There’s an old story from the fifth century about the legendary King Aengus of Ireland, who came to St. Patrick to be baptized. St. Patrick carried a sharp-pointed staff with him wherever he went, and at some point during the baptism liturgy he leaned on it and accidentally stabbed the king’s foot, piercing it clean through. When he had finished baptizing the king, St. Patrick looked down and saw a great pool of blood at his feet. Realizing what he had done, he begged the king’s forgiveness. “Why did you suffer this pain in silence?” Patrick asked. The king simply replied, “I just thought it was part of the baptism.”
Sometimes the most painful moments are also the most meaningful (and vice versa), and our Christian faith bears witness to the truth that great blessings sometimes come about through great challenges. There are pages upon pages of Holy Scripture that speak to this. From the very first words of the Bible chaos becomes the medium through which God creates order. Darkness becomes the canvas for light. This is a story in which the brutal and barren wilderness becomes the road home. Those who want to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake will find them. This is a story in which life is lived by letting go, not taking for yourself. And in one final irony, the most prominent symbol of criminal punishment – the cross – becomes a symbol of victory. Through death there comes life.
How can so many elements of the Christian life contain so many seemingly disparate things? Chaos and order, darkness and light, death and life. Our Church book club is currently reading Markus Zusak’s book entitled The Book Thief. It’s the story of a young girl living surrounded by death and life in Nazi Germany, and the entire story is seen through the eyes of death. Death is, in fact, the narrator, and the story is punctuated by death’s commentary on certain events. As one atrocity after another is committed and the war spreads across Europe, death speaks with a weary voice. He seems overworked, and he comes to simultaneously lament the horrors that humans inflict upon one another, while marveling at the blessings that we are capable of seeing in each other and giving to each other. At one point he comments, “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”
I wonder that sometimes, too. In ministry some of the most rewarding moments I’ve ever seen have been the most challenging. Moments in which people seem to be at their ugliest have also been the moments when people have responded in beautiful ways. Some of the most life-affirming moments have been moments in which death has been present. Some of the times in the life of our church that have been the most tumultuous have also been those times when people have stepped up with the most faith. Some of the times of greatest need also become the times of greatest generosity and love. That duality, that irony, that paradox lies at the heart of the Christian faith.
Is it any wonder, then, that the Christian life begins in water? More than anything else we know, water contains within it an inherent tension between life and death, beauty and pain. Water is essential for life, but it is also capable of ending it. Water can form such strikingly beautiful images, like the pictures this week of a frozen Niagara Falls or the intricate splendor of a single crystalline snowflake. Water makes rainbows and carves majestic canyons. But is also destroys. Under certain circumstances it can pull houses into the sea or wash away entire cities. Water can be used to bless – it was Jesus who said, “Anyone who gives even a cup of cold water in my name shall be rewarded.” But water can also be used to torture. Water reminds us of all these things, of birth and death, life and destruction. This is why we find water throughout the stories of our faith tradition.
It was water at the beginning, a chaotic and formless void that God harnessed into order. It was water that covered the earth when God lamented over what creation had become, and water that wiped out all that was evil so that something new could begin. It was water that parted for the Hebrews as they fled their captors so that they could escape, but it was also water that collapsed upon their enemies as they pursued them. It was water that sustained the people of Israel as they entered the Promised Land and made it their new home. And it was water that rushed around the feet of the crowd as they came to the Jordan River to hear a man named John proclaim the word of God.
He preached repentance and transformation, baptizing all who came in the name of the Lord. Knowing John, there’s no doubt that he made sure to hold them under long enough that they couldn’t help but go back to the riverbank as changed people. When Jesus shows up it was water that John denied him. “You don’t need to be baptized,” John said. “I’m the one that needs to be baptized by you.” But it was water that Jesus insisted on. “Do it,” he told John. We all need this.
So Jesus, the Messiah that God sent to save the world, submitted himself to the waters of the Jordan River, waters that could have easily taken his life. But in those waters, he was blessed by God. The love, the grace, and the Spirit of God turned what would have looked like a drowning into the beginning of new life. It’s a step that we all take in order to be Christians. We follow Jesus and his baptism, remembering that many time you find the ugliness of chaos and the beauty of new life in the very same place.
Have you seen it? Can you see it? When the world is chaotic and the waters are rising, can you see the blessing in the midst of the flood? When it feels like you’ve been wandering in the wilderness forever, can you see the path ahead that leads home? If you had been there on the banks of the Jordan River, what would you have seen? Would you have seen a drowning, or an unmistakable sign of new life? Sometimes it can be hard to tell, and oftentimes it depends on your focus.
One of my colleagues in ministry wrote an article this past week that described Christians in three different types of focus. He said that at any given moment, you can be focused on yourself, you can be focused on others, or you can be focused on God. Thinking about this in the context of a worship service, for example, he writes that the Christian who is focused on self comes to worship and wonders what he or she is getting out of it. The Christian who is focused on others looks at the other people worshiping around him and wonders how he can help them praise God. The Christian who is focused on God prays that God is honored by what she gives in worship today.
Going farther, he writes, when the Christian who is focused on self hears a hymn they don’t like, they look around and wonder what’s wrong with everyone who seems “into it”. The Christian who is focused on others looks at the ones who are “into it” and rejoices because there are others in their church family who are praising God. The Christian who is focused on God sings along even if the words are unfamiliar, believing that God can be praised even with music he or she doesn’t like.
You can go on and on with examples, not just from worship but from any part of Christian faith and practice, reflecting on what it looks like if you’re focused on self, or if you’re focused on others, or if you’re focused on God. For instance, what does that visit with the cancer patient look like if you’re focused on yourself? What if you’re focused on other? What if you’re focused on God? What does the Session or Deacons meeting sound like if we are focused on ourselves? What about if we are focused on others, or on God? What do you think about that big negative number in the church budget if you’re focused on yourself? What about if you’re focused on others, or focused on God? Church during the interim time can be a bit tricky to manage, you know. Are we drowning? Are we treading water? Are we following the current to the place where God wants us to be? The answer depends on our focus.
So often the ugliness and the beauty will seem to be right here together, in the same place. Is it darkness or light? Chaos, or peace? Wilderness wandering, or going home? Death, or life? Is this an unfulfilling routine, or a chance to praise God with all that you have? Is it a budget deficit, or an opportunity to be faithful givers? Are we drowning, or are we being baptized?
It all depends on our focus. Our hope and our earnest desire is to move more and more away from focus on ourselves to a focus on others and a focus on God. That’s how beauty can be seen in the midst of the ugliness. That’s how God can be glorified no matter where we are. That’s how we follow Jesus and live into our baptisms, remembering that through water God looked into each of us and saw the ugliness, but also the beauty, and then spoke words of love. “This is my child, my beloved…”
On every day that follows, God simply asks that we do the same.
Thanks be to God. Amen.