Simple Choices

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January 11, 2015

Simple Choices

Passage: Mark 1:1–11

I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the the Holy Spirit. —Mark 1:8

I was six weeks old when I was baptized. The only reason I know this is my aunt sent me a photo as a way to remember. It’s a black and white photo taken by a brownie camera, with my very, young grandparents at the time, holding me, seems so foreign; had I not been told I was in the little white bundle, I would have thought this a charming old photograph from a bygone era. Needless to say, I don’t remember anything about that day, the service or the promises made to me.

But the call to remember, associated with this sacrament, is more than tripping down memory lane or evident in an ability to tell a story with some semblance of facts from the event. To remember is to allow an event to influence our behavior and animate our life. With each baptism we witness and in our prayers of our own baptism, we are to reclaim the significance of the sacrament by putting it into our DNA and therefore, our daily routine.

A simple analogy is a puppy; we teach the puppy to remember. For instance, if the puppy has chewed your new winter mittens that you would have enjoyed wearing in the winter vortex, and you scold the puppy, hoping it will remember to choose differently next time it surfs the counter and finds mittens.

On the flip side, when a puppy is asked to come, sit or stay, and chooses to comply, it hopes this behavior will be rewarded with praise. This is overly simple, but will hopefully illuminate what it means to remember in the same way we are to remember our baptism.

Remembering. Remembering helps us make good choices.

“In the beginning when God created”….begins the story of God and all that is, framing our dependence, entirely on God. Although these are the opening lines of our Bible, scholars do not believe it is the first of the Hebrew writings. In fact, there are many versions of creation sprinkled throughout our sacred texts and some that are believed much older.

This story’s origin is traced to the Israelites who wrote this during the Babylonian exile. They had experienced God bringing them out of Egyptian slavery, through the banks of the Red Sea, and into the Promised Land, long ago. But, in Babylonian captivity, they again were faced with how to live in chaos, how to imagine hope in what seemed hopeless slavery.

This is a story of people, who now “remember” the time of God creating something good out of nothing. With the temple ruined and their power shattered, they looked for a foundation to trust. What they chose to remember would shape how they sought freedom.

As they looked around at the created world, they found order in the rhythm of day and night. In darkness, they found peace. Living in a hostile world, threatened by other cultures, the ancient Israelites chose to remember God’s spirit infuses all, everything, all people, and is made for the good. From this memory, they grounded their choices in a loving, powerful and creative God, and mustered the confidence to create new life for themselves.

Although I don’t think the Wall Street Journal anticipates the lectionary readings as I do, two weeks ago, it published an article “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God” in which the author, Eric Metaxas, recounts scientific deliberations during the twentieth century to determine the plausibility for life to exist elsewhere besides Earth. After recounting the increasingly sophisticated approaches to calculate the odds of even our existence, he then quotes the creator of the Big Bang theory, Fred Hoyne, as saying “common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”[1]

Science may try and try again to seek the origin of the universe and the evolution of human existence. Bravo. The science-geek within me loves to read the latest discoveries and I applaud the benefits of scientific inquiry in medicine and technology.

We don’t need to make a choice between believing the creation story of “in the beginning” and pursuing groundbreaking research. For someone to reject religion and faith because she or he employs critical reasoning and empirical research to life denies the richness of plumbing all our human existence. Or the opposite — shunning science with the expectation scriptural writings alone suffice ignores a technical understanding of the beauty of God’s creation.

Scripture is an account through the ages, not of how God created, but why. What do we believe to be true about our relationship with our creator, our responsibility to be stewards of creation and our call to see the divine image in each other? Hold on to the “why” when reading scripture and you will be provoked to seek more and more of the nature of our creator and you. Push through the literal for the metaphors of the original authors and be persuaded of the call we have always had to treat one another with love.

On the second Sunday of Epiphany we are celebrating the baptism of Jesus. Seems a bit out of place to jump from the manger just two weeks ago and the arrival of wise men at the cradle last week, to now find a thirty year-old Jesus out in the wilderness. If we can recall, the world in which Jesus was born was hostile and oppressed anyone but the elite Romans.

Mark tells us Jesus joined throngs of Judeans and all the people of Jerusalem, leaving the city for the wilderness to repent of their sins before John the Baptist. Although a familiar word, about the only time I encounter the word “repent”, is in church. The Common English Bible, a fresher and scholarly translation based upon the oldest texts, translates the Greek instead of “repent” to read the people were “changing their hearts and minds.”

People of all ranks were looking for a better way than what they were experiencing and were willing to live by changing their own hearts and minds. At baptism, they turned aside from all the ways life told them to stay in their place, to think they were not good enough and that their life would not be redeemed and instead be claimed by God. Jesus joined with the throngs from all humanity in the simple act of washing away the old way and being recreated in a new life as a child of God.

Through baptism, we immerse ourselves into the water, are joined to the body of Christ and are made new. As Jesus was given a name, “beloved son,” in baptism, we receive a Christian name, marking our new identity. Here, God promises us we are not too small for notice, in fact, we matter immensely to God in this life and beyond the horizon of the grave. We are promised life and life eternal through Christ’s resurrection.

The church promises to teach and guide us. The body of the church takes responsibility to teach us to care for the least as Christ did. We promise to teach love of neighbor in which neighborhoods are not limited by zip code or time zone. We promise to create a safe place to question, push back and always welcome a child in the never-ending life of faith. Those are the promises we make in baptism.

Then we are sent out into the world.

More than 2,000 years after Jesus’ baptism, our world remains hostile, children kill each other for coats, fanatics corrupt Islam into an unrecognizable idolatry to become terrorists, and racism continues to oppress African Americans and those of color. Too many of us cannot seem to live in this abundantly good world with anything other than a perspective of scarcity. Circle the wagons and reject the outsider. That is our world.

The world is good at making the faithful feel like we should be afraid because there is not enough…but God has a different answer. In baptism we find the power behind everything and can use this power to help us make choices.

We’d like baptism to insure us against disaster. Sprinkle water to immunize us from disease. To be claimed as a child of God and prayed over, we hope, will protect us from bullies and heartbreak and deception and lies. But, these are not the promises of baptism. Jesus, nor we, will find refuge from the world, no, we are sent out into the mess in which we were conceived to be the hands and eyes and face of Christ.

Remembering God’s creation and our baptism helps us make choices. Rather than start with the really big problems we face in life, those tough choices waiting on your iPhone or playing like a record looping in the back of your mind, let’s set those aside at the start. I may be able to imagine some of your dilemmas, but I also know, I may have no idea of some of your worries that plague your sleep.

In remembering our baptism and making choices to live as though we remember it, let’s start small and focus on a simple choice between two words. Are you with God? Or, are you in God? Yes, I am choosing between the prepositions in and with.

It matters. Please stay with me, just a few minutes more.

Naturally it is common to say with: “God be with you.” As we venture outside these sanctuary doors, we love to be blessed with “God be with you.” God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again is a closing hymn I choose it as often as possible to assure us we are always in God’s care.

Yet, given what we affirm of God created all — earth, sun, moon, water, and stars. Is there any place to which we can go and escape God? Even the astrophysicists — practical and theoretical — proclaim the consistent subatomic structure and throughout the extended known time and space reveal order and beauty. We cannot flee; we are always in God’s creation.

We were part of God before our birth, live each day in God’s creation and are promised a place beyond the grave in a place prepared for us by God. We are always in God.

God is always present in our created being — the divine image we all bear — and the divine image we can see in the other if we just take off our protective glasses when confronted with someone different.

To choose “I am in God” allows us to see beyond race and place of birth or even religion.

We may fall into doubt or believe that we turn away from God, but we will always remain ‘in’ God and God in us.

The intense focus on the relational aspect of our life in God is fundamental to our ability to grasp that life and the baptismal promise of eternal life is a present reality; which we possess now, in an unconditional fashion and cannot be separated from our lives. The eternal aspect of life and all the good of our relationship with God is something we are to remember, as the Israelites did in Babylon, and claim faith in a God who will create good when all seems desolate and chaotic.

Which preposition will you choose?

Which way will you live? To be only “with” God allows you to set aside God for a while as you neglect to live as a Christian on Monday through Friday. In the face of suffering, those who are casually “with” God may feel abandoned, overwhelmed when the world seems chaotic, and then defaulting to suspicion or aggression. Or, if you live “in” God, will the approach be confident grace? The Parisians are choosing to be in God with a commitment to freedom and justice and overcoming tragedy.

Which way will you die? To be merely “with” God, never claiming the eternal life, before birth and extending beyond the grave, leads to an end of life only bound by anger at the loss of control over our bodies and our lives. Or, can the suffering of Jesus on the cross and God’s emptying of the tomb nurture our confidence in the unity we have through baptism to know our lives are eternally in God?

Baptism is a summons to be part of the remarkable, redemptive work of God. To remember and give our lives to something more challenging than any other kind of work— and in the end, surely more beautiful, true, and enduring than any other kind of work. It is saying yes to the world and yes to a life lived in the love of God.



[1] WSJ December 25, 2014.