“Looking Backward, Living Forward”
The Danish philosopher and theologian
Søren Kierkegaard said that life can be understood looking backward but must be
lived going forward.[i]
This morning we heard the stories of two beginnings: the creation story
from Genesis and the beginning of Jesus' ministry at his baptism. Both accounts
involve water and the Spirit of God. Together these two accounts help us to
look backward so that we might live forward.
Through ancient imagination we are
present at the creation.
Listen again to that story: “In the
beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was a formless void
and darkness covered the face of the deep.”
It wasn’t quite as long ago as the
creation, but in my Old Testament class at divinity school I learned the Hebrew
words “Tohu wabohu.” That’s the
Hebrew phrase the authors of Genesis used to describe the primordial earth—a
“formless void.” I’ve always loved the sound of those words. Tohu wabohu. Into that void comes the
Spirit, the breath, the wind of God. You’ll remember that one Hebrew word—ruach—can be translated all three ways.
The Spirit of God is there hovering over the chaos like a mother bird, bringing
order, giving shape.
Later in this opening chapter of Genesis
we hear the astonishing affirmation that human beings have been created in the
very image of this God.
A scientific account?
Of course not.
It was written long before the age of
science. Long before we realized that it took billions of years for the chaos
to be tamed, for our sun and solar system to emerge, and eons for human life to
appear. The writers of this account worked with the cosmology of their day to
show divine power and purpose, and the unique place of human beings in the
scheme of things.
If you prefer science, consider the
words of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Arthur Shawlow: “It is surely right
to pursue as far as possible the scientific understanding of the origins of the
universe, but it is probably wrong to think that we have final answers and that
there are no further surprises to come. From a religious point of view, we
assume that God created and hope to find out something of how God did it.
Scientific research is a wonderful act, in that it reveals more of the wonders
of God’s creation.”[iii]
Looking backward, we learn that the life
we live forward comes from the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us—and
Looking backwards—not in nostalgia, but
in honesty—is difficult, it is something that many would avoid, but it is
central to a life giving future.
Some time ago, commenting on American use
of torture in interrogating prisoners, President Obama famously said that we
need to look forward, not backwards. After the report to the United Nations
Committee Against Torture was released, calling our torture program
“breathtaking in scope” many made statements similar to the President’s. It’s
over. It’s behind us. Let’s move ahead.
But we can only live forward if we look
backwards to understand. A new reality is possible only as we look at and own
Many of you will remember that for some
time we displayed a banner on the Jefferson St. side of our building that read,
“Honor the Image of God: Stop Torture Now.” One day a passerby stopped and
slowly read the banner and then asked me, “Why doesn’t my church have a banner
The message of Christmas season just
past, building on the affirmation of Genesis is that it is this world that God
loves. It is this human flesh that God choses to inhabit. It is as one of us
that God comes to us. This message that Christians call good news of great joy
for all people, is too much for many. They reject it as fantasy, as wishful
thinking, as a remnant of humankind’s childhood.
But this message leads those who have
been convinced of it to recognize that torture dishonors the image of God. It
also denies the good news of the incarnation.
Torture violates the image of God in
human beings if it gives us no valuable information and even if it does. Torture
violates the image of God in human beings if they are innocent and if they are
guilty. And torture violates the image of God when it is used simply for the
purpose of revenge, which seems to be a major motive in its use by our nation.
When we look back we shine a light on
the shadowed places of the world—the torture cells, the halls of power—so that
what has been hidden will be revealed, so that we may yet turn in a new
Looking backward is difficult, painful.
On the last day of 2014, Charles Blow wrote
in The New York Times that the city
and the nation should pause and pay tribute to the two police officers who were
slain in Brooklyn, stating simply, “All lives are precious.” “But,” he added,
“When the eulogies trail off and the tears dry, we must once again wrestle with
the reasons we have arrived at this place, the underlying, unresolved issues:
police-community relations, functional bias in policing, disparities in the use
of force.” He looked back to a 1988 killing of a rookie police officer in Queens
on the orders of a drug lord and the policies and laws and tactics that
developed in response to that shooting—responses that helped bring our nation
to the difficult place in which we now find ourselves.
Looking backwards in honesty is difficult, painful. And it is the only
way to live forward.
And this is where the story of John and Jesus gives us comfort in its
original sense of fortifying us, strenghtening us in difficulty and pain.
In this story we enter the wilderness. . The wilderness is the place,
the time when the heavens seem closed, when we know the affliction of human
beings and the barrenness of the earth. The wilderness is a time and place of
trial. In the wilderness God prepares people for their promised salvation.
Now, in this wilderness, John recalls the prophet’s dream of the coming
messenger of God. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the
way of the Lord.’” is how Isaiah put it. By his words and by his actions, John
suggests that he is just such a person—crying out in the desert places. The
ancient words are given new life by John’s actions.
Which is how it is with the Bible, really. The words of scripture are
just that—words—until we give them life and meaning in our own time—and until
we let those words infuse our own lives with meaning and purpose by the power
of God’s Spirit.
In this place of desolation, John calls for a response of faith that
turns toward the future.
"Repent," he says. Turn in a new direction. Turn away from the
past ways that have led to dead ends in your life and in the world. Turn from
the strife and the hatred that are killing others and yourself.
Repentance is a call to turn from.
But more importantly it is a call to turn toward
the new life that God always makes possible. It is a message for all our days, especially
for these days, and maybe we can hear
it more clearly at the beginning of the new year. Maybe the change of the
calendar allows us to respond more readily.
When we have looked back at what has been, we can turn our gaze and live
forward into what might be. In the wilderness faith shows itself as a vision
for the future.
In his new book Christ Actually,
James Carroll explores the meeting between Jesus and John. He says that if we
can get away from hearing this account as a Bible
story we might be able to hear this “as something occurring in the life of
a normal human being.” In the presence of John, Jesus is able to hear the life
changing good news that he is the beloved child of God. And from that moment
his own mission was to tell that same life changing, world changing good news:
that each one of us is held in the same unconditional love, that everyone is a
beloved child of God.
The heavens are ripped open. We see in this a sign that we have not been
abandoned by God, we are not alone in our affliction. The creator has not
deserted this weary world. The heavens are ripped open and the Spirit descends
like a dove, like the Spirit of God that brooded over the waters of chaos at
creation. Out of the shadows, out of the destruction of the past, there in the
wilderness, a new creation is taking place.
The voice that Jesus hears affirms that he is the Son of God. As Mark
tells the story, at the death of Jesus a Roman soldier would speak similar
words, saying of him: "Truly this was the Son of God." The ministry
of Jesus is bracketed by this affirmation. And as our brother he announces to
us that we too live before God as daughters and sons of a parent whose love is
The future that meets us in Jesus is one in which the value of each
individual human being—of you and me, of neighbors and strangers—is grounded in
the fact that we are the children of God That identity cannot be taken away.
We look back at our baptism and understand that we have been called children of God. Knowing who we are we can find
the ability to look backward and live forward, the strength to forgive and to seek
forgiveness, the courage to engage with a broken and hurting world. Our baptism
informs how we live toward one another and the rest of the world.
The same Spirit present at creation, the
same Spirit present at the baptism of Jesus, comes to us in the chaos of our
own lives, recreating and calling us into a life of covenant with each other
and service to our neighbors in the world. It takes time—oh, it takes time for
us to see the new life into which we have entered. And we never see it fully.
But we get glimpses as we live out our
commitments to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, work with those on the
margins of society. We start seeing this new life—what Jesus called the realm
of God—as we look back and live forward in the pursuit of justice. We start
seeing other people—and even ourselves—as created and re-created in the image
We are who God says we are—the sisters and brothers of Christ, the
daughters and sons of God. We look backward to our baptism and understand who
we are. And we look forward, realizing that we are always discovering in our
lives what it means to be the children of God. The identity that we receive in
baptism is revealed in the unfolding story of our own life, death, and
[i] In Leading Quietly, Joseph Bardaracco, Jr., 2002, HBS Press, pg. 23.