In prayer we acknowledge “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders,” — may it be so among us.
Today we reflect on three passages: Ps. 29, Acts 8:14-17 and Luke 3:21-22.
The fellow sat down heavily across the table from me. He was tall, bearded, and were it not for his bow-tie and sport jacket, he would have looked like a lumberjack. “In my country crime isn’t such a problem,” he said. “We have police but they mostly just direct traffic. You know, they blow their whistles and wave their hands.”
“I assume you’re not talking about Canada,” I say. “For some reason I thought you were Canadian. You know that it counts as Canada even if you’re outside of Toronto?”
“Well, I guess I’m thinking of my wife’s country,” he replies. “I’ve lived there over half of my life. It feels like home; I can’t wait to go back. I’m not used to this snow and ice. Why do so many people still live here, haven’t they found enough beaver pelts yet?”
I’m a little intrigued: “Okay, your country, your wife’s country, whatever—why isn’t crime such a big deal?”
“Because the people take care of it themselves. People don’t steal unless their desperate or on drugs because if you do you’ll be chased down and beaten. Would you steal something if you knew a mob would beat you with farm tools?”
“Probably not,” I say, “but I’m not big on stealing anyway. I snuck into a circus once, would they beat me for that?”
“Maybe,” says the bow-tied lumberjack. “Once in our village we woke up to find someone laying in the street a few blocks from our house. He had been burned. They put a tire around his neck and lit it on fire.”
“Do they ever get the wrong person,” I ask.
“Probably,” he says, “but that’s how they’ve done it for generations. Lots of things are different though—between there and here.”
“I’m sure that’s true.”
He goes on, “Churches are a lot different. There are lots of Anglicans there. Are you an Anglican?”
“Not really,” I say, “but I like their outfits. It seems easy to get dressed if you’re an Anglican priest. Who knows what they wear under their robes. Could be sweatpants—doesn’t matter.”
Bowtied lumberjack doesn’t want lose his train of thought: “They make a lot more of the Holy Spirit there. It’s not surprising, there are spirits everywhere in that part of the world. I once saw a shaman take off his coat and hand it to a spirit . . . or something invisible. The coat just hung there in the air. The churches focus much more on the Holy Spirit. People are healed, hands and feet come back. They just grow right out again. I’ve even heard stories about the dead being raised to life. Stories from people I trust. I don’t know what’s wrong with you . . . with us here. Why doesn’t it happen in our churches? Some people say it’s because we don’t have enough faith. I don’t think that’s it. I know people here with lots of faith, but they aren’t healed.”
“I think it’s a complicated issue,” I say. “We have these metaphysical assumptions that don’t let us even contemplate . . .”
He breaks in, “Yah, we always say it’s complicated. That’s our excuse.”
And now to the texts . . .
There are many ways to describe the Christian faith, there are many words that represent its most significant insights. We often think of words like ‘love’ or ‘faith’ or ‘peace’. Those are good words, but our texts today point toward a different one—‘surprise’. That’s the word: it’s ‘surprise’. We could say ‘wonder’ or ‘astonishment’ or ‘strangeness’ or even be philosophical and speak of ‘otherness’, but the sturdy word ‘surprise’ will do just fine. Surprise represents one of the faith’s most significant patterns.
It is surprising that the Infinite One would create a cosmos: it astonishes. It is surprising that the Powerful One would grant creatures freedom: it catches us unaware. It is surprising that the One who is spirit would take on human flesh: it could not have been anticipated.
Those are the big surprises, and yet there are others. It was surprising that the Lord of All, the one who would be Israel’s king, agreed to appoint a human king (Saul, then David and his heirs). Scripture, I Samuel to be specific, gives us the impression that the Lord of All does this simply because the people wanted to be like other nations. It was surprising that in a world dominated by men the central human actor in the story of how God took on human flesh was a woman. It was surprising that the news of the child’s birth would go first to shepherds. It was surprising that they would find the Messiah in a feeding trough. But . . .
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The life of this Jesus, a rabbi Son of God, would entail more surprises. He would prompt his students to re-read their Scriptures in light not only of his birth and teaching, but then also in light of his surprising death and resurrection. . . . We could go on, mounding one surprise atop the last.
The list of surprises is unending because of who God is and because of who human creatures are. Human creatures have an urge, an urge to be sure, an urge to comprehend entirely, an urge to manage and control. This is the urge of idolatry, an ancient urge and a modern urge. It is an urge that closes us off as individuals, an urge that pushes our society toward totality. I beg your patience with this one awkward term borrowed from the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: ‘totality’. Let’s think of a totality as an all-encompassing view of the world that has a place, a slot, for everything and presumes to understand the core of things. A totality is a well-organized garage where nothing is ever out of place, where each rake, hammer and cord has its peg to hang on.
In the biblical story God breaks totalities. As Walter Brueggeman has suggested, ancient Egypt was one such totality: the empire sought to control, to subjugate. The managers were divine, the work of the gods knit together with the workings of nature. This totality had no place for the liberation of slaves. As it was was as it would remain. And so the pharaoh was warned with plagues, with locusts and flies and frogs. But old pharaoh found ways to ignore these signs. He wanted to remain in control, to keep things as they were. The weak and enslaved paid the bill. They paid it until the totality was forcibly cracked by an angel of death and the power of God.
The apostate kings of Israel and Judah did their best to create totalities as well. The prophets were exiled, the true God shunned in favor of idols that could be manipulated. There the weak also paid for maintaining the status quo, for Molech desired the flesh of the young. But . . .
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
We know too that the peace and order of Rome was paid for with the blood of those they conquered. Into such a world Jesus was born. Rome had things pretty well organized, so did the religious and cultural leaders of Jesus’ Jewish community. Jesus was a surprise to both, a stranger. He caught them unaware. He would be killed.
The early Christians knew well that God was a God of new things. They had experienced the wonder of the Messiah. They had been astonished that the kingdom did not arrive in a moment like an iron fist, but they recalibrated. In their midst Jewish lives were opened to new possibilities and they shared the good news of Jesus. In Acts 2,3,4 and 7 Peter, John and Stephen made these claims public. They argued with the religious and cultural leaders, the spokesman of the status quo. The followers of Jesus tried to make the case that the surprising nature of God’s work was not entirely absurd. Their numbers grew. The voice of the Lord drew others in.
But communities require systems: they always do. In Acts 6 the fledgling church chose seven men to keep track of accounts. Their job was to keep the tables full and to ensure the mechanics of their shared life were fair. This was a neat and tidy division of labor. The twelve would preach, the seven would add up the tabs and justify the books.
And then came the persecution. Not content with arguments, the religious and cultural leaders killed Stephen with stones—unconscious, bones broken, crushed, blood in the dust, hearts pounding with the exertion of mob justice. The first verse in Acts 8 tells us that Saul’s heart beat in time with that of the mob. But Saul was a surprise in waiting. He is a sort of drag queen Pharisee. That same day violence erupted against the church in Jerusalem. Women and men were dragged from their homes and imprisoned. The community was pulled apart and disconnected from Judaism’s urban heart. Somehow the twelve apostles remained, holed up.
But we must imagine that failure was as tangible for them as the prison walls surrounding others. They knew of the Spirit’s surprising character. But . . .
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
You never really know about a surprise. If you do, it isn’t. One of those who fled, fled to an unnamed city in Samaria, a land of illegitimate spiritual half-breeds. And there he shared the news of God’s surprising goodness: Philip preached. He was not one of the twelve, he was one of the seven. God’s Spirit had leapt wildly beyond the neat and tidy march of divided labour. Fresh from their Jerusalem eviction, the community of Jesus gasps for breath—struggling to keep up. The skin of devastation molts, there again is surprise. The future might not be in the heartland but further afield, on the edges, in the grey zones.
And so, as we heard, the apostles sent emissaries to complete the work. The Samaritans had accepted the good word, and they would be baptized into the rolling surprise. They would be baptized “into Christ,” as Romans 6 puts it, and into the Spirit as we read in Acts 8 and I Corinthians.
There are good and bad times to be baptized into the rolling surprise that is God’s work. We should know what we’re getting into, but we don’t need to wait until we have the faith or our life entirely figured out. By the time that happens the Spirit will be calling us to something new.
In Acts 8 the next surprise comes quite quickly. If the Samaritans were a half step away from the center of the faith the apostle’s knew, the very next story Luke tells is at the other end of the court. In vv. 26-40 Philip is introduced to an Ethiopian court official. To the early Jewish Christians, he was an outsider in many ways: probably dark skinned and likely a gentile, he was also castrated, which would have meant he was deemed an incomplete creature. He came from the edge of their known world. Luke has not half finished his account of the spread of Jesus’ story and already the community has reached the edge of the world they knew. The Spirit drew them beyond the totality of their first-century Judaism. As we say, it blew their minds.
Our lives are bounded by a totality too, not so much a political totality but totality of imagination and desire. This totality includes the political ideologies of the right and the left. In fact it gives us the choice between the two as an illusion of freedom. (boo here, if you want) But our world has a frame, within which we are bound to what we can see, touch and measure. This, we are told to believe, is all there is. We can’t imagine anything beyond. Within this frame we have nothing to do but fulfill our unrefined animal desires. We defend this ‘privilege’ by referring to the one product of our imagination to which we hold fast—the notion of individual rights. Manipulated by market forces and deadened by our consumption we too are subjects of a totalizing system—but we like it. We have a spiritual Stockholm syndrome. But . . .
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
This Sunday in the midst of the season of Epiphany is the one where we remember the baptism of Jesus and his anointing by the Spirit. An epiphany is one kind of a surprise: we realize something new (our zipper has been down this whole time) or we see something in a new way. Jesus is baptized: that is one more surprise. Christians say that baptism does three things: First, it is a statement of identity and intent. We identify ourselves as followers of Jesus and we intend to live in his shadow. Second, baptism it is an enactment of cleansing. We know that when it comes to justice we are both part of the solution and part of the problem. In our ongoing insensitivity to God’s love for others we affront their creator. Baptism washes this away this deadness. Third, baptism is the way we are welcomed into the Christian community, the body of Christ. Every community has a way in which it welcomes new members. Ours is baptism.
Why then would Jesus need this? He doesn’t, but he submits to baptism in solidarity with us. It is a dramatization of God’s grace. And the Father responds by sending the Spirit—the Spirit of surprise, the Spirit of freedom, the Spirit of holiness and of power. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And there is God, one being in three ways. Love itself.
Rightly understood, the Trinity is not a mold into which Scripture is squeezed. Rather, it is a way of describing what we see in Scripture and what we experience in our spiritual lives.
God is the one who sends Jesus; God is the one who is sent and God is the very power that enlivens these events, stretching their impact across the ages, even to us, here on the edge of the world. And the Spirit causes us to join the oaks, whirling and glorifying God.
It is this same Spirit that was given to the Samaritans in Acts 8. It is the same Spirit that moved on a small farm in Georgia in the 1940s causing men and women to live and work together across racial lines. Koinonia Farm was a crack in the totality of segregation. There were many others. It is the same Spirit that we pray moves among us, within and beyond our church walls.
We can’t help but wonder then what will happen next. Where will we see the Spirit at work? How will the things we know to be true and right be shown to be old and dried-out timbers broken by God’s voice? And where will those negative and fearful things we believe, those things that weigh us down, be changed and we be made to skip with new life? The question goes to us individually and to us corporately, and it goes to the ends of our known world.
Life in the Spirit is full of lively surprises, real ones, not predictable ones that fit within the totality. Life in the Spirit is dangerous to inflexible institutions, but it is not a brash life of pure activism. Like Jesus we wade into the water, like the citizens of Samaria we say ‘yes’ to God’s offer, and like the apostles we pray. We pray, and we wait, we wait and we listen: it is the practice of contemplation. Sarah Coakley tells us that the practice of Christian contemplation is risky, for it involves, she says a “willed suspension of one’s rational agenda, a silent waiting” (GSF, 342). And I would add, we are waiting for the Spirit’s movement, movement that will look like Jesus but with a freshness that will surprise us.
We are not looking for magic, coats hovering in midair or the wild unpredictability of the supernatural. We do not close ourselves off to those things, but we wait for the melody of God’s word on human tongue. We wait for God’s Spirit to manifest itself among God’s people. We wait for God’s grace in, with and under the everyday. We wait for our idols to mysteriously lose their balance. We wait for cracks in the totality to appear.
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace! — Amen