Sunday, January 8, 2012

Elements of Beginning

2 miles below the frigid waters of Antarctica, marine life is having a hot time. Thermal vents on the ocean floor spew out a constant stream of water heated by the earth's hot inner depths. It would scald us but it provides an suitable environment for forms of life never seen before. In fact, most scientists would have said life could not exist at such crushing depths and high temperatures. But using underwater robots with cameras and lights powerful enough to penetrate the stygian depths, scientists have found life where they never expected it. This week NPR interviewed a scientist who described the cornucopia of newly discovered life, including yeti crabs, so called because their arms and claws appear to be covered with white hair, and the hairy-chested Hoff crabs, nicknamed by a PhD student after Baywatch actor David Hasselhoff. Who knows what other life will come to light?

It looks like our lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Epiphany are over the place. God creates light, Jesus gets baptized by his cousin John and Paul baptizes some followers of John into Christ. Where is the common thread? And what does it have to do with God's self-revelation, the central theme of Epiphany?

One obvious common theme is that of beginnings. Our chapter from Genesis is the beginning of everything. Like a brooding mother bird, the Spirit of God hovers over the fluid depths of unrealized potentiality. Out of emptiness and darkness, God calls forth light. His creative energy explodes in the void and the story of the universe can start.

We go from the beginning of God's saga to the beginning of the story of the Son of God, from the first book of the Bible to the first Gospel written. John is the first prophet to appear in Judea in a long time. He baptizes with water for repentance but promises that one is coming after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus shows up, is immersed in the river Jordan, and, as he emerges from the water, the clouds part, the Spirit descends on him like a dove and he hears God's voice: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." The story of the turning point in the redemption of the universe can start.

Paul comes to Ephesus and meets a group of disciples who have never heard of the Holy Spirit. They seem to be followers of John the Baptist. Paul explains the difference, that beyond repentance lies new life in the Spirit, following Jesus. When they realize this, they have Paul baptize them in the name of Jesus. He lays his hands on them and they speak in strange tongues and prophesy. The story of their lives as Christians can begin.

Besides beginnings, we notice other common elements in these stories: water, word, and the Spirit. Is there any significance to these?

Water is necessary for life. It covers more than 70% of the earth's surface and makes up from 55 to 78% of the human body, depending on the person's size. Newborns who can neither walk nor crawl instinctually hold their breath and make swimming motions if put in water. Water is all around us and in us. 2 Peter 3:5 says that the earth was formed out of water and by water. Not only Christianity but Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and most other major religions feature ritual cleansing. Water is not only important to physical life but to spiritual life as well.

In the Judaism of Jesus' day, Jews frequently took mikvehs or ritual baths for uncleanness. Women after their periods or childbirth, men after bodily discharges, anyone after contact with a corpse or grave or skin disease had to be ritually cleansed by full immersion, preferably in living or moving water. Another kind of religious cleansing was baptism, but this was reserved for those who converted to Judaism. So it was as if those who came to John were entering anew into the community of God's people.

But if John's baptism is for repentance, why does Jesus need to be baptized? Jesus is without sin; what does he have to repent? I think the point is that if Jesus is to truly represent humanity, he must do everything a person fulfilling God's will should do. Jesus never says "Because I'm God's Son, exceptions must be made for me." When tempted to make stones into bread or to convert people through showing off, he refuses to do what an ordinary human couldn't. When Jesus speaks the unpalatable truth to power, he refuses to evade the arrest or death that await all human rebels against earthly powers. Jesus is not like the actor who shadows the kind of person he is going to play in a film. Jesus wasn't pretending to be a human being; he gave up his prerogatives as God and became fully human for our sake. So like us he was baptized, emerging into a new community seeking new life.

At first what Paul seems to be doing in Ephesus is some kind of fussy theological tidying up, making sure some converts get re-baptized the proper way. But in fact, they aren't converts at all. They follow John the Baptist, the precursor to Jesus. It's like thinking that Star Wars is all about Obi Wan Kenobi. He is important in getting things started but he is not the one to bring balance to the force--that's Luke. Even John speaks of the one who would follow him and baptize people in the Holy Spirit. These Ephesians don't know about Jesus' role in reconciling God and humanity and they don't know that they are now to embody the Spirit of God in transforming the world. Paul says when we are baptized in Jesus' name we undergo a spiritual death and rebirth analogous to Christ's death and resurrection. It's more profound than just changing the direction of your life; it's about new life.

Besides water, each of these stories involve the word of God. In the creation story, God's word becomes reality. People can say one thing and do another but not God. What he says becomes fact. He says "Let there be light" and it is so. In essence, the world is an expression of God--dynamic, diverse, intricate, fertile, fluid, surprising and awe-inspiring. And as he originally expressed it, it is good. His pronouncement of its goodness echoes even today, though it can get lost in the cacophony which we have created.

When Jesus rises from the rushing waters of the Jordan, he hears God's voice. And he is pronouncing a favorable judgment on Jesus: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Jesus is the fullest expression of God. Mankind was created in his image but it's been marred, distorted, made grotesque as we have tried to play God and made his garden into a garbage dump. God starts again, with a second Adam who will express God's love perfectly, reflect his glory flawlessly. Jesus is God's Word made flesh, the idea made concrete, the Spirit given solidity.

When Paul lays hands on the newly baptized Ephesians we see the phenomenon that accompanied the conversion of other new groups to Christ: speaking in tongues. Out of their mouths cascades a rushing, bubbling sound of people trying to express things that go beyond the ability of normal speech. To others they sound drunk or mad. But not to believers, who feel the impact of the words even if they do not know their full import. Whether these were earthly or angelic languages or ecstatic utterings in the Spirit, we don't know. But a real change comes about. They prophesy, as well, that is, speak the word of God. Intelligible words, words of power.

Finally, in each of these stories, the Spirit of God is active. In Genesis, he sweeps across the dark sea like a wind and hovers like a bird about to give birth. In Mark the Spirit descends as a dove upon Jesus. But don't let that harmless manifestation fool you! In the very next verse the Spirit will drive him into the wilderness to face his temptations and defeat them. And in the incident from Acts, people who were trying to be good without help from God discover the Spirit. There is a difference between trying to change your life under your own power and being changed by the power of God, his Holy Spirit. John's disciples do not so much abandon him as move on to the one John heralded, Jesus Christ.

The creatures who live around the thermal vents of the sea remind us that we can't predict what forms life can take. We don't know everything and we mustn't reject things out of hand because they don't confirm our previous experiences with the world.

Stephen Hawking is turning 70. His ALS should have killed him 50 years ago. His defiance of what medical science says is, dare we say it, miraculous.

For the 4th year in a row, a zebra shark has produced babies by parthenogenesis, the scientific name for virgin birth. Zebedee, who lives in a hotel aquarium, has never encountered a male shark. Scientists are shocked and still contend that a human female has never done this, not one in billions over 10,000 years.

We know that water's property of expanding when it freezes is anomalous, that it is one of the many features of the universe that if altered very slightly would make life impossible, yet the implications of a universe fine-tuned to produce and support life makes some of us shiver uncomfortably.

God's creation teems with wonders, his word still resounds and his Spirit is still afoot. God is a dazzling creator, a master storyteller, a prodigious artist working for a mostly unappreciative audience. We are like people who say we love Shakespeare's works while simultaneously saying he could never have been the one to create them. We look at the beauty, intricacy and integrity of the universe and simultaneously say it was all accident. We trust in the laws of nature but can't say why they should exist, nor bring ourselves to trust in a giver of laws. Nor can we deduce what is the purpose of life. It can only be disclosed, revealed by the one who is behind it all.

The Word of God says the purpose of life is to be an ever closer expression of what God is. And it says that God is love. Love is what makes God create the world. Love is what makes God redeem the world. Love is what God wants to see when he looks at the world. He wants to say of it again what he said of it before: that it is very good.

And he wants us to be part of it. We are not props in this story but actors. We know the beginning of the saga. We know how the tale is to end. The rightful king returns to free his people, claim his bride, have a glorious wedding celebration and live happily ever after in a kingdom without end. It remains for us to play our part in bringing the story to its proper conclusion. And we are to do so in the spirit in which the author intended--the spirit of love and forgiveness and reconciliation. But we must be ready to plunge in, even if it means we are in over our heads, with the Word of God in our mouths and the Spirit of God in our hearts, trusting him to lift us up and carry us through waters dark and rushing to where we can stand firm.

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