Genesis 1:1-5 , Mark 1:4-11, Acts 19:1-7
It is still early in this new year, a time when many of us are still thinking about what comes next, what we would like to accomplish, what resolutions we intend to keep in 2021. It’s a time of beginnings. We have been living in a sort of suspended animation for the past ten months because of COVID. Now that the vaccine is here, we can at least anticipate breaking out of the limitations the pandemic has imposed on us, starting a new chapter in our individual lives and in the life of Union Church.
How apt, then, that the lectionary readings for this early Sunday in the new year offer up three lessons that have to do with new beginnings. The first is just five verses of the story of the Creation in the book of Genesis. The basic affirmation of Genesis 1:1 is that in the beginning of all things God was there. God was there to separate the day from the night, to form the heavens and the earth, to divide the dry land from the waters, to shape the sea monsters and the goldfish, the monkeys and salamanders, and for a laugh or two God threw some paint on the canvass and created the zebras and giraffes and armadillos. God was there, to start it all. Of course, we know that not long after the world got going, there was that business with the snake and the forbidden fruit in the Garden, and then Cain and Abel and one morning on the front page of the Eden Times there was a story about a murder between brothers, and the cat was out of the bag so to speak.
One day God started all over again: a flood, an ark filled with creatures two by two, Noah, the great waters, and a rainbow promise that this was the last time for that. No more floods from that time on, God said, shocked at the destruction. No more floods from God. It would all have to play out some other way. That’s the first story for the day. And the second is similar to it. It’s Mark’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, his baptism. Another water story. Just a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the birth of the child laid in the manger, but now he’s all grown up, a bearded
carpenter from Nazareth, who comes to the Jordan River to be baptized. The second story is the story of his baptism. No infant baptism mind you, but the beginning of a new page in his adult life, as he dusts off the sawdust and wood shavings of the carpenter’s shop and enters into the work that God has called him to fulfill, which will be the work of an itinerant rabbi, traveling around the countryside preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captive, and bringing healing to the sick.
This is a major career change, from craftsman-carpenter, to rabbi-evangelistmiracle worker. But there, at the Jordan, Jesus makes that change in baptism and starts life all over again. The last of the lessons for today—from the book of Acts— describes Paul’s experience in the church in Ephesus. A church started by Apollos, another disciple, who had botched things pretty seriously by baptizing the believers there in the name of John the Baptist. Nice try, Apollos! As a way of testing the efficacy of what had happened, Paul asked the good folks of the church in Ephesus if they had received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized. And they said they didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit. So Paul shook his head and began to straighten things out. He baptized the whole lot of them a second time, but this time in the name of Jesus Christ, and when he did, the Spirit came upon them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied and with that the church in Ephesus was on its way.
It was a new beginning for those young Ephesian Christians, and while there would be other matters for Paul to attend to there at a later time, at least he had gotten things straightened out for the time being and helped them make a new and right beginning. All three stories are stories of fresh starts, the first day of creation, the day of Jesus’ baptism, the church in Ephesus starting over. Three accounts of life made new by the gift of the Spirit. All of them good stories to hear early in this new year as we think about what lies ahead. The consistent witness of the scriptures from beginning to end is the promise of renewal, the assurance that we can make a new start in life, carried on the wings of God’s spirit—that spirit which divided the waters at the beginning of all things, and came with power to Jesus at the Jordan, and has touched each of us, as well, we who have been baptized in his name.
You may remember old Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came by night and studied with Jesus by candlelight. Jesus told him that he must be born from above, born anew. And Nicodemus, who could be a little slow on the uptake sometimes, took Jesus literally and thought that he must re-enter his mother’s womb somehow, he knew not how. So he asked Jesus why he would suggest such an impossible thing. Of course, he misunderstood the fact that Jesus was speaking in spiritual terms. That you must be born from above spiritually. So Nicodemus struggled with this idea of being born anew.
I think we all struggle with the idea of such new beginnings in life because we have been there before, done that, made those false starts and felt the disappointment of failing. We’ve promised ourselves, or God, or the stars above to lose weight, to be more patient with our kids, to take out the garbage without being asked, or you fill in the blank. And the first hour or the first day or two things seemed to be off to a good start, but pretty
soon it all went downhill fast, and before you knew it you were right back to the same old ways.
I think about that email that was making the rounds not so long ago, the prayer for the day that said,
Dear Lord, so far today, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped. I haven’t lost my temper. I haven’t lied or cheated. I haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or overindulgent. I’m very thankful for that. But in a few minutes, Lord, I’m going to get out of bed. And from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot more help! Amen.
I think all of us tend to take stock of our lives in the early days of each new year and reflect on where we are headed and where we want to go. But timely as these good intentions are, when I speak of new beginnings, I’m not thinking about New Year’s Resolutions or the challenges of keeping weight under control or not being so grumpy. Rather, I’m thinking about what it is to make a fresh start from a Christian perspective, standing before God and one another, with the water mark of baptism on our foreheads, determined to reflect in our lives that new life that we have seen in Jesus Christ. That is a different kind of beginning, the kind that goes to the deepest need of our lives, something far more important than that which can be resolved by will power or dieting or even being purpose-driven as a matter of our own driven-ness. Starting anew, in the Christian life, is living out the promise of baptism; it is recognizing that God’s love is greater than our sin, and acknowledging that we need that love every day of our lives. That without it, we’re sunk!
There isn’t a person among us who does not have some regrets about life, a road not taken, a word said that cannot be reversed, an injury inflicted that did more harm than we ever intended, a decision that had unfortunate consequences for us and for the ones we love. Most of us have wounds inside and scars on our soul that do not show at surface level, but that nonetheless run deep. Getting past the past is one of the hardest things
there is to do in life. Indeed, can any of us really start over again, regrets and all, once the damage is done, once the word is said, once the violation has occurred? The answer is; it depends. It depends not just on us, but also on the ones we have hurt, the ones who have been shut out or rejected, or injured by our actions. Sometimes we and they are ready to let go of the past, and sometimes not.
Some things we can forgive in others, and we can ask forgiveness for what we have done that has caused injury, forgiveness from God and forgiveness from one another. It never hurts to ask, humbly, and we cannot help but learn something in the process. When we do ask forgiveness it keeps life real, and makes us accountable for what we have done, which is ultimately good, painful though it may be. For many of us, however, there are some regrets, some sorrows, some sins which only God can forgive. And it’s those, that these stories of new beginning that we have read today address.
In baptism we celebrate the good news that God’s love and forgiveness exceed our sin. That there is always more love in God than sin in us. Anne Lamott in her book, Traveling Mercies, refers to a truth that is not easy, but that is nonetheless as true as truth can be. And that is that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past. Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past.(1)
As long as we continually blow on the embers of what we might have done differently in life, or how others might have treated us differently, we keep alive the illusion that we can somehow undo what we cannot. The truth is that the hurtful past cannot be changed; it can only be put to rest, accepted, and ultimately rendered powerless by our laying it aside. Which is precisely what God has done in Jesus Christ: given the world a new beginning. Laid aside hate and replaced it with love, replaced regret with promise, sadness with joy, ending with beginning, and turned death into life.
There is a point in every baptismal service when the minister says, “Let us remember with joy our own baptism as we celebrate this sacrament.” And it’s not for nothing that those words are spoken. They are our comfort and our assurance as Christians that we can begin anew, because in baptism that is what we remember, that God is a God of new beginnings, who makes all things new, who at year’s start and year’s end is the same yesterday, today and forever. A God of grace, of love, and of compassion. A God who knows us through and through, and loves us still and all. At the font, at the table, and at pulpit, that is the truth we proclaim, the hope that we celebrate, so help me God. That by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit we really can start all over again.
To the Lord who speaks to us, strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen.
(1)Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 213.