Based on Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
I am often amazed by that fact that Lectionary scriptures are chosen years in advance and how frequently they speak directly to the times we are living. I read through the scripture passages in the Lectionary on Monday morning and it was clear what my sermon title should be. Then Wednesday happened and it became clear to me that I had been led by the Holy Spirit to reflect on the state of our nation and the relationship of Christianity to this moment in our lives. We have all lived through 10 months of rules and restrictions that have caused us to change the ways we engage with each other and our world. These restrictions, the anxiety and fear of infection and death, unexpected and unresolved grief, and our physical distancing have led to our emotional states being very raw. In this “raw” emotional state, every inconvenience or restriction, every perceived slight or opposing worldview, becomes a spark that ignites a fire of anger, tribalism, intolerance, demonization and hatred, which leads to division, chaos and violence.
Ever since the Charlottesville protests in 2017, a more violent subset of our Christian white American brothers and sisters have taken the lead in protesting. Long gone are the days of the non-violent Civil Rights protestors who stayed non-violent even while being beaten and killed by law enforcement officers and every-day citizens. Activists who prepared themselves with worship and prayer and sang hymns of faith while they peacefully protested. Nowadays, preparation for protests seem to include violent rhetoric fueled by innuendo, unsupported allegation, outright lies fed by an over-hyped sense of nationalism and perceived loss of social status. It is no surprise then that chaos, confusion and unrestrained emotions reign while considered opinion, well supported facts, rational thought, respectful dialogue and a sense of order are trampled underfoot.
Our scripture passages for this week begin at the beginning as God gets to work creating the heavens and the earth. The creative power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit is apparent as Paul arrives in Ephesus only to find that the believers there have never heard of the Third Person of the Trinity and have only received a baptism of repentance. Finally, we have the Markan account of the Baptism of Jesus where the heavens are torn open and the Holy Spirit descends and God’s voice calls Jesus beloved. In this time of unrest and disorder, let us go to God now in prayer seeking the one thing that we can always count on…God’s unconditional and creative love spoken into our lives and world…
A literal translation of the Hebrew of the first verses of the Bible are as follows, “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was trackless emptiness and darkness and God’s breath was hovering over the waters, God said…” In order to create all that will ever be, God spoke. God spoke love into the trackless emptiness and darkness and light appeared. Over the next 5 days, God spoke love over and over and order came to what had been formless, disordered and chaotic. A clear theological teaching is set from the very first page of the Bible…God’s love brings order and creativity and a lack of God’s love leads to disorder, emptiness and chaos.
Paul arrives by a circuitous route to Ephesus after the teacher Apollos had been there. Apollos was a Jew from Alexandria and he was quite the teacher and orator. However, he had only known the baptism of John. Thus, anyone he had baptized had only become repentant of their former sinful lives, they had not been baptized with the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus. Paul arrives in Ephesus and realizes that the believers there are not fully inaugurated into the Body of Christ – and he baptizes them in the name of Jesus so that the Holy Spirit can come into them and give them spiritual gifts.
The Gospel according to Mark sets the stage for the baptism of Jesus and then with usual Markan brevity, within three verses sets up the understanding of just who this Jesus of Nazareth really is. John baptizes Jesus in his usual way, but something extraordinary happens as Jesus rises out of the water. Jesus looks up and sees the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descending upon him. God speaks and states that Jesus is God’s beloved Son who is pleasing in God’s sight. In this way, all those who are baptized in the name of the Son receive the same Holy Spirit and the same confirmation of being beloved by God.
The Bible tells us clearly and repeatedly that when we are connected strongly to God then we know fully that we are beloved children. We know this and we also know that all of creation, including every other human, are also beloved and of great sacred worth. There is a tension in all of creation – the strong bonds of love and order holding things together and the strong bonds of evil trying to tear it all apart. Scientists call these opposing forces cohesion and entropy; religious folks have called them good and evil, redemption and iniquity or love and hate. The significant decrease over the last 65 years in the number of people around the world who follow an organized religion and the teachings of that religion has resulted in a void being created. St. Augustine, back in the 400’s noted in a writing that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in” God. The image of God within each human seeks to be connected to God and in the absence of that connection, humans will fill in the hole with whatever presents itself be it ordered or disordered. No matter what, a god will be found to worship, but more often than not right now, what is being worshipped is not the God of love and creation!
If we truly understand that we and all humans are created in God’s image and are beloved of God, then how do we evaluate the events leading up to and including Wednesday? Have we heard words of love, understanding and unity being spoken by people in power? Do we hear prayers and hymns being spoken and sung by protestors – especially from those who publicly profess their Christian identities? Do we see aggrieved people gathering peacefully to seek relief; people who are ready to listen and to dialogue lovingly and creatively with those who have very different opinions? Have we elected people who understand that this Country was founded by principled and deliberate men who knew that reason had to triumph over emotion or else the ordered and predictable government they were working to build would decay into chaos, authoritarianism and anarchy? For a Country that was formed “under God”, the events of the last 9 weeks – honestly the last 40 years, call into question what Christians have been doing while our values were co-opted and turned into the opposite of the teachings of Jesus the Christ. Teachings of nonviolence and unconditional love which forgave the very people who killed him because they did not understand what they were doing. They were connected to worldly power, not to God’s creative and almighty love.
Jesus said that we were to be cunning as serpents but gentle as doves. Yet we have become too cunning for our own good and let evil rule our day – we have forgotten that loving gentleness is also required. Michael Gerson writes, “…The collapse of one disastrous form of Christian social engagement (evangelicalism) should be an opportunity for the emergence of a more faithful one. And here there are plenty of potent, hopeful Christian principles lying around unused by most Christians [evangelicals]: A consistent and comprehensive concern for the weak and vulnerable in our society, including the poor, immigrants and refugees. A passion for racial reconciliation and criminal justice reform, rooted in the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity. A deep commitment to public and global health, reflecting the priorities of Jesus’ [Christ’s] healing ministry. An embrace of political civility as a civilizing norm. A commitment to the liberty of other people’s religions, not just Christianity [our own]. An insistence on public honesty and a belief in the transforming power of unarmed truth….”
Right now, we are desperately seeking order in the midst of chaos. To find that order, perhaps we should begin at the beginning, like Jesus, remembering our Baptismal vows. The first two vows are all about how we find our way out of the evil and chaos which surrounds us and back into loving relationship with God and with each other. Through our baptisms we became a new creation in God through the power of the Holy Spirit and the sacrifice of Jesus. We need to live into those vows and to listen again for the creatively loving voice of God who calls all of us beloved. Then we need to go out and work with the Holy Spirit to transform the voices of evil and division into the voices of unity and love so that we might heal our nation and our world. Amen and amen!