January 14, 2018

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Mark 1:4-11

Acts 19:1-7


In our New Year Eve’s service last year (which was only two weeks ago), I said that I was rather skeptical about New Year’s resolution. I told everyone that my resolution this year was not to have any resolution because most resolutions only lasted for a short while anyway.

But I have to backtrack because I think at the very heart of New Year’s resolution is something that is very human: we all want to be better. We want to lose weight by exercising more and eating less; in other words, we want to be healthier. We want to visit our parents or call our children or spend time with our friends more; in other words, we want to improve our relationship. We want to spend less time and money on ourselves and dedicate more time and money on worthy causes; in other words, we want to make contribution to the community. New Year’s resolution tells us that we don’t want things to stay the way they are. We want to improve. We want to make the world a better place for ourselves and others.

Well, I believe that this kind of desire has its origin in God because the Bible testifies that God too does not want things to stay the way they are. In the reading that we have this morning from the book of Genesis, God created the world from a ‘formless void’ to something utterly new and better. No, God did no create the world out of nothingness. The Hebrew words in the reading that describe the condition of the world before creation are tohu wa vohu, which don’t mean nothingness. Tohu wa vohu mean a state of utter chaos and darkness. In other words, God created life out of desolation.

So friends, New Year’s resolution is a reflection of our deep desire not only to make things better, but ultimately to join God in creating new life. Our reading today from Genesis proclaims that the Spirit of God hovered about the face of the primal water of chaos at the beginning of creation. The Hebrew word that is translated as “hovered” or “swept over” can also be translated as “fluttered” or “shimmied”. In other words, the Spirit of God “danced’ above the water of chaos.[1] Creation is thus God’s work of art. Our desire to bring order out of chaos, light into dark, both in our own life and in the life of others, is the desire to join God in the dance of creating new life.

This desire to reorder one’s life must have been what drove the people in Jerusalem and countryside of Judea to come to John to be baptized in the river Jordan. In our reading today from Mark’s Gospel, John was offering people the baptism for the forgiveness of sin and people were confessing their sins to him in droves. Perhaps, they came to John because they couldn’t afford the ritual of the forgiveness of sins in the temple that required animal sacrifice. Whatever the real reason behind people coming to John, there was a great need amongst the people that John’s baptism seemed to meet.

Now the word sin has become a dirty word in today’s world. We are reluctant to talk about sin because it’s hard to talk about sin nowadays without being labelled moralistic. But understanding sin is fundamental in our understanding of the Christian faith.

We often equate sin with things that we are not allowed to do, either by our parents, our teachers, or by our society. But sin is ultimately not about a list of ‘dos and don’ts’. Sin is the power that drives the entire creation away from God. When we are sinful, it doesn’t mean that we have done something naughty; when we are sinful, we are acting against God and God’s will for us and the world.

When people came to John to be baptized, they were not only listing all the bad things that they had done in the past. By being baptized, they committed themselves to leaving behind their old life and creating new life by aligning their life to God and God’s will. Indeed, John’s baptism was an act of creation in that those people who came to him were created anew. Just like water was present when God created the world in the beginning, the water of Jordan river represented the birth of new life.

But the most important element in baptism is not water; it is the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit, not John or the water of the Jordan river, who truly baptized Jesus. During his baptism by John, Jesus was consecrated to his mission by the Holy Spirit of God who descended upon him like a dove. Likewise today, it is the Holy Spirit of God, not the clergy or the water, who transforms a person being baptized.

We hear this message in our passage today from the book of Acts. It tells the story of Paul who encountered a group of Christians in the city of Ephesus who had been baptized by Apollos, another Christian missionary in the region. Now, during the time of the early Christians, there are a variety of baptismal practices. Some, like Apollos, inherited the baptismal practice of John the baptizer. But gradually, there was a consensus that baptism should be done in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, just like what Jesus commanded in Matthew’s Gospel.[2] This was what Paul did when he baptized the believers in Ephesus for the second time. (Now, I don’t want to get into the topic of whether or not it is ok to re-baptize someone; that’s a topic for another time).

But, whether or not the believers in Ephesus were baptized in the correct way was not Paul’s main concern. His main concern was whether or not the believers in Ephesus had received the Holy Spirit of God. For Paul, whether the believers were baptized according to the tradition of John the baptizer or according to the consensus of the early Church was only secondary. For Paul, the most important thing was whether or not the Holy Spirit was already working in the life of these believers.

Indeed friends, it is the Holy Spirit that works within one’s life to transform it. The Holy Spirit of God is the same Spirit that was present in the beginning of creation. It was the Spirit of God that hovered above the primal waters of chaos and death and destruction, and created the new world. It is the same Sprit who now works in our life today, creating new life and bringing harmony out of chaos.

Friends, in the end, New Year’s resolution is about transforming old life into new life. It is about working with the Holy Spirit of God to restore our life and the entire creation to the way God designed it at the very beginning. And to do that, we are to listen to the guidance and the voice of the Holy Spirit of God.

One of the most influential Christian thinkers is St. Augustine of Hippo. Many people, even today, still see him as the most influential theologian in the Church, second only to the Apostle Paul. But Augustine did not start his life as a Christian. Even though his mother was a devout Christian, his father was a Roman official pagan and he himself drifted from one religion or school of philosophy to another.

Augustine was a brilliant man and his mind was always restless, searching for truth. In his younger age, he embraced Manichaeism, a popular religion at the time that was born in what we now know as modern Iran. He was disappointed by Manichaeism later in his life and drifted to Neoplatonism.

He knew about Christianity - and had met another brilliant Christian thinker at the time, Bishop Ambrose - but he was still not ready to embrace the Christian faith.

Until, one day, while he was sitting in a garden in the city of Milan, he heard a child singing, “Take it and read it! Take it and read it!” Augustine heard the message and he took what was near him and it happened to be Paul’s letter to the Romans. He read the text and that moment in his life was the day when he was convinced of the truth of the Christians faith. He was soon baptized by Bishop Ambrose and, a few years later, he too was consecrated as a Bishop.

In his life, Augustine became the most prominent Christian scholar that greatly influenced the Church. He wrote books that are now even still considered as foundational to the understanding of the Christian faith. But his life would not have been turned around if he had ignored the gentle voice, calling him to “take and read.”

Indeed, the voice of God has the power that can transform life. The entire universe was created by God’s word. “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light (Genesis 1:3 – NRSV).” And God created all creatures and all things in the world in the same manner.

Our reading today from the book of Psalms also proclaims that the voice of God has the power to reshape, bend, and mold the world. In the Hebrew language, a word is not only a collection of letters, like in English. In the Hebrew language, a word is like a “thing” or even an “event”. Words “have substance such that they are able to change the reality into which they enter.”[3] For the Hebrews, a word, especially the word of God, had the capacity to change one’s reality.

This is still true today. God’s word has the capacity to transform our reality and makes it into to the kind of reality that God desires; the reality “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Friends, life is a never-ending journey towards newness. For the Geneva based theologian, John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian movement, life as a Christian is a journey of sanctification. Life is a journey of being made holy, which does not mean un-blemished or perfect, but being separated for God’s purpose. We are on a journey to become more and more like Christ, to become a new creation in him. Amen.

Toby Keva

[1] Valerie Bridgeman, Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5, on www.workingpreacher.org (January 7, 2018)

[2] Matthew 28:19

[3] Bobby Morris, Commentary on Psalm 29, on www.workingpreacher.org (January 7 2018)