up and Joshua asks him if he’s on the side of the Israelites or the side of the Canaanites. The sword-guy says, “Nope!” And then he tells Joshua that “as the commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”
When I was a kid I used to think this was some weird kind of joke because obviously the Israelites were God’s chosen people so they must have been the army of the Lord and maybe this guy (an angel apparently) was just trying to let Joshua know that he was the real commander, not Joshua. Maybe Joshua thought so, too, because he’s like, “Sweet! Okay, what’s the message?” Maybe he was startled that it wasn’t to storm into Jericho and take no prisoners. Instead this commander angel simply says, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” God was going to give the land to the Israelites, but it was already holy, on God’s terms, not theirs, and this required humility and recognition of God’s authority before they could go in and do anything.
Joshua did take off his sandals; apparently he got the message. It took me a little longer, but now I know that the “army of the Lord” is a supernatural army, not a human one, and I suspect that the point of this encounter (and why we get to read about it) is to remind all those who consider ourselves to be God’s people that this status as God’s children is only given by God’s mercy and grace, and on God’s terms, not ours.
In other words, it wasn’t and isn’t and never will be about having God on our (whomever “our” is) side, but daily seeking to be on His. The only way to do this is to humble ourselves (like the angel said–“Take off your sandals”), repent of our power-grabbing self-centeredness, and ask Him to help us, as my friend the Rev Dr Kwesi Kamau said to me this morning, “see things God’s way.”
If you’re reading this, please don’t agree with me and then assume “the other side” is the one that really needs to hear it. For better or for worse, and regardless of whether race is simply a social construct or not, I am a White Jesus-lover who, until yesterday, was not ready to relinquish the term evangelical to those who are bent on twisting it beyond recognition. And so, while I believe my call as a pastor is a call to speak to all people, and while it’s possible Christians of other demographics may need to hear something like the above, too, I am primarily speaking right this second to other White “Evangelicals.” Let’s stop pretending, assuming, or demanding that God is by default on our side and humble ourselves, take off our shoes, to get on His side. This ground is holy. I’m pretty sure it was before we got here.