January 12, 2014
I had been an active Episcopalian my whole life yet there I was, a freshman at the University of Georgia sitting in my dorm, praying a conservative evangelical prayer for God to come into my life in a new way.
You don’t do that sort of thing because you feel great but because you feel terrible. I had nothing to feel terrible about—I was making good grades and having fun, but something wasn’t right on the inside, so I asked God for help.
I would come to realize later that not feeling good on the inside is part of what it means to be me and it is what keeps me praying to God for help.
So in that sense feeling bad can be a great gift because it drives you to move beyond the resources of the self.
Think about those moments in your life when you were given the grace to ask for God’s help and how those moments have been pivotal in bringing you to this moment where you are sitting in church.
Maybe you remember something that happened at school or home or work, both good things and bad things that had an impact on your spiritual trajectory. Life itself is what God uses to lead us to himself.
My interest this morning, however, is not just on the experiences themselves, but our view of the God behind those experiences.
For some god is just another name for truth or beauty or goodness inside their own heads.
For others god is conceived of as an impersonal life force surging through them which they can tap when life gets hard—“May the force be with you.”
These conceptions of god are popular because they feel scientific and sophisticated and they allow us to keep control of our lives. These gods don’t mess in the areas we want to keep private. They are there for us when we need them but don’t bother us the rest of the time.
We all slip into worshipping them.
I remember when I was at a sports camp when I was 12 and I was playing for the camp Ping-Pong championship. I started out ahead but then fell behind and I remember stopping after each point, closing my eyes, and praying so I would prevail….and it worked. My god was obviously there when I needed him and he helped me win.
In the Bible, however, we are given a different view: the biblical God is not sitting back waiting on us but, as C. S. Lewis puts it, God is “pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching us at infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband.” He writes, “There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (Man’s search for God!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” Daily Readings of C. S. Lewis January 1
In Jesus’ baptism this is the God we see. This God opens heaven and pours the Spirit on Jesus and then says, “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”
God is pleased here, not like a senile grandparent who loves all the grandchildren for doing nothing, but like the parent who is pleased when their child has worked very hard over many years and become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or scientist.
God is pleased with Jesus not because he is a nice member of society but because Jesus is fully surrendered to the Father’s will and therefore is willing to enter into full solidarity with sinful humanity in order to save them for God.
John says his baptism is a baptism for repentance of sin. Jesus has nothing to confess or repent so John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness”, which means to fulfill “God’s whole saving plan”. N. T Wright’s translation of the New Testament
God is calling Jesus to show solidarity with the people by joining them in the Jordan as they confess their sins.
He enters our dirty bathwater and loves us.
In Jesus God is coming to us, not as an impersonal force or an ideal we can use, but as the Loving Father who enters our experience of brokenness in order to rescue us.
I still wrestle with that college experience and the God who is behind it.
Because I’m standing up here week after week you might think my trajectory from that point to this was a straight-line ever upward and onward into the will of God.
The truth, however, is that is a jagged line up and down, right and left, forward and backward. Sometimes it feels like no trajectory at all but just floating in the blackness of space.
When you look at your life you’ll see the same ragged pattern.
Richard Rohr is right when he says, the life of faith is three steps forward and two steps backward with the two steps backwards being the most important.
A man names Chris Arnade has been in the news lately. He spent the first decades of his life as a confirmed atheist. He went to work on Wall Street then one day left his job and started working with and photographing homeless addicts in the South Bronx.
He said “When I first walked into the Bronx I assumed I would find the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism it was the addicts who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be.
None of them are. Rather they are some of the strongest believers I have met, steeped in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore.”
“In these last three years, out from behind my computers, I have been reminded that life is not rational and that everyone makes mistakes. Or, in Biblical terms, we are all sinners. We are all sinners. On the streets the addicts, with their daily battles and proximity to death, have come to understand this viscerally. Many successful people don’t. Their sense of entitlement and emotional distance has numbed their understanding of our fallibility.
Soon I saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well.”
The first addict he met was Takeesha. They talked for close to an hour and then he took her picture. Then he asked her how she wanted to be described. She said without any pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/24/atheism-richard-dawkins-challenge-beliefs-homeless
Jesus enters our dirty bathwater and opens heaven and sends the Spirit into our hearts, and calls us a beloved child of God.
In Christ, God has come to us.
We don’t carry God, God carries us, just like the lost sheep the God Shepherd throws over his shoulders to bring back to the flock.
I suspect when we come to the end we’ll see our life’s trajectory from God’s point of view: some of what we are proudest of may not look so good, and some of what most shames us most may, through God’s eyes, shine with grace.
But when we take it as a whole I believe what will stand out the most is the presence of Christ every step of the way.
Most of us have no memory of our baptisms. Yet, every day we have the opportunity to experience the same grace of that day. We can know every day the joy of believing that Christ is with us and inviting us to imitate his surrender to God and solidarity with others.
Why should we wait till we’re on our deathbed to realize Christ has been with us every step of the way?
Why wait till the end to start living the God-life that is ours now?