We are going to get God-drunk today, our heads spinning, everything seems uncertain and the ground on which we stand may sway. We will stand in awe and wonder, because today we are imbibing that rich concoction that is the Trinity, and we will try to avoid heresy as we discuss it. I’m not going to give you advice on how to live a better life today, or how to get right with God, because wisdom, as the proverbs remind us, begins when we stand in awe and trembling before God; letting the wonder of all that God is shatter our preconceptions and stir our hearts and imaginations.
Our text today was written centuries before the development of the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed was brought about by the emperor Constantine, who insisted there had to be one right answer and the best theologians of the land needed to get their heads together and figure it out. The primary question, at that time, was who is Jesus Christ and what is his relationship to God Almighty? Some said he was a prophet, others the son of God, and therefore not equal to God but somehow lesser, some insisted he was divine right from the start, even before he was born, others insisted that divinity was conferred upon him at his baptism. Today, we are listening to scripture which predates this attempt at certainty.
Proverbs 9 tells us that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but I want to challenge that translation. Where we can, we use scripture to understand scripture, and there are few phrases that are more common than “do not be afraid,” so I want to challenge the translation that states we ought to be afraid of God. I want to suggest that a better translation is, “The beginning of wisdom is to stand in awe of the Lord,” with all due trembling and wonder, with our knees knocking not because we are afraid but because we are over-awed, standing before the enormity and majesty of God, allowing the un-captured and unlimited mystery of God to sway us, to touch our heart;
So let us begin;
In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, the Word was with God and the Spirit of God, the Ruach which moves where it will and cannot be bound or contained, moved over the tohu wa bohu, the chaos and darkness, and the tehom, the depths from which all life would be called forth. God seen through a Trinitarian lens, shaped by the Nicene creed, is present in the beginning wholly and fully, all three aspects or persons of God present. The Word, the Spirit, the Creator, moving over the chaos and darkness, acting on the watery depths, began to create.
Yet there must have been some sense of separation when the son of God became incarnate, became enfleshed and accepted some of the limitations of humanity. This separation which is so painfully evident on the cross as we hear Jesus crying out, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Jesus, Beloved child, chosen one, in whom God’s soul delights, who will bring forth justice for all the nations (Isaiah 42) experiences a separation from God the Father, calls and cries out. The temple veil separating the holy of holies is shredded as if in grief and loss. God is set loose on the earth, no longer housed in this space. But I get ahead of myself. Our eyes are drawn to the climatic scene as the heavens are rent and torn open, too many spoilers ruin a good story.
Returning to Jesus birth, we have this sense of individuation, separation, and perhaps even appreciation, as when you happen to glimpse someone you know well and love but for a moment, you fail to recognize them, for a moment you see them as a stranger would, and then familiarity reasserts itself bringing with it a deeper appreciation of who they are, of how others see them.
It is almost impossible to speak of the Trinity without committing one heresy or another. Do we lean toward seeing God in three persons and suddenly we have populated our theology not with one God but three, or do we lean toward the one and suddenly we have a God who is always one and only one but wears different masks at different times, now appearing in the mode of Spirit, now Creator, now Savior? God, very God, three in one God, wholly and completely three, wholly and completely one, eludes us. We just can’t wrap our minds around the concept.
Here in this instance we see God looking at God, and looking with joy, awe, and appreciation. Here we have God the Creator looking at God the Savior and exclaiming for all to hear, isn’t this wonderful? This movement of the Savior toward humanity, drawing the Creator, drawing the Spirit near, with deep appreciation and love. Witnessing the consecration, the submission of the Messiah to human necessity, not godly necessity, but human, and we see God very God, in an act of gentle humility submitting to the care and love of John the Baptist. God again giving God’s very self into the care of a very human person. One who would proclaim Jesus in one moment, but express doubt later.
As John preached and called for repentance on the banks of the river Jordan, offering a new baptism, one that was particularly effective, not one that needed to be done and redone but one that sealed a change in one’s being. This was a new thing, just as it was new for a prophet to offer a remedy to those he challenged. John’s call for repentance, for preparing the way of the Lord was not new, his offering a baptism was, and like all new things it drew a crowd. And as this crowd came in all their difficult humanity and diverse understandings of what was occurring, Jesus walked in their midst. He comes to John just as all the others do and he refuses to accept a position of privilege. Fully committing himself to his humanity, he asks John to baptize him. Jesus who was without sin, washes in the waters of the Jordan, just like everyone else. There is humility and tenderness in this, a quiet surrender to the will of God, not simply as an example, do as I do, but in fullness, without intending an audience, but quietly going to John with “please” on his lips and gratitude in his heart. This act of surrender and submission to God’s will does not make Jesus the messiah, he was that at his birth. It does serve to consecrate him to this task, an anointing, making him the Christ, the anointed one.
And the heavens are rent apart. How different is this moment from the moment of his birth when the heavens were filled with angels proclaiming his arrival. This rending of all that would stand as a barrier between God and humanity re-unites all three aspects of the Trinity. God the Father tearing through the fabric of space to be reunited in joy with his son, the Holy Spirit flying down over the waters, over the holy child, resting upon him, gentle as a kiss. This is the tearing down of all barriers that might separate God from God’s self, that might separate God from the world, that might separate God from us.
The heavens are torn apart, just like the temple veil which separates the holy of holies will be torn apart when Jesus dies. God is let loose in the world, no longer confined in some distant heaven or far off place, no longer confined to a small section of the sanctuary which no one enters but once a year and then trembling in fear of God’s wrath. God is loosed upon the world. Barriers between us and God are destroyed, overcome, obliterated, no more. If the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos of creation is so vividly recalled when the Spirit of God hovers over the chaos of humanity’s desperate attempts to be made whole, to find salvation to be healed, if it causes us to look back at the creation, then the tearing of the sky foreshadows the tearing and over coming of the temple veil. Our view is at once drawn back to the first creation and forward to the new creation, the new order. Somewhere between these two events we remember the crossings of the red sea and the Jordan, being freed from slavery, the promise of a home, a land flowing with milk and honey freedom from want and deprivation. In our baptisms we are set free to live a new life, a life freed from fear.
Every baptism is an image of beauty in the midst of chaos, recalling the chaotic waters of creation and the Spirit of God hovering over the Tehom to call forth beauty in her midst. Every baptism is a reminder of liberation from exile, the waters parting as we walk out of bondage and into hope. Every baptism is an invitation us to open our eyes and see God at work in us and in spite of us, a holy wind rushing through the community of faith as we feel the splash of water upon our skin.
Feeling the Spirit descend upon us, we would know that no matter what was raging around us, the Spirit of God is always hovering over the waters of our world, a beacon of hope, a promise of new life. Over the chaos and apparent dysfunction of our daily lives, of our society, of this beautiful world, teeming with life, with loss, with new birth, with death, God speaks and moves, still creating, still bringing us into the new creation, bringing us through the waters and into the promise. The Spirit of God still hovering over and around us, God still creating, still shaping and molding us into a new creation.
If we are brave enough, we will grasp this gift that God is giving us, this new promise. If we are brave enough we will take that outstretched hand and enter the dance. May it be so,