Holy God, you sent your child, Jesus, to open new ways of understanding Scripture. Our Pilgrim forebears believed that there was “yet more truth” to “break forth” from your “Holy Word.” So we open our hearts to hear anew the word beyond all words. We train our ears to hear the still small voice that arises from the sound of silence. We settle our bodies into a stillness from which the movement of your Spirit arises. Amen.
On the church liturgical calendar this coming Sunday, January 9–the Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. Why do we celebrate Jesus’ baptism?
Jesus’ baptism is an invitation to each of us to live out our sacred calling to this very life. Your life, your calling, is inextricably bound up in God’s great work of healing the world. And no onee else can do it for you. Your sacred calling is not separate from your ordinary, everyday, miraculous, and unique life.
Jesus was baptized as an adult by his relative, John, who had followed God’s call to live in the wilderness as the prophets of old had done. Scripture says he wore camel skin for clothing and ate locusts and wild honey for food. For a time he separated himself from society so that he could get closer to God. Then at the prompting of the Holy Spirit he called people to join him in the wilderness. He administered baptism to them to prepare them to have their own personal encounter with God.
The Gospel of Luke describes Jesus’ encounter with God at his baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Lk. 3:21-22). We celebrate Jesus’ baptism to remember this divine affirmation–“with you I am well pleased”–and to consider the possibility that this “yes” might extend to each of us as well.
I am a very competitive person. I have an unhealthy habit of comparing myself to others. Professionally, I compare my level of “success” to my colleagues’. Even on a personal level I find myself wondering “Should I be happier? Are my relationships healthy enough? How does my faith compare to others?” Social media takes these tendencies and makes them much worse. I know I’m not the only one. You may remember late last year Facebook was in the news because a whistleblower revealed that Facebook’s own internal research has shown that their Instagram platform is having negative mental health impacts on young people. Young people are comparing themselves to the images they see on Instagram and seeing themselves in a negative light. The recent “Great Resignation” may be a sign that more of us are questioning a system that brings profit logic to ever more intimate areas of our lives.
We celebrate Jesus’ baptism to remind ourselves that there is another voice in the universe that says, “Yes.” As powerful as our inner critics might be, as powerful as the voices of consumer capitalism might be, there is another voice, a voice that in the beginning said, “Let there be light,” a voice that saw all that God had made and said, “It is very good,” a voice that spoke from heaven at Jesus’ baptism and said, “You are my child, the beloved with you I am well pleased.” In this Epiphany season, I invite us to embrace God’s “yes.” I invite us to drop the comparing and competing and make space for the Holy Spirit to lead us each into a calling that is uniquely our own. As author Oscar Wilde famously said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
Some of you have heard me tell this story before. It’s one of my favorites. Context: My youngest daughter, Olivia, attended four different schools from second to third grade. It was in the middle of the Great Recession, and for employment reasons our family ended up moving from Indiana to Maine to Rhode Island. Little Olivia started out the school year at Hoosier Road Elementary (Indiana), beginning in December attended Milbridge (Maine) Elementary, and then finished second grade at a public elementary school in Cranston, RI that I can’t even remember the name of. Next fall she began third grade at yet another school–Community Preparatory School in Providence, RI. The good news is that Community Prep is an extraordinary school that ended up being a game-changer for both Olivia and her older sister, Fiona.
The story goes like this. It was Olivia’s first week at Community Prep. I picked her up after school. She threw her backpack in the back seat and climbed in after it, chattering the entire time. I asked her, “Did you make any new friends today?” Olivia replied, “Daddy, they’re all my friends. Some just don’t know it, yet.”
Our theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Are Not Alone.” Here’s why: God is with us. When the angel visited Joseph in a dream to tell him that his fiance was pregnant with the Son of God, the angel quoted the prophet Isaiah: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” I know what it’s like to feel lonely. I know what it’s like to feel separated from the one’s you love. The pain can be excruciating. In those moments remembering that the same God who was with Mary and Joseph is with me and my loved ones helped me sit with that feeling of separation long enough for it to transform into motivation to pick up the phone and make a connection. The love that is strong as death (Song of Songs 8:6) that nothing in the universe can separate us from (Romans 8:38-39) that binds all things together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:14) is always and everywhere available to us. It means that we’re always already connected. Our job as Christians is simply to make that already existing connection real in the world.
My spiritual director likes to say that spiritual practice is about cultivating a “basic friendliness” toward ourselves and others. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent when we remember God’s love incarnate in Jesus, I invite us to remember that those who dream are not alone because God’s love always already connects us. When we’re feeling disconnected and alone, I invite us to consider Olivia’s wise words, “They’re all my friends. Some just don’t know it, yet.”
A few weeks ago I was driving home from church when I noticed that something was different about the right rear of the car. Flat tire? I didn’t hear the sound of a rim rolling on the pavement, so I wasn’t sure. I was almost home, so I just continued driving until I pulled in the driveway. Sure enough, the right rear tire was deflated but not flat. I was short on time, so instead of putting the doughnut on myself I called AAA. When the AAA guy took the tire off he showed it to me. A patch of the rubber outer layer had worn clear through exposing the steel belts beneath. When I brought the car to the shop to get the tire replaced the mechanic explained that when the wheels are out of alignment the tires wear unevenly. If you don’t catch it in time you get blowouts like the one I got. Alignment is key to keeping your tires in good shape for driving.
Our theme for the third Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Sow Joy.” The Scripture is once again from the prophet Isaiah. The context for this particular prophecy is the return of the exiles from Babylon to their homes in Judah. Earlier prophecy had created in them great expectations for what their return would be like–comfort, rejoicing, salvation–all the good stuff. What they found upon return was a homeland in shambles. Rebuilding was slow and difficult. Even more challenging than putting roofs over their heads was reweaving the torn social fabric that had made their homeland a home in the first place. Those who had dreamed of returning were becoming disillusioned. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe they should have stayed in Babylon. To these folks the prophet says, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD to display his glory. . . . For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to grow up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the nations.”
What do tires and exiles and oaks have in common? Alignment. I think we can all resonate with the frustration and disappointment of the exiles. Rebuilding is hard. The obstacles between our dreams and reality often seem insurmountable. The prophet is inviting us to shift our view: to see rebuilding as replanting. Creating a sense of belonging is an organic process. Our role is simply to plant seeds of hope, love, and justice. Our role is to turn the soil of our hearts, to tend the gardens of our relationships. God will bring fruit in its time. Our job is simply to align ourselves with God. The process itself will do the heavy lifting. This is why Jesus can say, “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon yourselves and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This is not to say that alignment with God doesn’t require anything of us. In fact, it requires everything. It requires us to pray as Jesus did, “Not my will but your will be done.” Nevertheless, living in alignment with God and one another allows us to tap into the source of all things–a limitless energy that causes the plants to grow and the fish to swim and our hearts to sing with praise.
Years ago I attended a church vitality conference. One of the speakers was the pastor of a small New Hampshire church that had experienced a dramatic turnaround. A congregation in shambles had become vibrant. Someone asked the pastor her secret. She said, “I follow the energy.” Where do you find life energy in and around you? How can we align ourselves with the new life God is always already bringing forth? When we continually keep these questions in mind, we will find ourselves continually sowing seeds of joy.
The theme for the First Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Keep Awake.” On one level this sentence contains a contradiction. How can those who keep awake dream? We know that dreams happen when we’re sleeping. That was assumed to be the case in many of the dream stories we studied throughout the fall. In the cases of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, the Bible tells us that their dream messages from God disturbed their sleep, which motivated them to seek an interpretation from Joseph and Daniel respectively. In what sense do those who dream keep awake?
Those who dream keep awake by keeping their eyes open and their hearts attuned to what God is doing in the world. Our Scripture text for Sunday is Mark 13. Scholars call it the “little apocalypse.” It is a sermon by Jesus that he gives to his disciples during his final days on earth. He gives them instructions on how his followers can live faithfully in the midst of upheaval. “Apocalypse” comes from a Greek word meaning “revelation.” Jesus is giving his disciples a “peek behind the curtain” so that they can see that God is active in the world even when circumstances are difficult. When we see through the eyes of faith even difficult circumstances can be a source of hope because they reveal more clearly God’s actions on our behalf.
I enjoy watching “post-apocalyptic” movies. This is a genre of movies in which some great cataclysm has taken place. Survivors are confronted with the challenges and perils of creating new ways of living in the face of greatly altered circumstances. My daughter, Olivia, is a film student. Last year she and I were talking about post-apocalyptic movies. We noted that one of the common apocalyptic scenarios is global pandemic to which I responded, “We don’t have to wonder about what living through an apocalypse would be like anymore. We’re living it!” It’s no surprise to me that real life apocalypses are much more mundane than movie apocalypses.
In his apocalyptic sermon Jesus encourages his disciples to “keep awake.” This means cultivating awareness of what God is up to and to keep focused on what is truly important in life. Last Sunday after our Thanksgiving worship a group of volunteers decorated the church for Advent. A church member and I found ourselves chatting and setting up an artificial Christmas tree in Cook Hall. He said to me, “I’m so grateful for being alive and that we can be together, but I forget to be thankful. That’s why I need worship so I can remember what is truly important.”
Though theology can be incredibly complex and subtle, thought the language of faith can at times sounds strange and unfamiliar, the practice of keeping awake is very simple: gathering in person or online for worship, taking time daily for prayer and meditation, again and again giving ourselves whole-heartedly to just this moment: just chopping the carrots, just washing the dishes, just talking with friends, just watching the birds at the feeder, just this grief, just this joy, just this loneliness, just this one precious life.