In this morning’s reading, I love Isaiah’s reference to God:
“Thus says God… who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it…” (Isaiah 42:5).
God Created. Stretched. Spread out. God gave breath, and spirit. This is an active, Living Presence. I can imagine God still actively pulling, stretching, and pouring forth Holy Love, wrapped around and through the cosmos today. As materials stretch, they thin, bringing God even closer.
I invite you to imagine a familiar, stretchy material—say for example, pizza dough. Really. Pizza dough. When I was a kid we often had home-made pizzas on Sunday nights and then (I will date myself with this…) watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Remember that show? Anyway, back to the pizza. After mixing the ingredients, the dough would begin as a round, elastic ball. The dough then needed time to rise. Soon, we began to thin and stretch it as we shaped the dough into a thinner, crust-like surface. Occasionally, the crust would get so thin as we worked it, that a hole would break form in the middle of the dough. A hole through which you could see right through.
I admit pizza dough might be a little too gooey of an example to describe God’s work in the world, but think about it. Can you imagine a similar in-breaking with baptism? Really! God stretching and pulling of cosmic matter to a point through which the boundary between heaven and earth becomes stretched God-thin. A space through which God and the Spirit breaks in.
It is this sense of closeness, intimacy, Holy Breaking In that bursts forth in the nearness of today’s Bible stories. Both Isaiah and Matthew describe this God who stretches ever more closely to be near to us. A God who wants to pull so close to us, that God is born in our midst. God lives in our midst. Walks among us. A God who steps out of the heavens to be with us. Teaching. Healing. Telling stories. God, Jesus, feeding. Eating. Praying. Sleeping on boats. Confronting authorities. Welcoming people living on the margins. This is the Holy redefining how life is, and how life should be. This is a God who shatters any barriers. Anything that comes between God’s love for us and the reverberating white noise which distracts us from the Holy in the world.
For heaven is here. God is here.
Watch for it…
In the snowiness of this Wisconsin morning, it is difficult to imagine being at the Jordan River. To sense the dryness of a desert. To feel the anticipatory excitement as people step into the water to be baptized. Brrrrr!!! Today an outdoor dip in a river only sounds cold! But try. Put on your best hat of imagination. Visualize it: Sand. Water. Here John proclaims. People gather. Jesus shows up. God breaks in.
And get ready. For this action, Jesus’ baptism, launches something new. It is here, it is now, that Jesus’ ministry begins. This is the Holy Edge, a sacred space around which we gather to worship.
In my own imagining, I pause. I picture the Jordan, the grasses, the water, and am intrigued by the images the writer of Matthew captures for us. The idea “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to (John), and all the region along the Jordan (showed up)” (Matthew 3:5, NRSV). I want to see these people. I want to ask them about their experience. What happened when they encountered John? Did they go home from the experience changed? Were they skeptical that anything was different? What happened to them in this Holy place? What happens to us?
Even more intriguing to me, is John’s initial reaction to encountering Jesus. He is to be reluctant. He refuses. The story goes, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matt. 3:14, NRSV).
What? No! John was surprised by Jesus’ request. What was Jesus thinking? This is not what John expected. Subsequently, John protests. John had been telling everyone, especially those that really knew current Jewish practices, that he baptized, “withwater for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me… He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire.” Someone else will do that. Not me. Not John. The Divine is going to show up and change things. THAT was what was supposed to happen.
But then… game changer. Jesus shows up. And God breaks in.
I have one more baptism story to share. My mom remembers her baptism. She was 5-years old. Unlike those of us (me) who were baptized at a younger age (I was 6 months old) she clearly remembers hers. It was Easter morning in 1945. At one time, Easter was THE day in the Church in many denominations on which to perform baptisms. The connection between Easter and baptism may not be so clear for us today. The practice of baptizing on Easter was tied to resurrection, with a focus on death and being born again. Baptism entailed experiencing a resurrection—a new life in Christ.
Now, I am pretty sure that my mom, at 5 years of age, did not have resurrection moment on her mind that morning. Yet the moment did become event to remember. You see, there were other people baptized that day. While mom stood near the front of the church and watched, a baby was baptized just before she was. Mom remembers that the pastor stood next to the baptismal font. In his hand he held a daffodil. He dipped the flower into the water and then placed the wet petals on the baby’s forehead. My mom stood there and thought to herself, “Oh no. They’re not going to do that to me…”
Now my mom’s experience was not a sky-ripping-open, God-speaking, dove descending moment like the one described in today’s reading. Instead, her “Oh no. They’re not going to do that to me…” was more like the elder John’s: “Oh no! Oh no Jesus… you’re not going do that to me. You are not going to make me baptize you.” This was not what John had been prophesizing. This was not what was supposed to happen. Jesus had it backwards. Jesus was supposed to do the action. Jesus was going to change the way things were. Not John. Not us.
How often are we like that? We expect things to go one way. Our way. We go through our life expecting that everything will be “just this way.” We want our routines to be just that—routine. We want our expectations—to be fulfilled with what we expect.
Then God shows up and changes everything. Jesus comes near. The boundary between heaven and earth thins, and something Spirit-like descends. And we think to ourselves, “Oh no God… not that…”
Yet no matter how much we protest, God comes near. Later this evening, the confirmation youth and mentors will begin a 5-session series on “Beliefs and Belonging.” We will be talking about what each of us believe, or not. We will explore where these beliefs (or no belief) come from, and how the church “knows” what it says it knows about God, Jesus, Sprit, Creation, and Human Nature. We will be reflecting on what the church is supposed to be and do, and what individuals and human society are supposed to be and do.
We will be asking the question “why church?” Why Church at a time when so many people are leaving the Christian tradition, or have never been a part of the Christian faith… why is our faith, our encounters with the Holy, important to us at Memorial UCC?
Why do we follow this Jesus?
How might God be breaking in to our world in news ways?
What new ministry, or ministries, is God launching here? Today?
God breaks in. God breaks in today… and every day. Whether or not you yourself have been baptized, God comes near. Love pours out. God’s movement is underway. An eternal, comic-splitting transformation that changes everything.
So come. Come to that shore, that border, that Holy Edge ripping open between life’s evils and God’s love.
THIS is where Jesus’ ministry begins.
Instead of saying, “Oh no …,” WATCH.
Where do you see God breaking in?
Reflection on Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17 offered Sunday, January 12, 2020.