Sermon #1 in “The Experimental Series”
When I was a child, we would often spend two weeks each Summer at the beach. My mother and sister are sun worshipers, my dad liked time away from the grind of work at the mill, and I loved time away to read and be by the ocean. I would sometimes volunteer to spend a day doing laundry so I could read a new book undisturbed.
One of my favorite things to do was swim in the ocean. My sister and others liked to ride the waves on their rafts. While that was fun, I especially loved to take my raft and swim out past the waves—out to where the water was at least ten feet deep.
I loved to swim out with goggles to the deeper water, dive down, and float, suspended with water completely surrounding me on all sides. Sometimes my dad would go with me, and we would dive down to the bottom, run our fingers along the sand, and uncover dozens and dozens of sand dollars.
I loved the deep water. If I was feeling really brave, I would float there, suspended in the water, and turn facing out to sea. That way, I just looked out at where the water turned dark. And I would imagine that I could see Cuba. But most of the time that was too spooky. It was only a matter of time before a whale came and ate me.
The rest of my family would make sure I didn’t go out too far (which is such a metaphor for my life, actually). I wanted to go out farther, but they would caution me. Better to stay up closer where people are supposed to be.
Now, hold on to that image for a minute of my family wondering “Just how far is he going to go.” We’re going to come back to it.
This year, I am doing an experiment with sermons. I’ve never done anything like this, so I’m trying it out. Every week that I preach, I want to see if I can connect the appointed lectionary text with some liturgical reference from the Book of Common Prayer. I want to help us connect the dots, seeing how the appointed texts connect with how we pray each week.
I think this will help us all see—as the adage goes in liturgical studies—that the way we pray shapes the way we believe, lex orandi, lex credendi. There is another level of this as well, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi: the way we pray shapes the way we believe, which shapes the way we live in the world day to day.
This is absolutely at the core of what it means to practice a catholic, sacramental faith. It is absolutely at the heart of how we worship and live as Episcopalians. Our ethics flow out of our prayers. This is why we struggle with this expectation to somehow keep politics out of sermons. It is honestly not possible within how we understand our tradition.
So, I want to explore this together this year: making a note each week of connecting images and phrases from the Biblical texts to the liturgy of the Prayer Book…and also helping shine a light on how this connects to our lives. Hopefully, we’ll become more familiar with the liturgy—not confined strictly to those words on that page—but seeing how the liturgy, the leitourgia, is the work of the people that costs us…costs us time, energy, attention. How we are called to practice our faith—to have a discipline.
So, let’s pick back up with this question: “How far is he going to go?” as we look today at the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.
Today’s texts show St. Mark’s account of the encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist there on the banks of the Jordan River. It is an interesting text that has been confusing for ever. Why was Jesus baptized? If John was there baptizing people who were confessing their sins, what is Jesus doing there being baptized since he had no sin? Doesn’t make sense.
It makes a great image, to be sure, to paint as a mural in front of a baptismal pool: Jesus being baptized by John, with people then being baptized in front of this mural of Jesus being baptized by John. Turtles all the way down.
But, theologically, it poses questions for us if we approach this from a strictly moral view with cleansing of sin being the point: what was Jesus doing there?
Here’s what I want to explore today: this question of “How far is he going to go?”
Look at the text from Genesis that describes the creation of the world. Theologically, we have described this moment as creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, although the text itself describes some mysterious “formless void” and the “face of the deep.” Don’t know where that space of mysterious chaos came from, but just hold that if you will. In Hebrew, the phrase used to describe this formless void is a bit of wordplay that sounds like what it describes: “Tohu va bohu”…the formless chaos and void out of which God created light.
“Let there be light” the text says. “And there was light.”
So, there is this moment, this image, where God enters into a disordered state of being and brings order and light out of it. That’s how far God is willing to go, in this regard: to bring about order and light…to make life and existence possible.
When you start to look at it, people have been asking this question about God since they were conscious of God’s presence: “How far is God going to go?”
When it comes to the deity, there are always assumptions and expectations: an utterly transcendent and all-powerful deity would, of course, act a certain way.
But, then came Jesus, in this season of the Incarnation and the Epiphany, the manifestation, causing us to ask the question all the more: “How far is he going to go?”
And, we must ask this question when we sit before the manger and gaze at this newborn baby who is God Incarnate, this Jesus, the Son of God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. The deity has crossed a line, entering into the chaos and darkness of our existence, being born into it.
Deities do not act this way. Theologically, this is a big point of difference between Judaism and Islam on one hand and Christianity on the other. The Creator does not enter into creation that way.
“How far is he going to go?” Well, that far: to be born into created existence and share a human life. Imagine that.
So, then we have this moment with Jesus and John the Baptist, this moment when Jesus comes up out of the water and we see the “heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove” with the voice of the Creator pouring forth: “You are my Son; with you I am well pleased.”
And we ask ourselves, “How far is he willing to go?” This far, it seems: to experience the human condition in this way, to undergo the ritual for purification so that nothing is outside the realm of what is reconciled through his life. Imagine that.
And, of course the story doesn’t stop there.
Before long, our eyes will look toward Lent, that season that prepares us for that moment when we ask again—with urgency and pain—“How far is he going to go?”
With the Crucifixion, experiencing death itself, taking death into himself so that death itself is reconciled. So that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” as St. Paul described decades later. Deities most certainly do not act like that. They don’t die, do they?
And, then, of course, the Resurrection. Death itself is conquered and life again blossoms out of chaos and darkness.
And the Ascension, when the resurrected Jesus takes all of reconciled life into the divine realm, back into and with the Fount of all life. “Sitting at the right hand of the Father” as we try to imagine.
So, put in this way, so much of how God “works” in our lives—and all of Jesus’ life—could possibly orbit around this central question: “How far is he going to go?” With the answer, of course, being what? As far as it takes.
Which leads us to our experiment this week with the liturgy. If you would go ahead and turn to page 292 in your Prayer Book, I want you to look at the renewal of the Baptismal Covenant. We will share in this in just a few minutes.
There are two questions there I want to focus on, because they take an interesting twist on this question of “How far is he going to go?” When we think of our Biblical texts and the story of our faith, our attention is so often focused on what God is doing, on how Jesus lived, on what the disciples did, etc. So much is focused on them. But, from a contemplative point of view—a view that seeks to awaken in us a deeper consciousness of our own life in Christ—the “point” is not to ask ourselves “how far is God going to go” but rather “How far are we going to go?”
When it comes to our faith. When it comes to the way that our prayer shapes what we believe which shapes and forms the way we live our lives—the way we are called to bear light in the world, to be Christ in the midst of the tohu va bohu of our own existence.
This is radical stuff, but it is the point of it all.
So, as we share in the Covenant, this becomes the underlying question: “How far are we going to go?” How far are we willing to go?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
“How far are we going to go” to live into this baptismal life?
Are we willing to leave the shallows and swim out into the deep water, to submerge ourselves in God’s presence, letting that love and peace surround us on all sides. And then to emerge from that immersion in the Spirit to “go forth to love and serve the Lord?”
Christ is repeatedly asking this of us.
Are you willing?
And, perhaps, we dare to answer: “I will, with God’s help.”
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B 2018
January 7, 2018