This Sunday of gathering is in many ways a celebration and sign of both beginnings and ends. This Sunday of course ends our Church year. We call it, the Reign of Christ because this day serves as a marker to look back, to reflect back on our journey with Christ this particular year as we anticipated his life in Advent, celebrated his birth at Christmas, heard of the call to go out and proclaim Christ as God and King throughout Epiphany, and then to journey to the Cross of Good Friday with humility, confession, a commitment to renewed casting off of sin, and then our three day wait for Easter when we are reminded that we have been joined to Christ in his Resurrection, set free from slavery to sin in order that we could learn to love and so serve our neighbor and even our enemies.
This year, we have been gifted with young Liam, his mom, dad, and grandma who have joined our community. And today, we gather to recognize a particular end – the end of sin’s victory over us, even young babes – and a particular beginning: Liam’s initiation or baptism into Jesus’s own life, death and so resurrection. On Liam’s behalf his parents and grandma will promise to help guide him in accordance with Jesus’s own life that we find in Scripture and to work on casting off those ways of living that aren’t in keeping with Jesus’s own.
But who is this Jesus? What does it mean that we are baptized into his life, death and resurrection? Why does this matter? Let’s go back and hear our passage from Colossians which I think concisely paints a picture of this Son of God and King of Kings: May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
So to summarize: this powerful one Jesus has been born. He’s taken on human flesh, we’ve heard, he’s been born of the virgin Mary. The King of the Jews has been born to set ALL people free from sin and he is enlightening the world. What does this mean? I’d suggests it means that he’s actually unveiling how the world really looks, what it’s all about, who we are in it, who others are, what is good and evil. How can he illuminate or show the world as it really is? Because when we look at his life what we’re seeing is God’s own life. The perfect life of Jesus who is fully God and fully man. So when we look at how he interacts with people, how he interprets the teachings of the OT Scriptures, how he acts, judges, the way he doles out criticism, love, kindness, healing and mercy, we see how God intends things to be. We see God begin his gathering work, reorienting his lost and wayward children and showing us, leading us, inhabiting us so that we can begin to follow him. That is the way – the person – into whom young Liam is being baptized. That is Liam, baptized into Christ, is being initiated into a whole way of seeing the world anew, through Jesus’s own life.
Jesus does indeed transform the world with his incarnation, his being born a human baby and living out a human life, and dying a human death. But here’s the critical bit that matters for us: when God sent his Son into the world for our sakes, he did not leave his ‘God self’ behind. Jesus is God; God who is eternal; God who is not created. Jesus is also human, and as such, like every other human who follows him and through him becomes a child of God, Jesus is baptized. We celebrate this as a festival of the Church for Jesus’s own baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven from the Father, “you are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
This passage about Jesus’s baptism helps us to understand the claim being made in our passage from Colossians. That is, it helps us to understand who Jesus is and why his life, and our baptism into his life, is so important. You see here we find that Jesus isn’t just a prophet or rabbi or good moral teacher as so many claimed. No: Jesus Christ, is in fact God himself. And here, the one we call Father, Abba, whom Jesus will call Father and Abba, is in fact God. And finally, we hear affirmed that this Holy Spirit whom we encounter at several points in the Old and New Testaments as wind, or breath, or the Spirit or the Holy Spirit, that this Holy Spirit is also God. So our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it’s actually in Jesus’s own life – and his baptism is a central moment (as is his transfiguration) – that we see God actually manifested here as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; one substance, three persons, never working apart, never working to different purposes, no good God and evil God at different times, never changing his mind even if we use these words to describe how we see history unfold. If this were not the case, we would be left in sin and left to the often nasty, brutish and short reality of life in this world.
Instead Jesus reveals who God is most profoundly in this moment of his baptism, a claim made in more intellectual terms in Colossians. His baptism then, isn’t simply about ‘going through with the rituals, of his Jewish birth; it is the fulfillment of his very being as both God and man: To be baptized is nothing other than to be brought into perfect communion with God. To be baptized is nothing other than living the life of God himself as the particular person God created you to be, receiving instruction, challenge, chastising, cleansing, and correction as you see your own life in the characters of Scripture you encounter each week in Church and/or at home. That is the life Liam’s parents and grandmother are promising to raise him in accordance with, relying on God’s own grace, his mercy, his love.
What then will God expect of Liam, what does he expect of us? To follow, to do so obediently, to be willing to accept the correction offered through the Scriptures and life in the Church, so that ultimately, his and our following would look like the act of loving God and neighbor. To love is not an emotion. To love is active response to a relationship, to the challenges, to the contingencies, to the frustrations and failures, to the struggles – to all that stuff that each of you experience in your families, with friends, with those whom you care for. To love is an active and willing response to prioritize maintaining your relationship with someone through time; sometimes this means sacrifice; sometimes it means praising, sometimes sharing weaknesses, lament, hopes, dreams and of course needs. To love God however, requires being adopted and raised beyond our own limits of being by God himself. And this, God accomplishes by baptizing us into his Son, through his Holy Spirit so that we too might become his beloved children. Being baptized and held in Jesus Christ without fear of our own frailty, we are set free to seek Jesus’s own ways of engaging the world. Set free from the fears this world can bring on – frailty, disease, death, failure, lack of purpose or meaning – we can stop focusing on these things and instead, begin to see by the light (as if Jesus were a kind of flashlight that shone true light on the world)of his life with people (which we discover in Scripture). We’re set free to step into his mission and we are empowered by his Spirit to – in our own unique ways – become a light for others to see his purposes for their lives. AMEN.
Our reading from Isaiah today begins, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” The passage comes after 64 chapters that speak both of God’s judgment upon Israel – upon her leaders, both religious and political, and upon the people as a whole, for their failure to worship God rightly, but so too of his mercy upon them after exile, with the final promise that he will create this new heaven and new Earth.
Following the work and wisdom of one of my mentors who wrote a theological commentary on the Book of Revelation and on ‘the last things, heaven in particular, I don’t think the idea heaven involves our ‘going up’ to some place in the sky. Rather our psalm, psalm 98, says that it is God himself who will come to the earth to renew all things, heaven and earth: “Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
To whom are these passages of judgment, of mercy and of redemption referring? Well Jesus would seem to indicate that what has been said here about God coming to create a new heaven and a new earth is precisely about his own coming into the world and the effect this will have not just at one particular point in time, but across all of history and for all things. He says in our passage from Luke, “you will face personal tribulations for various reasons, you will face disasters of natural and man-made events with no explanation for why, you will be abandoned by loved ones and you may even experience violence and persecution because you proclaim my name. But by your endurance in following me, you will gain your souls.”
But if we bring the passage from Isaiah about God creating a new heaven and a new earth together with Jesus’s exhortation to persevere in following him, this is what I think he is saying to us: I will make all things new through a return: a return to a restored life, a restored worship, a restored service and life with him. A restored life brought about by Jesus, who in binding all of creation to himself through his life, death and resurrection, utterly transforms this world and each of our lives in all their diversities and particularities, their trials, tribulations, and sufferings; all things past and present, being reordered in light of his coming down. And we can grasp hold of this transformation by holding onto – or in classical terms – clinging to the one who, in a figural sense, walks the earth to bring this about, Jesus Christ himself.
Now I don’t know about you, but when I look around at the world, it can seem rather hard to imagine that God has made anything new, that he has restored things as they’re ‘meant to be.’ All you have to do is turn on the news or read your facebook feed and you’ll immediately be inundated with stories of violence, war, murder, corruption, natural disasters, all wreaking havoc on peoples’ lives. We could recount any of the stories of hurricanes we’ve had this year; school shootings all over the United States; acts of terrorism and civil conflict all across Africa; the violence between the military and protestors in Hong Kong.
Last week, I went to visit a young woman in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. At seventeen, her world, for reasons only really understood fully by her, came crashing down. After months of struggle, of refusal to eat, of refusal to accept the help of her parents and friends, she tried to take her own life. She woke up the morning after taking 50 antidepressant pills covered in and choking on her own vomit. After being admitted to the hospital she recounted to me that she had to tell her story over and over again until it was beginning to sound like she was telling someone else’s story and not her own. Her desire to disassociate from and diminish the circumstances that led her to a suicide attempt are understandable; but they formed a reality for her that she is beginning to realize she is going to have to face and address if she wants to be healed. Her perceived reality – regardless of her actual reality – is rooted in a complex set of social, cultural, psychological, and circumstantial dynamics. And it is this perceived reality that she wanted to talk to me about. I grew up in the Church, she said to me. My parents are faithful Christians. I think I believe in God, but I’m not really sure. How, she asked me, can I go on from here? If God is who the Church says he is, will he abandon me because I tried to take my own life; because I denied that my life is his own?
I reckon that many of us have struggled with the chaos life seems to throw at us in various ways, maybe not to the extent of this young woman, but in ways that have brought a sense of confusion that makes it seem as though the very fabric of reality is being pulled out from under us as is talked about in our gospel reading today. “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." Beware that you are not led astray ... "When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.” Into the midst of life that seems ordinary – adorned with all we think is right and orderly and beautiful – can come a tornado of chaos, or perhaps a rip tide that slowly sucks us out into the deep sea further and further from the safety of shore.
And for us, maybe this has come about by the death of those we love, by illness, by successions of failure and broken hopes, by our own sin even – dishonesty, selfishness, greed, hard-heartedness, indulgence – all of which has pulled us into the pit of our own misdoings. Who among has not felt this? Who amongst us has not questioned whether God really exists; let alone whether he has and is now renewing all of creation through this supposed ‘God-man’ Jesus Christ. It is easy enough – when we look around at the world and at our own circumstances – to seek solace in withdrawing from a relationship with God that by its very nature, by God’s own drawing us out of ourselves, presses us to witness to him. It is easy enough to become discouraged or even to lose desire to cling to Jesus in the face of the various types of calamity and chaos that seem to encompass our lives either directly or indirectly. Thus Jesus warns in Luke today, “do not be led astray by the calamities you’ll face.” But just as did the early Christians we hear about in the gospels or in Paul’s letters so too we might ask: What’s the point? Where is the restoration he has promised? How could I convince others that he is restoring the world if I myself can’t even see it?
And yet oddly, it is in the midst of these circumstances of seeming personal chaos of loss and fear, of depression, of day-to-day struggles with our jobs, or spouses, or children, or relationships of all sorts, that we are opened up. That we’re in a sense, forced to take stock; to question whether our circumstances are all that reality is; and whether the person we’ve become in light of our varied circumstances is all that we really are. And it is just here that we’re open to realizing that we are participants in something beyond our contingent circumstances and to living in light of this new reality, this, new earth.
But how can this possibly be so? As contradictory as it may seem and as completely abhorrent as it might feel in the midst of it, suffering that usually comes with holding still in the midst of chaos – of facing into it without running – can serve as a form of mercy, of renewal. Not suffering so as to be tortured. But so as to allow ourselves to be opened up to God. Opened up that comes through obedience, patience, waiting, perseverance and journeying with. The fullness of dedication to what we cannot always believe or see or hold in mind. Indeed the very thing, or the very person, or the very circumstance that seems to be the cause of chaos, however we experience it, can in fact press us to ‘go up’ and cling to God himself; to take stock; to be moved to examine our lives from a viewpoint beyond the limited scope of current circumstance; to confess and open ourselves to be drawn into the reality where we gain our souls and have true life: God’s own life, won for us through the suffering servant himself, Jesus, who bore the sin that separates fallen creation from him. So we can endure in ‘going up’ over and over again – in spite of experience and evidence that seems to contradict God’s coming to restore and make things new – because God fulfilled his promise to do this by sending his Son into the world for our sakes. AMEN
Doubt and fear creep in as trouble happens around us, we see decline, we wonder what’s next, we lose our way, our health, our hope, we struggle with things we don’t want to tell anyone and we really wonder: are you there God. Imagine being in the trenches, imagine being a refugee, fleeing from danger, violence, oppression, perhaps punishment, even death … it’s enough to make anyone say, ‘enough,’ I cannot go on. Enough, I will do whatever is necessary to survive and that is all. Enough, I will stop believing, stop hoping, stop loving, stop giving, even stop living.
All of our readings today touch on just these issues. Because these are not issues unique to us or to our time. They’re actually extremely universal throughout history. Into these very issues God speaks to us through his prophets, through his priests, his wise men and women, through his people, and yes, even through his enemies.
We hear over and over stories of people’s lives, real lives, filled with doubt, confusion, fear, anger, loss, and questioning, And we see how God enters their lives in so many different ways – ways fitting to the particular circumstances – and draws them out of hopelessness and despair and into his own life where hope is to be found. But of course, as we probably all know, in the middle of our ‘stuff’ it can feel as if God has abandoned us, or God is not there, or that God simply doesn’t exist; that he’s the construction of human ideas
Let’s look at our alternative reading from the Prophet Haggai: In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?
Here we’re hearing about a small faithful remnant of the divided people of Israel. If there are any left who knew of the greatness of what Israel had been, of the promises God had made to save and protect them, that splendor, that hope, would seem very far off for these people. Their numbers had declined, they lived so often in fear from enemies and in exile even. Many, under those circumstances, had turned to idols, to false gods, to other customs and practices, leaving their people and most particularly, their God, behind.
Does this sound familiar? This past week I was asked by an editor of the Anglican Journal to write an article our Church’s statistical decline over the past 20 years, roughly 40% down from 2001—and the implication (made by some) that the church may “vanish” by 2040.” This is a subject about which I’ve written fairly extensively over the last decade and so I’m preparing to condense my 300 page dissertation into 800 words … but I’ll give you an even briefer summary of what will lead my reflection, and I will borrow these words from our Prophet Haggai:
“Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts … The ... splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.
You see I’m firmly of the belief that our response to any loss, whether it is the loss of our church membership, or whether, like Job, it is the loss of our money, possessions, or like so many characters through Scripture our health, our sanity, our homes, our way of life, our past, our memories, our safety, or like the Thessalonians, the loss of friends, of family, of those they deeply loved, I am firmly of the belief that our responses to all matters are to be understood, celebrated, or endured, or even suffered, knowing one central thing: that God is with us, that we are in him and he is in us, even if we cannot grasp this reality with certainty.
How can we know this? Because we encounter this reality as we hear God’s life with his people over and over recorded in our Scriptures. Not just people from the past. That is not what Scripture is. It is not a history book. It is not a book of events that only occurred in the past. It is a book that pulls us, shows us, and directs us in living relationship with God. That’s what Scripture is: it is our lives – each of us, you me, Tyler, Theo, Erika, Willa, Gib, Irene, Mavis – it is our lives being fitted into the very body, the ark, the cross, the house, the kingdom of God himself.
Christian life isn’t foremost bound to a particular denomination we belong to, like Anglican, or Catholic. It is fundamentally and most basically about having BEEN bound to Jesus Christ, by him, through his Holy Spirit, and so to God his Father who has become again our Father. When we are struggling, whether with the decline of a parish, or of a denomination, or more personally, when we struggle with sickness – mental or physical, when we struggle with violence, with poor relationships, with job losses, with retirement, with wondering what purpose our lives have anymore, or how to endure through pain and suffering, the thing that has allowed God’s people to hold on is no great strength or power, no program, no political victory; it is simply this: that God came to us in Jesus Christ. And by his death and resurrection, by our baptism into Jesus’s own life, we have entered into new life, into the promise of life eternal, and into seeing our daily affairs not as our culture does, but rather as we find our daily lives, the events, fears, anxieties, losses, frustrations, confusions, addressed by God in Scripture.
God says to us over and over: fear not little flock for I have come for you. I will wipe away those tears that you cry now; I will wipe away the suffering; I will not break you on account of your weakness and your uncertainty, in my Son I have come to you and you are mine. And so then, Paul says to the Thessalonian Church and so to us, in our struggling Anglican denomination, as he said to the Israelites in exile in Babylon, or those struggling to survive in the desert: stand firm in your faith. Do not fret. Live by hope in me so that your hope is seen as faith, the faith given to you and sustained in your weakness by Jesus Christ. You are not alone my little flock – whatever you suffer, wherever you’re at in life – you are not alone, you are mine. Seek me, ask me, and I will give to you all that you need to come to me, even with your final breath. AMEN.