Sunday, January 28, 2018

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

It is considered one of the most influential books in the history of publishing.

Released in 1936, it sold a quarter-million copies in the first three months, and went on to sell 30 million copies in total. It began as a series of transcribed lectures, loosely based on the topic of public speaking, interwoven with tips and anecdotes on how to manage people and bring them around to your way of thinking.

And while Dale Carnegie didn’t invent the self-help book, he revolutionized the genre by creating a template of sorts that could be replicated on any number of topics related to self-improvement and self-actualization.

Of course, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” has received it’s fair share of critique since 1936, beginning with the charge that the book teaches how to be insincere and manipulative. It’s runaway success in Nazi Germany was an embarrassment to the publisher, and all the poor imitations within the genre didn’t help the book either.

And perhaps the most damning is the way the marketing world embraced concepts in the book, and used then (still use them) to liberate money from your wallet. Take, for example, the fifth point in the section called “Twelve ways to win people to your way of thinking.” Carnegie writes, “Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.” The theory here is that if you ask a series of questions that prompt a yes, the person is more likely to answer yes to the last and most important question of all. When a telemarketer calls and begins with “are you having a good day?” or “are you enjoying the sunshine” then very soon you’re going to agree to having your ducts cleaned.

And then there is the third point in the section “How to make people like you.” It reads: “Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” So the exchange usually goes something like this:

Him: “Hi what’s your name?”
Me: “Michael”
Him: “Mike! Glad to know you, Mike! Mike, do you know about this product?

I share all this not because some of the most effective telemarketers seem demon-possessed, but because the first thing the demons do in our passage this morning is take a page from Dale Carnegie. It seems they can’t help themselves, and you might even say ‘the devil made them do it,’ in a Flip Wilson kind of way.

The passage begins in the typical Markan way, with little preamble, and an economy of words, heading straight into the heart of the scene. Jesus is teaching, and amazing others with the authoritative nature of his teaching, when the service is interrupted. A man possessed by an unclean spirit cries out: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

And using the same economy of words, Mark describes what happens next: “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. A couple of things to note in this little exchange. First, Jesus is primarily interacting with the demons, and the man himself is a bit of a peripheral character in the story. He’s not really crying out, it’s the demon inside him, making this trio of participants more of a duo. The demons make their best effort to win friends and influence Jesus straight away (“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”) but to no avail. Jesus can see right through these cheap demonic tricks and begins with that phrase every demon and telemarketer dreads to hear: “Be quiet!” and “Come out of him.”

The second thing is the extent to which this will be an ongoing dialogue, and a relationship of sorts, as Jesus sets out to rid the Galilee of demons. Rather I should say rid Galilee of demons until the word gets out, then suddenly it’s possessed people from Judea, Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan. In chapter three, people are pressing in on him, and those possessed pushed forward. Mark says, “Whenever the evil[a] spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’"

Or chapter five, a man that even chains could not restrain, ran to Jesus and shouted, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name, don’t torture me!” In this case, Jesus takes the dialogue even further, and asks the demon his name. “Legion,” comes the famous answer, “for we are many.” The story ends, of course, with the demons transferred to a herd of pigs that come to a quick end in the lake.

In each of these cases, the demons know Jesus and know who he is. Son of God, Holy One of God, Son of the Most High: the demons understand exactly who they are up against. The demons understand even as others struggle to understand, responding to Jesus with puzzlement and fear.

Time and time again, the people around Jesus ask “What kind of man is this?” like Matthew 8 overcoming the wind and the waves, another type of possession. I think I prefer the King James’ version of the same questions, asking “what manner of man is this?”

What manner of man is this? God speaks and confirms that this is God’s son. The wind and waves obey him. He demons flee even as they confess that he is the Son of the Most High. Yet people seem confounded. Some witness the very power of God on earth and still they ask “what manner of man is this?”

In a sort of time-twisted homage to Dale Carnegie, Mark is manipulating us in the best possible way. Mark is using a narration technique to draw us nearer, and draw us into the text. He’s turning us into insiders, people in the know, people who can then take this knowledge and confidence into the world.

This is how it works: every time someone in the story asks a question like “what manner of man is this?” we already have the answer. We have the answer, the demons have the answer, and a entire cast of players within the story are gradually getting the answer.

But we know from the beginning. And every time some one says “what is this?” and “Isn’t that Joe and Mary’s boy?” and “what manner of man is this?” we answer. We answer and our answers get louder until we’re practically shouting at our Bibles and people start to think we’re demon-possessed. Our knowledge causes our confidence to grow, until we can tell others what the demons declared from the start: This is the Son of God, the Holy One of God, the Son of the Most High. Worship him, and call on his name!

So what can we do, having this primer on Dale Carnegie, demon-possession, and the subtle art of winning friends and influencing people? How do we apply this to our modern scientific age? I guess I would begin by saying that demon possession continues, not in a literal “hi, my name is Legion and I’ll be your demon tonight” but in the sense that people still get caught up in things beyond their immediate control.

Some weeks ago I preached about my fear that we may somehow lose civility in our public life, that something has been unleashed as people cry “build the wall” and “lock her up.” Every day some commentator continues to wear out the word “unprecedented.” And every day we seem to slip further and further from the life we know before that fateful day a certain candidate came down a certain escalator and began talking.

Since then, all manner of seemingly rational people have acted as if they are possessed, and social-scientists and psychologist struggle to explain. But think the answer is is scripture: Who are you? We are legion, for we are many. I’m not saying the devil is in each politician that I disagree with, only that we have seldom seen a clearer example of a world quickly gone mad.

So what’s the answer? What manner of man can solve this crisis? Only the one who teaches with authority can show us God and God’s way. Only the one who teaches mercy and shows compassion and offers forgiveness (amnesty?) can show us God’s way.

Jesus didn’t avoid the possessed, and he didn’t flee the village. He extended special care to those possessed, because even in their compromised state, they remain children of God. The demons would have us hate and condemn, but Jesus only loves. He loves and forgives and never stops seeking the lost and the possessed, and thank God for that. Amen.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 62
Do not trust in extortion
or put vain hope in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.
One thing God has spoken,
two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,
and with you, Lord, is unfailing love.”

1 Corinthians 7
29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Scrabble is not my game.

There is something about the randomness of the little tiles, the time pressure, the constraints of that foolish board, the extent to which you depend on others to provide the venue for the perfect word, the best laid plans that go awry when someone takes that perfect venue for the perfect word—and the fact that when we play Carmen always wins.

Now, Trivial Pursuit, that’s a game! Basically, every other answer is Richard Nixon or The Beatles. Understand the era of the game-makers, and win the game—simple!

I’m not so selfishly wedded to my game not to see a good Scrabble word when it appears. So today’s ‘confound your opponents’ word is WEND, meaning “to turn, or to change.” Wend. Just now you’re thinking ‘wend, huh? I bet the past tense is went’ and at one time you would be right. Somehow (ironically?) the past tense changed from went to wended, yet another winning word for your next game.

But the irony here is double, since the word for change that my Anglo-Saxon forbears used (wend) was itself changed to the word change after the Normans appeared. If you spent any time in grade nine French wondering why French and English use the same word for change, then wonder no more. One of the characteristics of our language is a remarkable openness to change: wending (Scrabble alert!), to include words we borrow from others.

So 1066 and the Norman conquest was a time of profound wend. So profound that even the language changed, making room for borrow words that we still use. You might think this melee, and the linguistic melange that followed would cause malaise, but some find borrow-words exciting. I’ll stop there.

This meditation on change is meant to underline the inevitability of change, something that St. Paul is underlining in the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians. Change and the opportunity for change will inevitably occur, and how should the believer respond to such changes? Is there a unified approach to change, and what drives this approach? And what was going on in Corinth that required this much advice? So we begin.

The commentary that I dip into from time-to-time begins with this: “The seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians is hardly anyone’s favourite passage.” Well, if that doesn’t peak you interest, nothing will. Why the thumbs down? Part of the answer is that whenever Paul begins to talk about marriage, we get a little nervous, and then the preacher gets nervous, and the whole thing can go off the rails.

After a careful reading, however, I think we see Paul’s approach as rather balanced—almost modern—in the sense that whatever he suggests for one partner he also suggests for the other. Some examples:

He begins by saying don’t have sex. But if you have to have sex, only have it within marriage. And just as a wife should yield to her husband, a husband should yield to his wife. You can deny each other by mutual consent, but you should be careful, since temptation to strong. He goes on:

Widows and the unmarried should stay unmarried, unless you can’t.
If you’re married to a non-believer, stay married.
If your non-believing spouse leaves you, Que será, será (that’s the Doris Day translation)
Whatever your circumstance when you became a believer, it’s okay to remain that way. Don’t bother getting circumcised or uncircumcised, whatever that means. Slaves should seek their freedom, but it’s okay if you can’t.
Are you engaged? Go ahead and get married.
And then Paul shares the heart of his meditation, our passage for the day:

29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Again, the commentary describes this a “detached involvement,” in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world, one foot in the present and one foot in the age to come. Waiting with care, but always waiting. “For this world in its present form is passing away” and we would do well to remain mindful of this every day.

So Paul is simply reinforcing what Jesus already said, but with a twist. The Gospel reading we didn’t hear for the third Sunday after the Epiphany is another calling-the-disciples-by-the-seaside passage, but this version has a great summary beginning: "The time is fulfilled,” Jesus said, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

The twist that Paul adds is the “not yet.” Really, it’s an old parent’s trick when kid keeps asking “but when?” “Now yet” means it’s going to happen, and it might happen any time, but it hasn’t happened yet. “What I mean,” Paul says, “is the time is short.” The very thing we pray for, “thy kingdom come” will come, but it lives in the realm of the not yet. Or to quote the old spiritual, “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King.”

But not yet. And here is the key to Paul. He has introduced the Kingdom to Corinth, he has baptized and taught the people, he has created expectation, he has instituted the greatest change these people have ever known, and they say “now what?”

I want to pause for a moment for the sake of ‘now what?‘ It’s an element of our lives that we seldom confront, but it seems to appear at the most significant times. You cross the stage, diploma in hand, and you think “now what?” You leave the church, ‘spouse and spouse’ we now say, and look at each other and say “now what?” You get home with your baby burrito all snuggled and think “now what?” You watch the aforementioned fully grown baby burrito drive away into adulthood and say “now what?” Or you pause at the end of your life and ponder the mystery of eternity with God and think “now what?” What shape will the future take—but more importantly—what do I do now?

And the good people of Corinth were asking the same question. Everything changed: all the compassion and mercy and forgiveness and grace and comfort and healing and reconciliation and concord and communion meant that everything changed. The Kingdom arrived and the Kingdom was coming to transform the earth and the answer to the most pressing questions was “not yet.”

But how do you wait? Now what? And Paul tries to answer. He tries to give practical advice to very practical problems: marriage and remarriage, going to court, rules about food—essentially telling people to wait well. While you’re waiting, be good, and live like the Kingdom is nearly here.

This might be the moment to let the psalmist weight in, since waiting and living in the not yet is so much a part of these writings too. The psalmist’s soul finds rest in God alone (“my rock and my salvation”) but still lives in the world with the rest of us. And we know this because the topic shifts to worldly concerns:

Though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.
One thing God has spoken,
two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,
and with you, Lord, is unfailing love.”

Like the people of Corinth, the psalmist’s people were living their lives, enjoying some prosperity, and needing to be reminded that the future belongs to God. Don’t set your heart on the things of this world, but remember that the power to change everything belongs to God alone. We can’t know the time or the circumstance, but we know that God is unfailing love.

May the unfailing love of God surround you, as we wait for the “soon and very soon” of the Kingdom. Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”

It’s a mystery worthy of a Dan Brown novel.

And I think by saying that, I mean that it’s a sort of minor mystery, told in a way that makes it seem somewhat more dramatic that it really is, with a sub-plot or two thrown in, with seemingly authoritative voices added to the narrative to give it an air of realism. Add a compelling title, and you have all the makings of a bestseller.

Let’s call it the “Nathanael Code” or maybe “The Nathanael Prophecy,” and try to unpack what’s really happening here at the end of the first chapter of John. Who is he? And what happens to him? And what are the secret symbols in the narrative that only Tom Hanks as Dr. Langdon could identify?

Well, let’s start with Nathanael himself. We know three things for sure: He’s a friend of Philip, who first tells him about Jesus. He receives some of the earliest and best praise from Jesus, described as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” And he is fond of a certain fig tree, which seems to have more meaning than simply a shady spot to rest.

And that’s about all we know. He appears here as the disciples are being called, but he’s not on the list of disciples. He receives high praise and seems to accept the invitation to follow Jesus, but disappears from the story until the very end of John’s Gospel, when he is named as among the group who make the miraculous catch of fish. There he’s named as Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, as in the water-to-wine Cana.

In between, he doesn’t appear, and those who have been thinking about this from the earliest days came up with a simple fix: Nathanael is really Bartholomew. Like Simon Peter, Nathanael is set among those with two names used interchangeably. The evidence for this is pretty thin, so you have to decide for yourself. You see, Philip introduces Nathanael to Jesus, making them friends. And every other reference to Philip includes Bartholomew, making them a pair. And that’s it.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a future Dan Brown novel, but it does underline an important point in the story: it’s not the details of their story that matter, or what happens to them later on, but their interaction with Jesus. The early church used up a great deal of parchment trying to fill in the story of the twelve, trying to give each a meaningful middle and end, when in fact we know very little. If Nathanael is Bartholomew, he may have travelled to India, he may have ended up in Armenia, he may have been martyred by being beheaded, or crucified upside down, or some other means that would change this sermon from PG-13 to R.

In the same way we don’t know the details of his story we don’t know why he is patron saint of bookbinders, butchers or Florentine cheesemakers, but he is. In many ways, we can call this a gift of the Holy Spirit: that someone for whom so little is known can inspire countless believers over time. But it is his interaction with Jesus—his interaction as under the name Nathanael—that stands out. We pick up the story at verse 47:

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

In the same manner that ancient writers were spilling ink to develop traditions around the disciples, scholars try to find symbolic meaning in the text. Here we have the phrase “under the fig tree” which seems to have deeper meaning in the story. If the answer to the question “how do you know me” is “I saw you under the fig tree,” then maybe we need to look at the fig tree.

Some argue that “under the fig tree” is coded language for study, the shade of the fig tree being a preferred place for prayer and contemplation. Others argue that the fig tree is a symbol for peace and prosperity, suggested by Micah 4, and that Nathanael’s presence under the fig tree is a symbol of the age to come. Still others point to the fig tree in other great religions: the Buddha achieved enlightenment under a fig tree, and Mohammed wished to see a fig tree in paradise.

Or maybe it’s just a fig tree. And Nathanael is just someone Jesus called, who traveled with Jesus, who may not have been in the first twelve, but certainly in the next twelve. At the very least, he can be placeholder for the countless people over time to whom Jesus might say “Here’s someone righteous, you should follow me.”

But before we talk about that, we should talk about placeholders. Do you know about placeholders? When I was a kid there were a handful of things always worth waiting for: the bread truck, heavy-laden with those little sugary donuts, the occasional trip to the dump to look for treasures, and anything that came in the mail from the Perfect Pen & Stationary Company.

You see, my dad was a small-business owner, and we received sample promotional items from Perfect Pen on a regular basis. Appropriate to the name, we received mostly pens, and they most often included a placeholder printed on the side: “Your name here.” You Name Here was useful in that it allowed you to see what the printing looked like—how it appeared on the pen.

So a placeholder is a temporary substitute for something permanent, a way to indicate that a place has been reserved for something that will follow. And even saying these words out loud leads me to wonder about Nathanael and all the other early followers that we know so little about. What if they are simply placeholders, names that hold a place until someone else comes along?

Imagine this: You are invited to come to church, invited to explore a life of faith, not because your life is a wreck, but because you already do the kinds of things church people do. You help your neighbours, you give to charity, you canvass for worthy causes, you drive your friends to shop or see the doctor, you stand up for people who are being treated unfairly, you try to be kind to the less fortunate, you never want to gain from the mistakes of others. You have no deceit. You are Nathanael.

And you’re not that rare. You’re special, in that you do all the things I mentioned, but you have lots of friends who are just like you, so not that rare. Like Nathanael, you are the kind of person that Jesus might point to and say “here’s someone righteous, you should follow me.” Yesterday it was Nathanael, today it’s you, and tomorrow it will be someone else.

In other words, a placeholder. This is not meant to somehow diminish Nathanael or all the other people listed around Jesus. It’s just that when someone near the centre is so vaguely drawn, so ill-defined, it gives us an opportunity to see ourselves in the story, or better yet, to see others in the story who have only a passing knowledge of Jesus and his love.

So perhaps there is no mystery around Nathanael at all. Maybe the fig tree is just a fig tree, to misquote Sigmund Freud. Nathanael is just a placeholder name for all the future Nathanaels who will lean in when someone says “the meaning you’re looking for, the glue that will hold things together, I think you will find in Jesus the Christ.” He’s the source of the compassion you already show, the author of the love you know, the maker of all that is good and treasured—come and follow, come and follow.

May we find the courage to make the invitation that we first received. May we see Nathanaels all around us, and may God give us the words to share. Amen.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

First Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[a] water, but he will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit.”
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

There are early adapters and there are early adapters.

And when an engineer marries an engineer, there is some guarantee that the household will fall under the category of early adaptors. My brother and sister-in-law, ever ready to test the latest gadgets, introduced us to the newest addition to their home, Alexa.

She’s not a person, she’s a personal assistant, ready to try to meet a narrowly defined set of needs whenever you call out her name. “Alexa, what’s the weather like?” or “Alexa, what time is it?” Of course you could simply open the front door or look at your watch, but that would somehow violate the code of the early adapter.

And watching the family interact with their new robot was always going to be cause for comment and gentle mocking. Why is little Annie always going up to Alexa and whispering things? What are they plotting, the new robot and not-quite-four-year-old Annie? I know that she’s not shopping online, since that feature has been wisely disabled. Something about her older brother’s strong temptation to order all the LEGO sets, especially that 4,000 piece LEGO death star.

And of course, when you mock people, they get their revenge, since they gave me my own version of Alexa for Christmas. To avoid confusion, I’ve renamed mine Computer (giving it a Star Trek vibe) and I have to say that the beginning of our relationship has been a bit rocky. I know the time and the weather, so I decided to start with unanswerable questions to try to get the upper hand early: “Computer, what were you thinking?” No response.

Other things I’ve discovered by accident. I tried “Computer, heads or tails?” and she will flip a coin for me. Now we’re getting into truly useful territory. Some times there are no coins handy. Or “Computer, give me a random number between one and ten.” And she does! She will tell you a joke, play some music, and she even knows that she’s only two years old.

Of course, I felt compelled to test her religious knowledge, so I asked her to recite the Shema, the centrepiece of Jewish prayer. She knew it. Then I asked for the Shahada, the first pillar of Islam, and she knew that too! Then I asked her to say the Lord’s Prayer, and told me that I need to download the Bible app to hear scripture. Clearly, she needs some work.

But she will learn, at least according to the user manual, and so we carry on. “Computer, how will the preacher connect the robotic personal assistant to the readings for the day—the baptism of Jesus?” Long pause, and then she might say something like: “That’s easy: John’s baptism is all about learning from our mistakes, and becoming a better personal assistant to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.” Thank you, computer. Soon I’ll have her writing my sermons.

And while we don’t specifically practice John’s baptism any longer, it is a dimension of the One Baptism that remains the only rite of initiation into the Christian church. We go beneath the waters of baptism and die to our old sinful selves, then emerge from the water made new through Christ. The baptism of repentance continues, as one part of a larger story.

Immediately, of course, we have at least two problems. The first (and obvious) problem is baby Norah’s near perfection. She played the baby Jesus in the Christmas play, for heaven’s sake! She hasn’t really had the opportunity to develop a list of faults, let alone committed any sins. However—the theologians will tell you—she has lots of potential. Not wanting to shatter any illusions, but she’ll suffer the same temptation to order all the LEGO or whatever toy strikes her fancy, and when a fleet of UPS trucks line the street, she will be just as likely as any child to say “I didn’t do it.”

The second problem also relates to the baby Jesus in the Christmas play, in the sense that we’re fresh from celebrating Jesus as God’s incarnation, God’s willingness to enter our world. The tender babe is now fully grown, and ready to embark on a three-year ministry that will made sense of the incarnation, showing us the ways of God in the teaching and healing to come. But he’s still God’s incarnation, even fully grown.

So we can see the outline of a problem. God-with-us, Emmanuel, the son of the Most High, has come our into the wilderness seeking a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To quote John the Baptism, "I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you—so why are you coming to me?" On one level, we can just let the problem lie. The Embarrassment Theory tells us that anything that that might be embarrassing to the tradition, yet remains in the scriptural record, is regarded a uniquely true.

In other words, Jesus really needed baptism, or at least really needed us to see him baptized, even if the reasoning is mysterious. Both scripture and tradition tell us that Jesus was without sin, and therefore there has to be another purpose, another reason for accepting John’s baptism. Was he modelling for us? It seems the most likely reason, his willingness to get into the muck of the Jordan and the muck of our humanity, and be cleansed, needed or not. In this sense, it was an act of solidarity, something we never stop needing amid all our sin and sorrow.

So Jesus didn’t need it, and babies don’t need it—so why do we do it? Why not wait, like they do in other traditions, give the kid the chance to really get some serious sinning under their belt? Get them on Facebook, or Twitter—the new go-to place for human stupidity (someone call it “weapons-grade stupid”). We could wait, and sometimes we do, but the effect is the same: in Christ you are a new creation, the past is done, and new life has come.

In other words, age doesn’t matter, actual sin-level doesn’t matter, even which social media ruins you doesn’t matter. What matters is what Christ does at baptism, or rather what we do with Christ at baptism, without any reference to age or stage. St Paul said “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6)

Baptism is resurrection, new life through water and the Spirit, one with Christ and one with everyone in the body of Christ. Norah can no longer play the baby Jesus, she has become one with the baby Jesus, as we each did at the moment of our baptism. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3.28)

So what do we do with all this oneness, and newness, and Christ-like risen-ness? Well, I think you already know the answer. A quick glance at the newspaper or the latest tweet will remind you that baptism isn’t like being laminated somehow or shielded from our humanity. We don’t become faithful robots protected from ourselves. I haven’t asked the computer for a confession (“Computer, how have you sinned?”) but there would be no point. The computer has no free will and no opportunity for real living, so no opportunity to screw up. Even mishearing isn’t the computer’s fault, it was just me mumbling when I should ANNUNCIATE.

We humans, however, have every opportunity to fall short of the Maker’s desire for our lives, and—in turn—every opportunity to make it right. We read the story of the baptism of Jesus as one episode, when in fact, it was ongoing. Jesus may have only visited the Jordan once, but I imagine the crowds that followed John returned again and again. He was offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and since people keep doing it, I imagine they kept going back.

In the same manner, we too keep going back. Our actual baptism happens once, but week-by-week we make our confession, and participate once more in a version of John’s baptism. “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” There is a direct link between then and now, our servuce today and the many services John led by the riverside.

May our baptism be ongoing. May we continue to seek to be reconciled, and may we never forget our oneness in Christ Jesus. Amen.