"Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him." - Matthew 3:13
When Jesus enters into Jerusalem, he is baptized again. This time by his suffering on the cross. He descends into hell and sets loose those who were held captive. Then on Easter he exits by way of the resurrection. This is our road map.
When we do Christmas, it is very tempting to skip the story of King Herod's murdering the children of the Bethlehem region. I remember one adroit fool suggesting that we could skip Matthew 2:13-23 in our Sunday lections because the event discribed doesn't appear in the secular histories of the time and could have been made up by Matthew. The only secular histories we have from this period are pro-Roman and okay with Herod's "lock innocents in cages" type of politics.
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
A beautiful vase is made mostly of space. Without the emptiness inside it, a tennis ball won't bounce. We tend to think that religion is about what we do; the songs that we sing, the offerings that we bring, and the words that the preacher says. Religion is really about the meeting space, the doorway, the emptiness, the wilderness, and the mountaintop where people and God meet.
Have you ever noticed that Moses’ life was divided into equal thirds — each lasting 40 years. In the first third he was the adopted child of the Pharaoh, ruler of Egypt. We can imagine Moses growing up in the competitive world of the palace. If you asked him what he wanted, more than anything else, I bet Moses would say that he wished to be successful. Many young adults today are driven by the need to be successful. They want to succeed at work, marry the best spouse, and achieve great things before they are 40.
Moses turns 40. We don’t know if he feels like he has achieved his goal. But, one day he sees an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave. Moses goes ballistic and kills the Egyptian. Now he’s a fugitive. He goes out into the desert, marries a woman named Zippy, and learns to herd sheep. He herds sheep for the next 40 years. Now ask Moses during this time what he wants from life more than anything else, he’d say he wants security. Now let me ask you — you don’t have to raise your hand — how many of you have noticed that when you shifted from being a young adult to being a more mature adult, that you found yourself looking to play things safe? Wild life is out. Security is in.
Then one day Moses sees a burning bush. At the burning bush, God calls him to leave his security focused life aside. God puts Moses on a new path. The word that describes this new path is significance.
It is the Christmas after an election year and we read Isaiah’s prophesy knowing that Isaiah’s audience heard it as a political statement. The people of the Bible actually were looking for someone to make their nation great again. They heard Isaiah and imagined a ruler with such wisdom that there would be; “endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (9:7)
Jeremiah hears God telling people to settle down, contribute their own sweat equity towards establishing of a healthy community, and be nice to the Babylonians. His actual words are, “Seek the welfare of the city.” God is speaking to his people. The same people who have just lost their home, seen their house of worship burned to the ground and their beautiful city invaded by the Babylonians. They have been rounded up like cattle and marched across the desert to Babylon. They are weary and resentful. They want to escape. They want to lash out and sabotage the plans of their captors. They have no spirit to be spiritual. They have no heart to be kind. As we saw in last week’s Psalm 137, they have hung up their harps and refuse to sing the songs that their tormentors ask for. Being nice, doesn’t make any sense.
Anger is one of Elizabeth Kugler-Ross’ 5 Stages of Grief , and as Scott Peck reminds us, grief is a part of every transition. Say, we lose our job. While adrift, we stew. “I gave the best years of my life…” In time, we move on to another career, or discover that God had a reason for it. We accept it as a blessing. Still, anger was a real stage in our transition. When someone we love dies, anger often lashes out at an innocent bystander. It is human nature to shoot the messenger. We may be excited about moving to a new neighborhood, but soon reality sets in. We may find ourselves alone, commuting further for work, and dealing with shoddy home construction. We may spend endless hours bemoaning the events and decisions that lead us to this new place. It is because Anger is a part of all transitions that the Bible retains even the final verses
With all of the “secret” Trump supporters lately, I have begun to fear that he might win the popular vote in November, but lose the presidency in the Electoral College. This has happened four times in the history of the United States. In Bush verses Gore in 2000, over a half million more people cast their ballots for Senator Gore, than for George W. Bush. When the loss of Florida’s electoral votes tipped the balance towards Bush, Al Gore graciously conceded. This is not something I expect Donald Trump to do.
Yesterday we laid to rest our faithful dog, Bella. She was a small shepherd mix, with a gentle disposition, who loved to travel. She suffered more than she needed to over this winter because she refused to take her medication, and I ran out of ways to sneak the pill into the food that she was losing interest in eating. As we held the graveside service, I realized that I had crossed a line. Before Bella adopted us, I was uncomfortable offering up to the Lord requests concerning the welfare of pets. “There are no cats in heaven. And no, Lassie doesn’t have a soul,” I would say.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. Through the flame, you will go. But it will not consume you.
The passage from Isaiah about God promising to be with us through hell and high water is almost as famous as James Taylor’s song:
I've seen fire and I've seen rain. I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I'd see you again.
Isaiah’s lyrics were a comfort to the people of Israel as they returned from exile in Babylon. Most congregations have either a fire or a flood story, or both, in their archives. Unfortunately, for those being effected by this year's El Nino, the memory is in the process of being made. If you are currently in the midst of the flood, this scripture speaks over the millenium about our God, who never tires of saving us. If you are dry and comfortable, this is a good time to dig in the archives and discover your church's flood/fire story.
For James Taylor, the fire and the flood deals with his struggles against heroin addiction and mental illness. His lonely sojourn in a mental institution, forms the second of three stanzas about deep loss. Fire and rain seem appropriate metaphors for James to use to describe the wilderness that surrounded the suicide of a friend, the brutality of shock therapy, and the breakup of his band and friendships at Apple records.
I think it would be a mistake to simply think that its only the theme of water and flame that links James Taylor and Isaiah with Luke’s account concerning the fiery preaching of John and the Baptism of Jesus. All of these stories and lyrics hit us with a two by four. They scrape raw the memories of our darkest days.
We only have one childhood story about Jesus, that of his amazing the elders in the temple. I’m not really sure what this story tells us about Jesus, or his Home-Alone-ish family, but its context deserves some reflection. A couple times a year, people would pilgrimage to the temple. Diaspora Jews would make these trips less frequently, perhaps, once or twice in a life-time. We have little in today’s world that is equivalent to this. As someone who cares about mental health, family systems, and healthy transitions, I think this is our loss.
Imagine what it would be like to put your faith into motion by walking seventy-five miles. Parents would be explaining to their children, as they schlepped across the Judean Hills, just how important religion was. People who had lost loved ones, would work through their grief as they walked. Newly weds would explore their new relationship, with each other and with their new extended families. There would be deep discussions about the things that mattered. There would be songs. The fellowship of God’s people would be made visible.
This is the season when we get in the car and journey to see family and friends. When the kids complain because it’s three hours in the car to Grandma’s, we remind them how Joseph and Mary saddled up the old Yugo and drove a hundred miles, the limit of that car’s extended warranty, in order to get tax forms from Quirinius’ office in Bethlehem, because Nazareth was too small a town to have wi-fi. The thing we mustn’t miss in our attempt to explain the oddness of Palestinian life, is that faith is a journey. Jesus invited people to follow him. The first Christians, having no name to call their new religion, simply said that they were people of the Way (see Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23). When we share communion, we should remind people that this is bread for the journey. Those who think that they have arrived, aren’t welcome.
All transition has three components. It doesn’t matter if you are moving to a new location, starting a career, or exiting puberty. For general terms you could name the components: body, soul, and relationships. Attention should be paid to each one; failed transitions and broken hearts are often the product of rushing the process and failing to do one or two components well.
Summer is a good time to talk about transition, even if your church isn’t going through one. Many of your members will be mid-transition. The important thing to remember is that all forms of major change are similar. Use the table below or think through the plots of movies, books, or Bible stories.