It seems a long time since Christmas. The initial warmth, excitement, and assurance of the birth of the Christ child has faded. Our pageant is long gone. The manger and the stable are packed away. Costumes wait to be sorted, mended and hung in the closet until next year. Christmas gifts have been used, stored, exchanged, or returned, and with them we have laid aside the promise that the world is a different place because of that night so long ago. What a silly idea it was anyway.
It’s true that on Sundays we have listened hopefully to the stories of Jesus’ baptism, his first miracle at Cana, and greeted the declaration that the kingdom has come with joy. But nothing much has really happened and in today’s gospel we are faced with a serious rejection of Jesus’ message. Rejection, in fact, by the very friends, family, and community he called home – Nazareth. For the first time we see the clear shadow of the cross fall across the One we know as Lord, as Christ, as Messiah. The first rumblings of the storm to come.
And here we are, two thousand years later. Has anything very much happened? Are things so very different from the times when Jesus walked through that crowd of enraged people?
Judging from the degree of voyeurism in which this nation and you and I have indulged these past days, it would be hard to affirm that we have come a long way since then. Despite our affirmation of love for the truth, decency, kindness, personal integrity, faithfulness in relationships, world peace and an end to poverty, it would be hard to claim our record is outstanding either nationally or personally. And it is deceptively easy to think that the life and
death and life of the Lord has indeed been a waste of time. Why not join the nay sayers and simply give up?
But there is, I think, in each of us a void. A void that refuses to go away. A void which can be only satisfied by God. We were created to give glory to God. Every breath we take is a breath of praise and when we are not connected to the God who is to be praised we know ourselves as empty.
We try lots of other things to fill that void – for praise can be costly as we see in the life of Jesus and others who have taken their own praise very seriously – Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Eli Weisel – to name but a few. Surely, we feel, it is better to fill our own selves than allow that great unknowable love to do it for us and in ways we rather not endure?
So we try. Each of us makes different choices. It might be career, or family, or friends, or good works, or drugs, or alcohol, or one of a million other ways of avoiding the centrality of God; but unless we praise all those things and all those experiences, all those people, add up to less than the void.
For some, the frantic effort to fill the void turns lives into numb shells, where potential and risk are meaningless. The void can be filled only by God – which is an uncomfortable reality, a frightening prospect, but true. At some point, we have to look up from the board game of our lives and surrender. We have to stop running and say, “I love you. The game has been fun, but I’m tired of playing games and I want to have a real relationship with the love that made me.”
And that – that is the moment when we begin to be real. “Before I formed you, “says the Lord to Jeremiah,” in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you: I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah’s surrender came in that moment, but his identity had been a gift appointed before his birth. The surrender was entry into what was real about Jeremiah and who he was – but it wasn’t easy!
When Jesus proclaimed the reality of God’s presence in this world, the crowd were at first amazed and impressed. But the truth that they would find it difficult to accept the truth as told by Jesus was enraging to that congregation long ago. It would be a bit like sitting here and being informed by one of the lowlier members of this community that we wouldn’t be able to detect or respond to the presence of God if God was right there before our eyes this very morning. Jesus spoke the simple truth about us and they tried to kill him because of it. We are not the smartest people in the world when it comes to knowing and responding to God and God’s truth.
The thing they missed was that Jesus knew who he was in God. He had come from God, for God, and would go to God. He already knew what Jeremiah had discovered – that he had an identity from before his birth and, having surrendered to it in his baptism, he was set on fulfilling it. He trusted a love that would send him to his death and would lift him from the grave.
When the writer Reynolds Price struggled with an agonizing cancer of the spine that was supposed to kill him, he had a vision of himself accompanying the disciples by the lake. In the vision he, a man facing his own death, asks Jesus for baptism. Jesus takes water and baptizes him with the forgiveness of sins, and, only after Reynolds frantic plea, casually announces that he will also be cured of the cancer. This vision sustained Price through the excruciating pain of his treatment and the loss of most of his physical powers. But from that moment, despite the pain, the depressions, and humiliation of his illness, Reynolds was convinced that the Word to him by the lake was real. His surrender to that love was not easy. Sometimes it would have been easier to die, but over a dozen years later he is able to say that his life is more enriched, different, and transformed.
People like that are extraordinary. It isn’t surprising that the crowd on the hill didn’t actually throw Jesus from the cliff. People who know who they are not people to be messed with. We are often more afraid of those kind of people than of any others. A person sure of their nature, their destiny, and their God are scary. They tell us too much about what we have resisted in our own lives. Moreover, they fill us with rage because they seem to be beyond our reach. They have something we do not have and we are desperate to prove they are wrong or flawed than admit the truth about ourselves. Sometimes we even assassinate them.
The truth of the matter is that a mere desire to understand and recognize the truth is not enough.
Shortly after I came to this country I remember when, as an innocent foreigner, I blundered into the terrible hurt around the life and death of Martin Luther King. I was making a presentation to the trustees of the Diocesan Church Schools. Good Christian men and women, bishops, businessmen, all kinds of hard working and worthy folks. I had been discussing the teaching of prophecy to students and asked them to participate in a model class. The task was to identify the criteria by which we can recognize God’s prophets at work. I explained that, having once established the criteria, I asked students to consider a twentieth century figure before examining the scripture.
The board was kind enough to follow the same simple exercise and, at the conclusion, I asked the million dollar question. “Was Martin Luther King a prophet.” There was a terrible and painful silence in which I became aware of the sensitivity of my question. But it was too late. After a moment, an old bishop raised his bowed head and whispered, “Yes.” into that hurting silence.
We are not here to know we are right. We are here to be a praise to God. Destroying our personal idols, recognizing that we use many things in the attempt to avoid God’s love and will for our lives, is the beginning of being that praise. We don’t have to worry about our personal destiny. God already knows it. It won’t be easy, but it will, as it says in the prayer, “set us free… from the bondage of our sins and give us … the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” Jesus bet his money on that promise of the liberty of that abundant life – and so can we. Amen.