An armor-plated fig-leaf is still a fig leaf. And most of us just wish our fig leaves were armor plated, so we continue to hide behind tough-talking people who make vain promises of protection.
If you don’t get what “fig leaf” means, it refers to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 after they have eaten the forbidden fruit and feel ashamed of their broken relationship with God. They begin to vainly hide their naked shame by making clothes out of fig leaves.
Americans hide in a garden of power
If you are a Jesus-follower who lives in the United States, you need to admit some things about your fig leaves. I think one of the main things we need to admit, just to get to square one of faith, is we think America is square one of the world. That sense of reality comes with some godless assumptions about power.
For instance, your reaction to Trump’s assassination of General Soleimani probably begins with power: 1) You’re glad God took out the evil general through his agents so lives would be saved and your children would be safe from Iranians. 2) You’re furious and are trying to find the lever that ejects Trump so lives will be saved and your children will be safe. Getting and exercising power is the go-to solution for Americans. We’re always declaring our independence in one way or another. We accept the violence that protects us. We crave power to protect our chosen lifestyle. The power to choose is super important to us.
I think democratic government is better than variations on totalitarianism. But I have no illusion that democracy equals godliness. And I know arguing about that all day is sewing fig leaves. The arguing is the illusion that someone knows like God knows. The arguing reveals the assumption it is really important to get things right, since we run the world. Twitter and other social media is a daily example of this preoccupation.
As far as I can tell, the general Christian dream in America is power: miracle, organizing, argument, all loving and truthing done expertly and effectively. So we despise our weakness: no miracles, divided, voiceless. We look at our leaders and ourselves with unabashed criticism or resolute lack of criticism. We despise ourselves or we despise useless despising.
I think we should admit we are armor-plating our fig leaves. We live in an environment in which a deranged president has enablers who defend his right to order an assassination with a drone. We may argue or refuse to argue. But ultimately we generally swallow the reality and conform to it, fashioning our own defense system and thinking it makes similar sense to the giant defense system in which we live.
Epiphany invites us back into weakness
Epiphany gives us a chance to get naked with God again. If you read the Genesis passage, it says, “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” If you are listening today, you can hear God in the garden again by looking through the Jesus lens. See God born in Jesus and see Jesus launched into His mission of redemption as he is revealed in his baptism. [More explanation of Epiphany, here].
In reaction to the most recent atrocity in Iraq we are tempted to swallow and emulate, people are coming out of the woodwork to try to say something else. For instance, one of Shane’s buddies, also a grad of Eastern, says on Twitter: “Having seen through Herod’s scheme to cling to power through lies, violence & false piety, the magi went home by another way. Like them we pray in this season for a better way home to wholeness, to justice, to peace.” – Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
There is a better way home. God keeps trying to show us. We need to keep looking.
Here is the un-American way the teachers in the Bible keep trying to get on our screens with this better way: Our weakness is our strength. Epiphany is the celebration of this reality. The “manifestation” or “epiphany’ of God with us is a baby in the stable behind the inn on a side street in a village. The manifestation of God is the Messiah coming up from his baptism in a muddy, desert river in a territory on the outskirts of the Empire. The body of Christ being manifested in the world is our struggling, underfunded congregations with their fragile idealism and sometimes inept leaders; it is the compilation of all our cells which have meetings their members struggle to attend; it is this pathetic blog and many other wonderful things people have little time to read.
I think all that is wonderful. The epiphany of God is a wonder, again and again.
We have another way home
The apostle Paul tried to teach the power-hungry Corinthians what he had learned about the wonder of God being a human and being manifest in Jesus-followers:
“[God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Pretending we are not weak or pretentiously defending ourselves as if we can save ourselves or others from being weak is a human problem, and it is certainly an American one. Many American Christians have even fashioned a Christianity devoted to power in the image of the Declaration of Independence!
But, as Paul Tournier says in The Strong and the Weak,
“All people are, in fact, weak. All are weak because all are afraid. They are afraid of being trampled underfoot. They are all afraid of their inner weakness being discovered. They all have secret faults; they all have a bad conscience on account of certain acts which they would like to keep covered up. They are all afraid of other people and of God, of themselves, of life and of death.”
Into that weakness God came in Jesus. Not only was God born as a baby, Jesus entered into our sin and death, the main fears that keep us frantically reaching for the forbidden fruit and endlessly inventing ways to keep ourselves defended.
Epiphany celebrates the other way home Jesus has provided. It reminds us that the weak attempts at faith we criticize are actually wonders. I hope this holiday encourages you to look at your weakness (and ours) and see it as the canvas on which God is painting truth and love that is way beyond what our naked eye might see. I hope Epiphany allows you some space to admit that, contrary to most of what America teaches you, you are just like the rest of us: afraid and so weak, and so in need of the Savior who makes us strong like God is strong, not weak like assassins are strong in their armor-plated fig leaves.