Starting Over: And on the Eighth Day...

[audio] Imagine with me, if you will, that you’re driving through the desert in a foreign country where the letters don’t look like letters. And let’s say you come up to an intersection. Unsure of what comes next, the first thing you’ll do is look around for a road sign. And even though you might not be able to decipher the squiggle on it that that the locals call writing, you’ll know what to do. It’s red, and it has eight sides. Stop.

The internationally recognized symbol of the stop sign has its origins in the 20th century. And while it’s hard to know exactly why they picked the octagon, the best argument seems to be that it makes it recognizable, even if you see it from the other side. So when you approach an intersection, you not only can know what you should do, you know what everyone else is supposed to do, too.

It turns out that the octagon held special significance for the early church as well. In Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, there are the ruins of the ancient town. One portion of the ruins are of particular significance, because they are in the shape of an octagon. That spot is believed to be the site of Peter’s house; first a place of gathering for disciples of Jesus, then later a house church, and finally a proper eight-sided church before the town itself was abandoned.

Ancient baptismal fonts are eight-sided, too, as is ours. It’s an architectural choice with a theological rationale: there were seven days of creation, and God rests on the seventh day, the Sabbath, Shabbat.

But on the first day of the week, Jesus rose. The tomb was found empty. And when we are baptized, we are baptized into that new, resurrection reality. It becomes an eight day of creation, when we are re-created for God and God’s desires. So maybe, if we put these two octagons together, when talk about our baptism, we should take a moment or two to stop before moving on again.

That’s exactly what happens in our New Testament lesson today. Jesus is pretty much an unknown figure at this point in time. And the aptly-named John the Baptist has been doing his thing for a while. Jesus, rather than launch immediately into his ministry, stops for a moment to be baptized by John in the river Jordan.

No eight-sided churches, no fonts, no street signs anywhere to be found; but Jesus stops just the same.

I wonder if those who were there on that day stopped, too, considering the words of the prophet Isaiah, about the promised Messiah, so gentle he would not put out a candle that was barely alight, and yet, so strong that he would not faint or be crushed in his effort, as the text repeats several times, to bring forth justice.

What is particularly striking in Isaiah’s words is the number of times that God speaks of a new reality. Blind eyes will be opened; prisoners will come out of dungeons. Former things are passing away, but God is about to do a new thing, something that will spring forth like a planted seed breaking through the hard earth. Could it be that Jesus is the “new” of which Isaiah speaks?

The answer to that question is surely yes. And yet, it is an incomplete yes. We believe that the God whom we worship, the God whom we know in Jesus, is the God of creation, we also believe that same God is the God of re-creation. God is constantly making all things new again and again and again.

And on the eighth day, Christ rose. And on the eight day, there was baptism. And on the eighth day, there is the chance to start over, to begin anew.

Each one of us here has had our own journey of faith. I’m sure that there are some of you who had a single, defining moment of conversion, a re-orientation of your whole being away from self and toward God. And I’m equally sure that most of you haven’t had one moment, but a lifetime full of them – momentary epiphanies, new awarenesses to the fact that God was at work in your life when you didn’t even know it.

Perhaps it was the beginning of new life, the birth of a child, the start of a new job or school or marriage. Maybe it was through a crisis or grief, a heavy loss that slowly gave way to new purpose and gratitude. Or there it was, in the midst of a conversation with a friend, that moment when what you were sure you knew about an issue, a person, a piece of your own memory, was flipped in an instant. And you knew that you would never be the same again.

That kind of conversion is at the heart of baptism. We mark it once in a lifetime; and yet, we trust that God is always at work, within and without, shaping and re-shaping, creating and re-creating, cleansing and re-cleansing.

One other piece of trivia about baptism: the ancient church believed that the water used for baptism had to be running water, moving water. Initially, this meant rivers. And as the church aged and changed, it came to mean that the water used for baptism had to physically run along the skin. I remember being oriented to a summer position in a Jesuit hospital and being taught how to do an emergency baptism. “As long as the water trickles a little bit on the forehead,” we were told, “then it’s OK.”

Baptismal water is living water because baptism is life. We don’t worship a God of the past; we worship a living Lord. Our faith isn’t a relic; it’s a living faith. Like that flowing river, our faith must be on the move. Why? Because the message at the heart of the gospel is life: changed life, new life, eternal life, abundant life.

Today it seems particularly fitting that we honor the God of life. Just across the street from where I write, our neighbors at Oglethorpe University grieve a young life that was cut short. On a campus full of remarkable young people, Erik Downes was particularly notable. Students and faculty are just beginning to return, and as they do, there will be a palpable vacuum. The pall of death hangs. What is the baptism message that we have for them? What is the message of that eighth day, of re-creation and life that we can offer to a community in pain?

And across the country in Arizona, we read the news of a shooting at a political gathering, leaving five dead and a congresswoman with a bullet in the head. As rhetoric around our nation grows in its emotion and anger and violence, what is the message we bear, as a church, of a Messiah so gentle he would not crush a bruised reed? In the midst of a world so marked by death, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or Haiti or Arizona or literally in our backyard, where is the church with its message of life?

Martin Luther, the great reformer, had a mantra that kept him grounded in his darkest of days. As he acted on convictions that the church must change, and as the same church responded with accusations and threats, Luther repeated this simple phrase: “I am baptized.”

Could this be our tune as well? What would happen if, every time we saw a stop sign, we took a moment to reflect on our own baptism and how it calls us to be a living part of this church and its message of life? How is it that we can show not only in word, but through our every breath, that the God whom we worship is a living Lord? How is it that we can bring that hope of the eighth day, of new life, to a world that is so haunted by death?

We will be hosting a prayer service this evening for the Oglethorpe University community. It is a chance for us to be good neighbors, surely. But more than that, it is a chance for us as a church community to live out this message of baptism, of life.

If Jesus was willing to go down into the muddy waters of the Jordan, if God is willing to be with us in our hour of need, then we, the body of Christ, should be willing to be with those who mourn until their every tear is wiped away.

Stop. Take a moment. Remember that today is the eighth day, the day of renewal. The day of rebirth. The day of life. Let us live as we believe.