Baptism of the Lord: January 10, 2021



I do not think I have ever deleted everything and started over as many times as I did, trying to figure out what I would say right now. Pages of text about the Holy Spirit, the meaning of Baptism, the nature of “the beginning” in our reading from Genesis, different approaches to the Holy Spirit, all tossed out this week.

Presbyterian ways of understanding the Holy Spirit usually focus on things like discernment. When I talk about experiences with the Spirit, I tend to talk about the Spirit as the divine will behind what we might otherwise call luck or coincidence. We tend to look for, or to call on the Holy Spirit in Prayers of Illumination, asking that the Holy Spirit will help us to hear and understand the passages from scripture read on a given Sunday. We might pray to the Spirit for guidance facing a tough decision. I, and many of the other preachers I know, frequently invoke the Holy Spirit when we are trying, and especially when we are struggling to write a sermon.

We tell each other to trust the Holy Spirit, to trust that the right words will come, or at least that whatever it is I say, at least some of you will hear what you need to hear. Some weeks that trust comes easily. Today, it does not.

I was a junior in high school in the fall of 2001. I was, even then, an A/V nerd, and worked on the production team for my school’s cheesy, student-run, televised morning announcements, and so I remember watching the second plane hit moments before we cut access to outside broadcasts to begin our program. I remember, after we wrapped, one of the teachers asking about that plane we had seen smashing into the World Trade Center before we cut the feed, and that we all assumed it was part of some movie trailer. I was in German class when the principal came over the PA system to announce that it was not.

That was a day that everything changed. There was a lot of confusion in the hours, days, and weeks, after the towers fell. There were different opinions on who was to blame, what could have been known, what might have been prevented, but there was universal agreement that something significant had happened. There were disagreements around the margins, but overall, we had a single narrative.

This week, though.

We, as a nation, probably even as a congregation, do not agree on what happened, much less why it happened, and even whether it will matter in a month.

I saw people carrying signs saying, “Thank you Jesus” and flags proclaiming their loyalty to God and Trump. I saw people setting up a cross on the Mall, and I saw people had erected a gallows on the mall, and I remembered that both are tools of execution, and the cross is only redeemed by the resurrection. I saw self-styled Christians who thought they were following the Gospel, and so I saw the result of a long failure of church leadership.

I saw a mob where most of the people involved had no idea what was happening or what they were a part of beyond making chaos. I saw others who seemed prepared to use that chaos for cover, and those are the people who truly frighten me, because so far, I have not seen any of them be arrested or identified, and so I wonder when they will try again.

And now, days later, I see some who want nothing more than to forget what happened, or to minimize it, to pretend that the organized few within the mob were not there.

And so, the chaos of the day itself spreads, but I remember the story of creation.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

Even before God said, “Let there be light,” even before God spoke creation into being, the Holy Spirit was stirring over the waters.

Much has been written over the first three words in our English Bible, which are just one word in the Hebrew. People have tried to attach those words to specific, knowable moments—some the Big Bang, some a more recent time. I do not think the Hebrew Bible’s writers and editors were much interested in those questions. I do not think they were trying to say there was nothing before God’s creation, since they place the Spirit of God over the face of the waters at that beginning. No, they were just saying that whatever happened before did not matter to them. What mattered is that God was present, and that God spoke light and then everything except water, into being.

What mattered was that God was present, even in the pre-creation Chaos. What mattered was that even when they could not see it, sitting in captivity along the Nile, sitting in exile along the Euphrates, or struggling to work together along the Jordan, God was working to bring order out of the chaos. God created the channels through which those rivers flowed, and the Spirit of God moved the waters where they needed to be.

On Wednesday, at least one man spoke of the Trinity as God, Jesus, and Donald Trump. It is significant that the Holy Spirit is the supplanted member of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit that seems, so often, to have the lightest touch. God speaks stars into being. Jesus walked among us. The Spirit sweeps over the waters, descends like a dove, and sometimes, sometimes touches us with fire.

It can be hard to hear the Spirit. It can be hard to tell what is the Spirit and what is…something or someone else. We can work passionately and diligently to convince ourselves that we are hearing the Spirit when we are only hearing ourselves. We wrap ourselves in the language of God while we seek power, forgetting that God’s example was the surrender of power. We convince ourselves that a war is holy, is just, that a coup or a revolution is necessary, that something was taken or stolen from us when Jesus surrendered power, when Jesus refused to take up arms against Rome, when nothing every really belongs to us to begin with because God created it all. We try to silence the Spirit when the Spirit is inconvenient, and, sometimes, for a while, we succeed. But the Spirit is also persistent. God may make the mountains tremble, but the wind, the Spirit, wears them down to dust.

The Spirit works slowly, and it works in each of us. I pray that those who, like the man in the mob, have forgotten the Holy Spirit, and that those who never knew the Holy Spirit may yet learn. I pray we the Spirit will guide the organizers, instigators, and participants to repentance. I pray the Spirit will help us all to understand the roles we each play in this world. I pray that we will eventually reach a full understanding of Wednesday’s events. I pray that we will eventually reach a shared consensus about the cause, nature, and impact of the day. If we do, it will not be because of God speaking that into being. It will be because of the slow, steady work of the Spirit working always to re-orient each of us to God. It will happen because we reach out to each other, breaking out of our own and other’s silos and isolation. It will happen as the Spirit empowers us to remind each other of the best in other people instead of the worst. It will happen as we tear down the idols we have built in our hearts and remove the logs and specks from our eyes so we can see neighbors where now we see enemies, so we can see the image of God in all those God created and not only those who look, or act, or think like us. I pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to hear, to see, and to understand not just God’s word, not just God’s creation, but our own actions. I pray that the Spirit will come to show us each what we need to see and tell us what we need to hear in the actions and words of one another.

Post a comment