“The God of Our Beginnings”

January 15, 2017

Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17


Students return—and we’re always glad for that, even though it means we no longer enjoy the abundance of parking spaces that we’ve had in recent weeks—classes start, and as is the custom and calendar at the University, the spring semester begins with the annual Celebration of Human Rights honoring the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. What used to be a week-long event now starts with the interfaith worship service tonight and continues through the end of the month.

It is a point of pride—not only for the university but for our whole community—that the recognition of King’s birthday has been a tradition at the University of Iowa since 1969, and that the national holiday has been observed through human rights programs since its inception in 1986.

This year the theme of the celebration invites us to consider just what is going on at the University—is aim and its goal. Taking the words from a newspaper article that King wrote while as student at Morehouse College in 1947, we are told: “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of a true education.”

In that newspaper article, King suggested that: “The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” King’s example of this was Eugene Talmadge, the Democratic governor of Georgia who had died only a few months before King’s article was written. Among other things, Talmadge was the leader of racist and segregationist elements in Georgia. When a dean at the University of Georgia advocated bringing black and white students together in the classroom, Talmadge launched an attack on the university, charging elitism, and called for the regents to remove the dean and purge the university of Communists, “foreigners” that is, non-Georgians, and supporters of racial equality. King wrote that Talmadge “possessed on of the better minds of Georgia, or even America. He wore the Phi Beta Kappa key. By all measuring rods, he could think critically and intensively; yet [Talmadge] contends,” King wrote, “that I am an inferior being.” And he asked: “Are those the types of men we call educated?”

“Intelligence is not enough,” King concluded. “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

As a new semester begins around us, these days of beginning urge us to reflect on the ends, the goals, of education.

As a new President is inaugurated this Friday, these days of the beginning of his term call us to reflect on the ends, the goals of democracy.

As a new year opens before us, these days of beginning call us to reflect on the ends, the goals, of our lives.

This morning we find some help with our beginnings and our ends in the baptism of Jesus.

While only two gospels tell a Christmas story, all four remember that day at the Jordan River, when Jesus comes to be baptized by John.

John appears in the wilderness around the Jordan River. The wilderness is a time and place of trial. The wilderness is the place where the heavens seem closed. The wilderness is the time when we know the affliction of human beings and the barrenness of the earth. Those times when you pray and find no answer are times in the wilderness. When you face difficult choices with no good options you are staring at the desert places of life.

 In the wilderness God makes the people ready for the land of promise. In the wilderness God prepares people for the wholeness of life that is coming.

In the wasteland, John dares to speak a word of good news. And in a sense good news can only be spoken and heard when we stand in the waste places and realize that life is not perfect, the we are not the good people we want to think we are, that there is such a thing as “sin” separating us from all that gives life and makes life good. Good news can only be heard when we go to those places where people are hungry, poor, and broken and seek to join with them in the struggle for life.

The rabbis tell us that all beginnings are difficult. So it should not surprise us to find John and Jesus in a place of forsakenness and foreboding.

Even before Jesus shows up, John calls for a response of faith that turns toward the future.

“Repent,” he tells the crowds who come out to see him. Turn in a new direction. Turn from the ways that have led to dead ends in your life. Turn from the strife and the bitterness and the hatred that are killing others and you.

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. I like the way Fredrick Buechner puts it when he says: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’’

In these beginning days we can hear the call to repent more clearly and respond to it more concretely.

What but “repent” can we do in response to the growing environmental crisis that threatens all of life? What but “repent” can do in response to calls to renew the failed practice of torture? What but “repent” can we do in a nation seemingly giving free rein to religious intolerance, homophobia, and racism? The call to 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 the call to walk in the way of responsible stewardship of the earth, caring for creation; it is the call to engage in the dangerous and skillful work of making peace; it is the call to recognize and cherish the image of God in each human being.

Looking back at what has been, we can also turn our gaze and look forward to what might be. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah: “The former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” We see the vision of a restored world before it appears and begin the faithful journey toward the new.

“Repent,” John cries.

Turn toward the new.

Embrace the possibilities of beginnings.

Baptism is a beginning—and in a sense it calls us back to the very beginning, to our creation in the image of God. The message that comes to Jesus—you are my beloved—comes to us as well. We are the beloved daughters and sons of God. When we hear of the Spirit descending like a dove, we remember the Spirit of God brooding over the waters of chaos at creation and realize that out of the chaos of our own live and the chaos of our world a new creation is taking place. Baptism calls each person to be faithful to the image of God that they are, leaving others free to do the same. One of the most difficult tasks anyone has is to find our just who he or she is before the living God. Your own baptism continues to ask the question: “Who is God calling you to become?”

This is where the story of Jesus’ baptism begins to inform our lives in these days.

Jesus’ baptism—even accompanied with a voice from heaven—did not settle everything. It actually didn’t settle anything. The baptism of Jesus was simply the beginning of his ministry. As Matthew pictures that event, he seems to remember the words of the prophet Isaiah—Jesus is the servant of God, the chosen One in whom God delights who will bring forth justice to the nations. In Jesus, God is doing a new thing.

But the fuller picture of the new thing that God is doing in Jesus will only become clear as he lives out his life and his calling—bringing healing to broken people, speaking words of peace and comfort as well as words of challenge, confronting authorities and powers that would destroy, even at the cost of his own life.

So too, the meaning of our beginnings—a new semester, or a new President, or a new year—the meaning of our beginnings is only made clear as we live through the times that we have been given, moving toward the goals that call us forward.

Education is only a beginning. The hours, the years in the classroom, in the library, in the lab, in the practice room, in the studio are meant to produce something—and something beyond scholarly work or a great performance. There is much more at stake, as King suggests.

An inauguration is only a beginning. The word inaugurate comes to us from Latin and has its origins in the practice of augury—the practice of divination from omens. Even today our prophets and pundits seek to tell us what will come of the next presidency—always, of course, being unable to tell of what challenge will lift a President to great heights or what might bring him down. We might not be able to predict what the future holds. But the maintenance and flourishing of our liberal democracy should be of greater concern than what entertainers are or are not performing on Friday and our actions should be toward the goal of strengthening our democratic institutions.

This year is only at its beginning. What are you moving toward in these days?

Certainly there are those times when we will sense that we’re not up to the task, that there’s too much to deal with, that we are in over our heads. There are times as parents when we feel like this on a daily basis. There are times when we feel this at work, at school, with our friends. There are times when the world seems to overwhelm. As a congregation we can feel this way as we seek to be signs of God’s love in world that all too often works in direct opposition to that love.

At such times, we remember our baptism. We remember that we have already been in over our heads. We remember that the waters of death have overwhelmed us. We remember that God who is greater than the waters of chaos has reached out and saved us.

We remember that if baptism is about death, even more it is about resurrection and the new life that God makes possible, the new life that God offers to each of us, to all of us.

In our baptism we have been in over our heads. We came through it by God’s grace.

And so we are given courage for the days ahead. We recognize that hope and happiness are not fleeting dreams but gifts of God who makes all things new. We recognize that in all our trials and troubles, we are surrounded by congregation that is a community of support and encouragement sustained by the Spirit of the living God.

The God of our beginnings is also the God of our ending, the God of our living is also the God of our dying and rising to new life in Christ.