Today is the Sunday designated in the liturgical year as the “Baptism of the Lord.” Jesus is all grown up – just seems like yesterday, last week, that he was in the crib. The “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” brought by those nice foreigners in those pretty costumes. My! How time flies!
In the Gospel of Mark – there is no birth story. It begins with Jesus as a 30-year-old drawn to the words of John the Baptist who comes from the desert to baptize. You know the story well. Jesus is baptized and, as he comes from the water, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends like a dove on him. “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
From that moment on Jesus will find out what being “beloved” means as he moves more deeply into life and faith and the temptations, trials and tribulations that will face him – until his death. Don’t forget that there is a cost to being “beloved!”
Your journey and my journey today is not all that different. For those of you who have been coming here for any length of time you have heard repeatedly that you are beloved. It is the foundation of our work together. It is the glue of our life together. It is the hope that God is well pleased with you – and me. Frankly, some mornings, this is the only thought that gets me out of bed.
But belovedness has a cost: it must be cultivated, used, grown into, wrestled with. In short, you and I have to continue to grow up and learn what being beloved means as we face the temptations, trials and tribulations of our lives until we die.
And that is what I like about the book of James that the Adult Education class is studying and that Clover and I will be preaching on until February 8th – it seeks to answer the question: How then do we live into the baptism that we have been given? What does it really mean to be a Christian in real time? Moving beyond an experience of affirmation – the mountain top experience – into real life lived in community. How do we make a witness to the world?
I remember the report of the pagan during the onslaught of plaque in the 3rd century. He noticed that Christians made it their habit to tend for the sick, even at the expense of their own health and he wrote, impressed: “See how they love!
Yes! “See how they love!” If our faith is to mean something then it must be expressed; for Christianity is not merely a theology, a way of speaking about God, or a philosophy – a way of speaking about wisdom and truth – Christianity is a way of living in the midst.
The communities to which James wrote at the end of the first century were in the midst of disorder. Politically – Rome controlled everything, and there was unrest in Palestine – there was disconnect between the citizens and those who policed them. The world as they encountered it seemed to be coming apart at the seams. There was tension between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor – there was a lot of fluidity and diversity. And many were wondering if faith even mattered, if this “beloved” thing was any more than words.
And so James sets out to set us right reminding us as St. Paul did that all the tension of our times, all the fluidity, is perhaps a sign of a kairos or spirit time. That maybe all this unrest – all these trials, and testing – produces endurance, produces an enriched faith that leads us past simplistic, narrow belief into maturity that allows the believer to stand firm in the midst of it all and witness to something.
And really that is the struggle that you and I are in too, in this day and age. W are living in the age of doubt. The recent events in Paris bring it all up again: forcing us to wonder what kind of world are we living in, what kind of God do we believe in, what kind of faith are you and I called to? While “the fabric of our lives” may be cotton, it is also rent – by distractions, disaffections, doubt and disease. We are not at ease in this new dispensation – in the afterglow of Christmas, as the water from the baptism is still moist on our heads – we have doubts.
And so it is very interesting that the first thing that James addresses in his letter is “doubt.” “But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” (v.6-8)
Many, perhaps most, think that the word “doubt” points to intellectual questioning of propositions: like “the virgin birth, ” “seven-day creation;” or whether you can claim to be a person of faith when you sometimes doubt the existence of a good God in the midst of madness.
But I don’t think that James means “intellectual questioning.”
Frederick Buechner writes: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
As Anne Lamont has said, and as my father reminded me the other day, “The opposite of faith [is not doubt] but …. certainty!”
How do you like that? I really like it. Closed-minded certainty is a dangerous thing especially in religion. Christian faith is not a position of narrow certainty – “I don’t care what the facts show, or science suggests, or my own heart is discerning.”
James uses the word “diakrinomenos” which is better translated as “staggering” or “wavering.” Diakrinomenos is not about intellectual questioning–it is about not being grounded–not a good place to be. So the doubt that James writes about is not honest questioning, it is, perhaps, more like cynicism.
Actually, I think the “doubt” James writes about is more of a spiritual location – being cast adrift and disconnected. Because it’s hard to recognize God, or to accept the care of others, when you are staggering or wavering like a drunk.
And just as doubt is not so much an intellectual position – so too is faith more a matter of the heart than it is of the head.
You can have all the questions you want but do you want to trust that there is more than meets the eye? Trust that, in the midst of this fluid age, love wins? Trust that beneath and beyond all our knowledge and experience there is a greater good to reach for, a greater love to live for, a greater truth to strive for, and a better self to seek after. Now we are talking faith!
For we will come to know God’s love more fully as we become more loving. We will know God’s forgiveness as we become more forgiving. The more we move beyond words to action – the more we will discover the real nature of God – the presence of God, the truth of God.
I think the parallel to any relationship is apt – you don’t know love until you love, trust until you trust, get anywhere until you actually go somewhere.
That is what James is talking about. Into this life – with all its temptations and trials and tribulation, with all the exigencies – there is a rock of salvation, a light illuming the way, a community to nurture and help, a hope that calls us forward – a story of a love so deep and wide – that we are all swept up in a tsunami of baptism grace.
So don’t give the doubts of your head more power than your hopes of the heart. Don’t cut yourself off and stagger around all alone – that is no way to find joy or to live in these difficult days.