In the Neighborhood of Chaos

© Photo by Roopak Ravi (Unsplash)
Published by Josh Hosler on Mon, Jan 13, 2020 11:41 AM

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

The story of Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan is a familiar one to most Christians. We’ll never run out of ways to look at this event in Jesus’ life and what it means for us. But today I want to start not with Jesus’ baptism, but with Psalm 29.

This psalm begins, “Ascribe to the Lord, you gods.” This is how you know it’s one of the most ancient psalms: it assumes the existence of many gods, with the Hebrew God ruling over all of them, everywhere in the world. The phrase represents a big theological step forward at the time, from polytheism—the worship of many gods—to henotheism—the worship of one superior God. But there is not yet monotheism—the assertion that God is the only god that exists.

In this psalm, the main actor is “the voice of the Lord” – haq’qol Adonai. It is understood that when God speaks, wonders occur. And they can be violent wonders. All the most drastic effects of nature are credited to God’s voice and the resulting action. In fact, there is no such thing as God speaking and not getting what God wants.

Verse 8 of this psalm is very strange. The Book of Common Prayer translates it, “The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.” But if you dig into the ancient Hebrew text, it could just as easily read, “The voice of the LORD brings labor pains upon a doe and causes a mountain goat to give birth prematurely.” We don’t know which is correct. But what if the psalmist intended to say both things at the same time?

This is why I love the Hebrew language, and this is why Psalm 29 is my very favorite psalm. What better poetry could there be than poetry that offers not one meaning, but many? What better faith could there be than a faith that is poetry and not just rote teaching? And what better text to speak to such a faith than the Bible we have, such a curious conglomeration of texts written by multiple authors over more than a thousand years—texts that alternately delight and horrify, relieve and confuse? What a weird thing this is, this faith that has been handed on to us.

In Psalm 29 we also hear, “The Lord sits enthroned above the flood.” In ancient Hebrew cosmology, the original existence was a watery chaos. Then God created: God stepped into the middle, pushed the waters aside, and began to turn chaos to order. In Noah’s time, when God deemed it right to flood the earth, it was merely a matter of relaxing the divine grip on those chaotic waters and letting them run through the creation again. So when the psalmist sings, “The Lord sits enthroned above the flood,” God is pictured outside of both order and chaos, surveying everything from afar.

This image of God isn’t unfamiliar. Most of us were probably brought up to think of God as large and transcendent, beyond the muddle of everyday life—“God is watching us from a distance,” as Bette Midler sang. Perhaps that even led us unconsciously to internalize the idea that God couldn’t possibly understand or care about all the little details of our lives—that we can only bring such things to God’s attention on our knees, begging for mercy from a powerful, disinterested, and potentially lethal monarch.

But this is not what the ancient Jews believed, and it’s not what present-day Jews believe. Nor is it what Christians believe … when we’re paying attention. Look at today’s passage from Isaiah. Here we have both the macro and the micro. God “created the heavens and stretched them out,” but God has also “taken you by the hand and kept you.” Both are true at once, and that is the real definition of glory and power.

It is only right, then, that these readings be paired with today’s gospel reading, as Jesus makes his first appearance in Matthew’s gospel since his birth. We heard all about John the Baptist during the season of Advent, how he came to prepare the way for the Messiah. And now the Messiah appears. But Jesus doesn’t go to John and say, “All right, thank you very much for being my opening act, now please get off the stage.” No, Jesus says to John, “Fulfill your role in this drama. Baptize me.”

This week I reread words about baptism by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, from his book Being Christian. As we proceed, much of what I am saying comes from this book.

The word baptism means “dipping” – immersing, drowning, swamping perhaps. But in the Episcopal Church and in many other churches, baptism has come to take the form of a polite little splashing. This is all that’s possible with our architecture, and that’s unfortunate. I’m a fan of total immersion in a large pool or river or lake, or barring that possibility, a large font into which the person can step, kneel down, and get completely soaked. The metaphor cries out for it. Baptism is not polite, and it may even be perceived as forceful—a thrusting underwater, and a shocking raising up again. The LORD sits enthroned above the flood. But Jesus descends into the chaos to meet us there and to draw us up out of the water. He drowns as humanity drowns, and he rises again.

Jesus came to restore the dignity of human nature, so his baptism is the first step toward helping us reclaim our identity as God’s children. As Jesus rises dripping from the river, he hears that same qol Adonai—the voice of God—and we can hear it, too. “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” These are words of adoption.

Jesus Christ, who has always been a part of God, shows us that God’s very nature is to adopt, to include, to keep expanding the family. And this happens by God coming to be with us right where we are. God doesn’t need everything to be orderly in our lives. No, the places of chaos are the places God is eager to be invited into.

This has huge implications for our role in the world as Christians. Rowan Williams writes:

The new humanity that is created around Jesus is not a humanity that is always going to be successful and in control of things, but a humanity that can reach out its hand from the depths of the chaos, to be touched by the hand of God. And that means that if we ask the question, ‘Where might you expect to find the baptized?’ one answer is, ‘In the neighborhood of chaos.’ It means you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk … disordered, disfigured and needy … (4)

… You might also expect the baptized Christian to be somewhere near, somewhere in touch with, the chaos in his or her own life—because we all of us live not just with a chaos outside ourselves but with quite a lot of inhumanity and muddle inside us. A baptized Christian ought to be somebody who is not afraid of looking with honesty at that chaos inside, as well as being where humanity is at risk, outside. (5)

So baptism means being with Jesus ‘in the depths’: the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need—but also in the depths of God’s love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be. (5)

Williams goes on to write that baptism doesn’t make us separate or superior. Rather, it establishes our solidarity with everyone else, including those who will never be baptized. It means that we allow humanity to “contaminate” us. Baptism makes us safe to exist here in the muddle and the muck of our world. Baptism means that our defenses will be down before God. It means embracing risk and looking darkness squarely in the face. Baptism will not prevent pain, but it will sanctify it. Going into the water should make us get all muddy. Above all, baptism should put us in touch with the gospel reality of our own life. 

A few years ago I shared Williams’ book with my group of college students in Bellingham. One insightful woman remarked, “OK, this is all well and good. But is it real? When we look at the baptized, is this indeed what we find? Most of America is baptized. There are a couple billion Christians in the world. But I don’t see us all being in touch with the gospel reality of our lives.”

She’s right, you know. The church has allowed baptism to become cheapened. This isn’t because baptism has no power, but because getting immersed in the troubles of the world is terrifying. We fear that if we let ourselves experience too much pain and loss, we might lose ourselves in it. So most of us do everything we can to avoid others’ pain and thus avoid the growth that can come through it. Just because baptism comes from God doesn’t mean we’re powerless to suck the life out of it.

But if we can acknowledge our likely failures—if we can spot them coming—maybe we can make room for God to get there first. The baptized person is given every opportunity to say, “I see all the pain in the world. I see all the pain in my own life. I look them in the eye. And I trust that no matter how bad this gets, God is transforming us. God is delighting in our very existence and all the particulars of who we are, right now, even in this mess. And the rescue is already underway.” That rescue will come even as baptism never lives up to its intended purpose in most people’s lives.

God sits enthroned above the flood, above the watery chaos of our lives. But that doesn’t mean God is “above all this.” On the contrary. God is in not only above but also in the depths, supporting us, rescuing us. If there’s anyone here today who is not baptized, we welcome you. You belong, and I hope these words have been helpful and might lead to further conversation. As for the rest of us, we’re about to renew our baptismal vows. Let’s do so in full trust that God sits enthroned above the flood, and that God comes to be with us in the depths. Amen.

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