Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Year B, January 7, 2018
Genesis 1:1-5 Mark 1:4-11
First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho
Pastor Andy Kennaly
Well how are those New Year Resolutions coming along so far? Did you make any? Resolutions are one way we try and promise ourselves that we’ll make a concerted effort to live better during the year. From the typical, “I will lose weight and exercise more,” to the more serious, “I’ll try not to drink as much, or yell at my kids so often,” resolutions have quite a spectrum of intensity and effect. From self-help to larger, systemic issues, resolutions mostly have good intentions behind them, but very often somewhere along the calendar’s way, the resolutions are broken. Resolutions frequently don’t have staying power, and people find themselves right back in the struggle or difficulties they were in before, only now with an added sense of defeat.
Usually, when we make resolutions they have something to do with part of our life experience that is already going on, rather than something totally new, seemingly out of nowhere. Wanting to lose weight, for example, implies that we have materials to work with that we bring into the situation. We take something we’re already dealing with and try and make it better.
As we read Genesis chapter 1 verse one and two, there are two main possibilities for interpretation as we read about God’s work “In the beginning.” The way the Hebrew is written, some scholars say, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” in verse one. In verse two, then, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This is the way our NRSV pew Bible has it written because the committee that put it together leaned toward this understanding.
Another alternative has other scholars saying the Hebrew is also translated in verse one as, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth,” and then verse two, as a subordinate clause, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.”
This may sound subtle, but the wording, which is probably intentionally chosen by the Hebrew editors long ago to leave room for both interpretations, offers two possible conceptions of the nature of God. Does God create out of nothing, which is called, ex nihilo, or is it that God creates from what is there?
Are the formless earth and waters pre-existing materials which God uses to shape the world, or does God first create them out of nothing? If God’s first creative act is to make the earth and water, then creation involves making, bringing something out of nothing. If the materials are pre-existent and God shapes them, then creation involves ordering, changing chaos by bringing structure and shape. Perhaps both interpretations are intended at the same time? Big questions that probe the depths of foundational assumptions! Big questions that point to our larger explorations of the nature of God, God’s relationship with creation, and with humanity in particular, and our relating with creation, God, and other people. Big questions that get echoed through the centuries as our physical experience as created beings mingles with the spiritual source of power, restraining chaos, and grounding our relationships.
You’ve heard other big questions, such as, “What is the meaning of life?” Or, “What is the purpose of a human life?” Or, “Where is the fullness of life to be found?” These are questions that we not only ask with our mouth, or our intellect, but with intensity of soul, especially as we experience the chaos, the struggles, or even the intensity of great love. As Thomas Keating from Contemplative Outreach puts it, “All the great questions of life can be approached, explored and experienced by embarking on the spiritual journey. However,” he says, “‘first one must become aware that there is even such a thing as a spiritual journey, something beyond beliefs and doctrines’ — an awareness that has been “monumentally” absent in Christianity in the last few centuries.
Many Christians in the last few centuries put faith only in terms of what you believe, and how you come to believe it, and most of this is controlled by the intellect. Faith becomes a mind game, and as long as you rationally ascent to correct ideas, then you are saved, you’re in the church, and your faith is legitimate. Doctrines and dogmas become the external rules that need to be followed and obeyed in order to stay faithful and in good standing with the church. Church tradition has only encouraged this, and you see, for example, the Ten Commandments listed on sculptures in church yards, usually with a bench nearby so one can sit and work on memorizing them. Rules and doctrines, behaviors and beliefs, these take the focus, while transformative relationship and unconditional inclusion is often kept at arm’s length. Our brains keep our hearts under lock and key.
Is creation a make and break, where God creates and then disappears into the background to watch people fall, eventually sending Jesus to help sort things out? Does God use materials at hand, addressing chaos by bringing order, so well that life flourishes and things are called, “good?” Or, does God begin to create, and that process of creation continues even today? Not only that, but we are called as co-creators, especially going the Jesus Way to help shape the world into a loving, just, community? Is the presence and authority of God external to us, something we can step back from and observe or try and mimic? Or does God live within us, and to find God, we need to go inside? If that’s the case, are we aware that the only way in is through a crack? The crack of our heart, a heart wide open?!
This morning we read about the nature of God. And we’re in a season of Epiphany, where we celebrate God with us, God coming to us, and God bringing order out of chaos, light in the midst of darkness, by entering into creation itself. We read about Jesus and John as a baptism takes place and all righteousness is fulfilled. This is a very dynamic scene with motion and dialogue and consequential action, and all these point to something more than static doctrine or intellectual belief. They point to nothing less than the mystery of the depths of love, as God plunges into the formless void of death itself and rises to life empowered by grace and peace and unity.
Thomas Keating goes on to say, “Christian religion [is] a life to be lived, a relationship with God to be developed and enjoyed. The most important fruit of … training should be a thorough knowledge, understanding and experience of the spiritual journey in the Christian tradition so … [we] can transmit the Christian life as experience.” (1012 Monastery Road). (https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/2018-spiritual-journey-online-program?utm_source=CO+Constituents&utm_campaign=83d11c6552-Advent+2017+2&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b11e0b2045-83d11c6552-309612761&mc_cid=83d11c6552&mc_eid=4ab9e291c2)
“First one must become aware that there is even such a thing as a spiritual journey, something beyond beliefs and doctrines.” The commands of beliefs and doctrines just don’t have the life changing staying power that love commands. Becoming aware of a spiritual journey invites openness to what God is creating next.
So as we journey into 2018, may God help us all to become more aware, and more open. Even when this feels chaotic or destabilizing or uncomfortable, which it often does, may our trust of God’s Holy Spirit working over, in, and through the deep voids of chaos, grow all the more, day by day, until we discover, through relationship, a resolve that doesn’t waver or get defeated because it’s grounded in the very essence of God’s loving Presence. Commissioned by regenerative love, marked as Christ’s own, baptized into dynamic, divine relationship, may our awareness discover the heavens torn open as love pours out to change the world. And may God be glorified, now and forever. Amen.