Turning the Page
Change is not a moment. Much like flowing water, change is a process. Water plays a central role for us today.
It’s Mayim, in Hebrew: the waters of creation when the Spirit breathed on the face of the deep. For forty days and forty nights, water fell from the skies, flooding the whole earth. The infant Moses found safety floating on the waters of the Nile. And when he led the people out of Egypt, it was the waters of the Red Sea that parted. In the wilderness, it miraculously sprang from rocks. The Psalmist spoke of the deer longing for water as the soul longs for God. And in captivity in Babylon, the people sat by the waters and wept tears of grief.
Water. It’s Hydor in Greek: the baptismal waters of the Jordan River. As Christ began his ministry, at Cana, he changed the water into wine. On the Sea of Galilee, Christ found his first disciples. He calmed the storm and walked on the face of the water. On the night he was betrayed, he washed the disciples’ feet. And when he was crucified, as the soldier pierced his side, blood and water flowed to the ground together.
Water. So simple: a mere two Hs and an O. So necessary: without it, we cannot live. And yet, so fearsomely powerful: floods that destroy and tsunamis that consume. In Scripture, water is a sign of judgment and sadness, a cause of suffering and fear. It is also a symbol of plenty and purity, a reminder of sustenance and salvation, a source of blessing and beauty.
In the church calendar, today is the day we set aside to celebrate Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan. And in doing so, we are also called to remember what it is that baptism means: renewal, forgiveness, blessing. We also, in an accidental way, end up skipping over some fairly important moments in the faith story.
You see, it was just two and a half weeks ago that we celebrated the birth of the baby Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. And then, at the end of the twelve days of Christmas, we celebrated the arrival of the Magi, those Persian holy ones who came to worship the child, bringing with them not only gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but also the weight of history, reminders of God’s fingerprints at work through – and, often, in spite of – the forward movement of time.
Suddenly, a week later, Jesus is a grown man – tradition puts him at age 30 – and he’s headed out to the wilderness to be submerged in the water by his cousin John.
We have just skipped over several decades. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that we are missing some important stuff! And Scripture itself isn’t much help. After Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Magi, the Bible mentions three things: his family’s flight to Egypt, his circumcision and presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem, and his teaching of the elders when he was still a youth. In other words, after the cute little cuddly baby, we suddenly get adult-onset Jesus. He’s fasting in the desert, getting baptized in the wilderness, and turning water into wine. It’s not a bad debut, mind you, but what about everything in between? Where are his years in Hamburg before he got the Ed Sullivan gig? Isn’t there anything else about Jesus’ first thirty years we might find worth reading?
I don’t know about you, but I find it all a little frustrating, these gaps in the story.
There are some ancient traditions about Jesus the adolescent, such as you find in the infancy gospel of Thomas, but very early on the church decided that these fables had very little to recommend to the community of faith. They read today like a gritty superhero reboot, where the young Jesus abuses his superpowers until he comes to terms with them and begins to use them for good. It’s amusing reading, but I agree that it doesn’t offer a whole lot to help us learn more about God and God’s relationship with us.
And maybe there’s a point here worth digging into, a point about change. Presbyterians don’t like that word, change. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? That light bulb? My grandmother gave that light bulb to this church!
And yet, we are ourselves are supposed to be changed, different, transformed because of our relationship with God. Baptism is a reminder, an outward sign, of that change. But that’s just it: change is not just a moment; much like flowing water, it’s a process.
I know people who have dramatic conversion stories, where their lives were turned over in the blink of an eye. And maybe that describes you. At the same time, most people of faith I know do not have such an experience. Instead, their life is filled with conversions – some big, some small – that add up to create that process. When we read the story of Jesus, though, this transformation is missing in the gaps. Where is the process, or the moment, that changed him, once and for all? How are we supposed to change if we can’t follow his example? That’s the frustration.
Or…is that the whole point? Maybe we are not supposed to be Jesus after all.
Let’s put it this way: Jesus was human, yes, and that’s the bridge that gives us access to godliness, our shared humanity. But Jesus was not merely human. He was also divine. And if you’re convinced you’re divine, well, let me put it this way: I’ll let you know when we run out of wine up here.
That, I think, is what we can learn from the gaps in Jesus’ biography that Scripture leaves. We are not meant to be Jesus. We are meant to follow him. And that’s what makes all the difference in the world. When we follow Jesus, we set out on a process of change, a journey of which baptism is a mere step.
It’s this process that I want to spend the next few weeks talking about. There’s nothing magical about 2013 becoming 2014. It’s purely an accident of history. Even so, I think we can see it as an opportunity. As we turn the page on another calendar year, we can begin that process of turning a page, a fresh start on faith, in our own lives.
Last week, I invited you to make one commitment with me to begin this year, and that was to pray daily. And I’m going to keep encouraging you in this commitment. Each Sunday, I’m going to ask you how it’s going; and I invite you to do the same to me. After all, accountability is a two-way street.
So let me be clear about what I am asking you to do. First, start slowly. Five minutes is enough to get going. Spend those five minutes in silence. Set an alarm so you’re not distracted, or wondering how much time is left. Trust technology to work for you. Begin those five minutes with gratitude and thanks – if you need to say it out loud, go ahead. And then…wait. When distracting thoughts come (which they will) let them float on past. In the silence, what do you hear? What do you sense? Something? Nothing?
When the alarm sounds, write down your experience. I’m not talking anything fancy: a sentence or two is enough. After all, it’s not the details, but the discipline, that matters. That discipline will lead to good habits. Those habits will reveal patterns. And in those patterns, I promise, you will see clarity of purpose and a life of balance.
Are you ready? God is…