The other day, someone asked me if I had made a New Year’s resolution this year?”
I’m afraid I must have looked rather dumbfounded at the question. For it never occurred to me not to make a New Year’s resolution. I mean I am, and most people I know are, well aware of our shortcomings. We know that we have failed to be all we would like to be and have fallen short of what we know we can do. And so, I and most people I know, well we resolve to do better — not just at the turn of the New Year but just about every new day. We look ourselves in the eyes as we brush our teeth in the morning and resolve that today:
We will not lose our temper if our child again refuses to wear socks even though it is only 30 degrees outside.
Today, we resolve that we will get to the gym and take that first step towards feeling good in our bodies again.
This week, I resolved to finish preparing the sermon by 5:00 on Friday!
So when this person asked me if I had made a New Year’s resolution, well I was a bit flummoxed.
You mean it’s possible that one could arrive at the place where resolutions are no longer needed? Where who we are to be is not born out of resolve to rectify all that we have failed to be?
Before we consider this question, let us pray,
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our Rock and our Redeemer, Amen.
I have always drawn great comfort that even the Apostle Paul, that great Biblical hero, struggled with doing the right thing. Over two thousand years ago he wrote “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do!” (Romans 7:15, 18-19). Is there something in the human condition that makes it hard for us to be our best selves?
Maybe that is why John stepped out of all of it. Maybe that is why John, cousin of Jesus, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, stepped out of all that he had known and donned a camel haired coat, switched up his diet to honey and wild locus and set off to live in the wilderness. Maybe he was looking for a radical new way to help the people break out of the cycle of their failings. Maybe that is why he went down to the Jordan, calling people out of the great city, calling them out again into the wildness, to awaken in them perhaps an ancient memory of that first deliverance. That Exodus from slavery in Egypt, where after being washed by the waters of the Red Sea the people stepped up on to new ground. No longer slaves of Pharaoh but claimed as children of God.
And so when the people heard that there was this wild new prophet standing waist deep down in the muddy waters of the Jordan, there among the thickets not in the pristine pools of purification that surrounded the temple in those days, well that must have caught their attention. Maybe this one would be the one that could free them from their failings and set them off in new resolve that would stick this time.
Great crowds went out to him: people who were weary of all that was wrong, in their lives and wrong in the world; people who feared for today and could not imagine tomorrow. They all went out to him in the water. And he called them out on all that they had done wrong. He called them out on their selfishness and greed and tendency to care for their own needs above the needs of others. He called them out on their failings.
And as they stood there on the river bank, with water dripping down their faces, their eyes were full of expectation, they asked “What next John, what next. Can you show us the way?” I find this tension in the text full of pathos. They are great crowds of people hungry for new lives and there is John trying his best to clean them up. But neither the Jordan drenched crowd nor wild John can yet see the new way for which they yearn. “I am not he,” John says. “There is one who is coming who is more powerful than I”… but he is not here yet. Not yet, and so all John can do is point them back into their old lives with new resolve to not make the mistakes they made in the past. “Resolve to do better. Resolve to do what is right” “If you have two coats give one away.” This is John’s message. And so I imagine that there were many who walked back up the hill and through the gates of Jerusalem with heavy heart fearing that once again the life for which they yearned this year may not be theirs, fearing that they may not be able to maintain on their own the resolve to do better, fearing that life for which they yearn may not be theirs again this year, not yet.
But there was one that day who did not return to the place from which he had come. There was one that day who did not leave heavy hearted with no more than a corrective for how he was to live. There was one who did emerge from those waters and who did step into the new life for which all yearned. Jesus emerged from the Jordan, water streamed from him as he lifted his face not to John but to God, not in expectation but in gratitude. And as he did, he received that which all of them had sought. The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Jesus emerged from the waters, turned his face to God and was claimed and called as God’s own. And from that moment onward, Jesus blazed for all humanity a spirit led life, a life led not by fear of failings but a life led by blessing, inspiration and possibility.
In our intergenerational Epiphany Service on Thursday night, together we told the nativity story from start to finish. And over and over again we were surprised to see how so many characters in the story led lives driven not by fear but guided by inspiration, lives not restricted by past failings but lives thrown wide open to inspired possibility. From Zechariah, and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the inn keeper, those wise-ones all of them stepped onto the shore of a possibility unimagined and in doing so everything changed for them and for us as well. And one of us that night said something that really struck me. She said “you know, they must have been very faithful people, really able to hear what God was trying to say to them.” I had never really thought about it that way, but perhaps God chose them to act in this most important drama precisely because they were the most prepared to do so. Perhaps they had been practicing their whole lives in their most humble ways, praying and serving, readying themselves for the moment of God’s call.
But where does the spirit lead Jesus after this heavenly blessing, after Jesus opens a new way for all of us in the world? It is not home to a banquet table to celebrate and congratulate the good work he did in his posture of prayer. Instead, it is into the desert, into temptation. And that is a very real part of a spirit led life. Fear must be faced. Temptation must be resisted. And so it’s no wonder that one of the most often repeated messages from the divine realm in the Bible is “Be not afraid.”
Fear and inspiration cannot live in the same heart. Fear and anxiety pulls us away from inspiration, creativity and prophetic imagining. Fear and anxiety devolve us to our lower selves. So how can we live in what is often a fearful world and yet not be afraid? How can we life in a world of anxiety and yet remain drenched in our baptismal waters of inspiration? How can we be spirit led and not fear driven people in our time?
Maybe we can take our cue from the one who showed us the way. Maybe we can turn our face to God. Each of us has to decide for our selves what that looks like. Each of us has to do to find our way of cultivating a place of silence within a noisy world, a place of peace within a fearful world. We all have to create inside of our heart a place where we can hear God’s call to us, claiming us as God’s own beloved, in whom God is well pleased
And I think that is where we as a faith community can be so helpful for each other. We can practice with each other and support each other as we learn to turn from failings and fear and turn towards God and inspiration. We can practice in our life together through worship, bible study, prayer group, fellowship. We can practice being with each other in ways that call for our fullest, most creative, most inspired, most loving selves.
Next week we celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we will again be inspired by how he understood himself to have been claimed and called by God to do a new thing in our world. We will be inspired again by how he turned from the fear and failing of racism and had the courage instead to be led by the spirit engaging as Walter Brugemann says the “prophetic imagination” and dreaming “of a day when children will believe in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And spirit led living changed everything for him and for us as well. For next week as King’s words of 50 years ago echo down from the steps of the Lincoln memorial, across those reflecting pools they will be met by the words of our first African American president as he takes the oath of office.
Let us reclaim our baptisms. Let us descend into and emerge from those muddy Jordan waters. Let us reclaim the truth that we are claimed by God as beloved, freed from fear and failings and set down in this place and time to live spirit-led not fear-driven lives. So that we will return not to our failures but instead to walk in the Way of Jesus and so many others who have followed his living. To live bold, prophetic-imagining, life-giving, freedom-making, world-repairing lives. May it be so!