Do you know what my favorite dream is? It’s flying. I don’t know if you’ve ever dreamed of flying, but these are the dreams from which I really do not wish to wake. I stretch my arms wide, and with a great exertion of will, I rise from the earth and begin to climb into the sky. In these dreams I feel such a sense of freedom and exhilaration, that I do not want it to end, because when I open my eyes, I will find myself back down on the ground and bound to this earth. Now oddly enough the one activity that in truth I dread more than any other is flying. I know this seems strange, but as much as I love the dream of flying I dread its reality. Now I’m uncomfortable in closed in spaces and I am uncomfortable in crowds, I have a tendency toward motion sickness and let’s be honest, the seating on airplanes is not well suited to a person of my size. But I can tolerate all of that. Deep down, the real difficulty I have is the flying itself. I have a healthy respect for heights. Others might call it an irrational fear, but that’s just because they don’t really get how high, high places are and how easy it is to fall from high places and how far away the bottom really is. So I call it a healthy respect for heights.
Now I didn’t always have this healthy respect for heights. As a child, I was positively fearless. I used to love to get as high as I could. I used to love to climb onto my roof and jump off, just to feel that moment of freedom. When my family lived on the California coast it a small town called Shell Beach, I used to love to climb the sea eroded cliffs and sit with my feat dangling over the edge and just look out over that expanse. So what changed? What gave me such a healthy respect for heights? That’s easy. I can tell you the very moment where I learned respect. It was the summer of 1981. I was in my last year of Confirmation, and our class went on a backpacking trip into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And as we were on the third day of the trip, we were hiking to a high mountain lake and there were two paths to take. One walked around a ridge for several hours and slowly climbed up to the lake. The other was a steep and narrow path that went straight up and over the ridge and would bring us to the lake in around an hour. Now there were four of us that were excited by the narrow path, and one of the parents chaperoning the trip was willing to take us. So up we climbed. And about two thirds of the way up about a hundred yards off the path through a field of broken shale, was a precipice with what was an incredible view. Well, I could not resist it, and I left the path and started working my way to the edge, when my footing gave way and I fell – sliding toward the edge. When I stopped, I tried to get my footing again and slid again. This happened over and over, until I was right at the edge of the precipice and one slip away from going over the edge. I was terrified. I was flat on my face, beaten and bruised, and helpless to save myself. And there I clung for what seemed an eternity. The chaperone who was leading us could not get to me without going through the same field of shale. So I clung there until my pastor climbed up to me from the bottom, clinging all the way on the cliff’s edge. And finally reaching me and – taking me by the hand – he led me back down to the safe path with him. Now why do I tell you this? Because, this is the nature of prayer.
There are few who understand what the Biblical concept of prayer is all about. If you search the Internet, you’ll find all kinds of sites taking about effective prayer, and methods of prayer, and the how’s and whys of prayer. But they all center on a notion of prayer as conversation. Give God a call today, He would like nothing better than a nice chat with His child. There’s this sense of equality in our modern notion of prayer that has no place in our Biblical view of what prayer actually is. Prayer is not an act of conversation; it is an act of desperation. It is a falling down. In fact, the root of the Hebrew word for prayer (palal) means to fall. The notion of prayer in Scripture implies helplessness. It is the wholehearted falling down before God. Whether falling down in repentance for what you have done, in thankfulness for what He has done, or in the desperate hope of what He might do. You are falling down before the Lord. In last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the wise men – when they saw the Lord in the arms of Mary – they fell down on their faces and worshiped Him. They literally prayed to Jesus.
This last week, Pioneer Lutheran Church participated in the LCMC’s three days of prayer. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday we gathered each evening for an hour of prayer. Now there was just two of us there (Dana & me), but we came together each evening and we prayed. And during each evening of prayer, do you know what I heard? Nothing. There was no conversation, no chit-chat with God. There was silence. And I struggled. God why don’t you answer? And still, there was silence. But then, on the third evening I fell. I simply stopped looking for an answer, but instead fell down before Him (not physically of course, but in my heart I fell down before Him and just waited upon Him in silence). And after what felt like an eternity, I looked up and I saw the sculpture of Jesus on the altar and I saw His nail scarred hands reaching down as if to take me by the hand. And in that moment it occurred to me that Jesus also fell.
In our Gospel message for this morning, we read of Jesus’ baptism, but Luke’s account is different from the others. It is simple and plain, almost entirely non-descriptive. All the text says is, “When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, ‘You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.’” There is no proclamation from John pointing to Jesus, there’s not even a description of the baptism. It only says that, “When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized.” Jesus was just one among many. But this is what is so remarkable. Of all those there, Jesus was the only one who didn’t need to be there. Baptism was understood to be an act of submission to the authority of the Rabbi. You fall into the water and the Rabbi draws you out. But Jesus is not lower than John, He is greater. John had just said that Jesus was greater. John said, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And yet Jesus, God the Son on high falls, making Himself low. And this was no ordinary baptism. For, John had instituted a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This baptism was an act of repentance for one’s sins, but Jesus knew no sin. Of all those there, Jesus was the only one who had no need of this repentance for forgiveness. And yet Jesus, God the Son – pure and holy – falls, taking upon Himself the repentance for the forgiveness of sins; not His own, but the sins of us all. And then there is something we read in Luke’s Gospel that we read nowhere else. At His baptism, Jesus prayed. Of all those there, Jesus was the only one for whom prayer was not a necessary posture. And yet Jesus, God the Son – co-eternal, co-equal in power and majesty, of one being with the Father – falls in subjection to the Father; prays to the Father, and “the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, ‘You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.’”
This Sunday is the first Sunday following Epiphany. As I shared with you last Sunday, THE Epiphany is not just some deep insight and it is not even God’s revealing of some deep insight to us. THE Epiphany is nothing less than God’s revealing of Himself to us.
So where is THE Epiphany to be found? It is in Jesus’ subjection in baptism; it is in His taking upon Himself the repentance for the forgiveness of our sin; it is in His falling down in prayer that God reveals Himself to us. It is in Jesus’ subjection that we receive THE Epiphany. It is on the cross, where He suffered and died, freely giving Himself to pay the penalty for your sin and mine. THE CROSS IS OUR EPIPHANY.