9 January 2000
I decided we'd have all three readings today, because they are all, in their various ways, about new beginnings. And although this isn't the first Sunday of this new Millennium, it's still new enough, I think, to be worth having a look.
2. A New Beginning for the Universe?
The first passage, our Old Testament reading, is the most familiar, I think. The very beginning of everything, when God spoke this world into being. We could probably recite it off by heart; it's almost designed as a poem, to be learnt, isn't it?
I certainly don't think it's meant to be a scientific account of how God made the world - although there are those who would argue that it is, especially in the USA. It makes more sense to see it as what is called a myth. Now, that doesn't mean the same thing as a fairy story! A myth is, technically, a story that is repeated in worship. In other religions, it is sometimes used to try to force the deity to do something - to make the harvest come, for instance, or to make the days grow longer again, for instance. But for Jews, and then for us Christians, the myth was simply told and retold to glorify God and to praise God. We still use myth in worship, at Carol services, for instance, when we retell the stories associated with Jesus' birth; and even at Communion, when the great prayer of thanksgiving reminds us that Jesus "in the night that he was betrayed, took bread," and so on. Although there is no suggestion that Jesus didn't actually do that, of course. Myth transcends historical accuracy, if you like - it doesn't matter whether it is historically accurate or not, since it teaches us more about God than we could perhaps learn in any other way.
Anyway, our Genesis story is a bit like that. It is rhythmical, almost poetical, as though it were designed to be told in worship. We know it's not a scientifically accurate account of how our world came into being, but that doesn't really matter. What does matter is that it teaches us how God is intimately involved in the world, continually causing order to be made out of chaos, continually bringing light where there is darkness, and so on. It is an account of the beginning of the world, but it's also telling us about God's work in creation today.
3. A New Beginning for Jesus
Well, let's leave that for the moment, and go on to the Gospel story about Jesus' baptism. I know it's not in the order in which we read them, but it is in chronological order. This, of course, was a new beginning for Jesus. Up until now, he had hardly been heard of since he was born, he had presumably been working with his father as a builder and carpenter - the word "technion", which is used, implies far more than just builder or carpenter, but it does imply a skilled craftsman - one who could build a house from designing the plans on paper to putting the roof on and the plumbing in, and if they'd had electric wiring in those days, no doubt he could have done that, too.
Anyway, the point is, Jesus had presumably been working as a
builder or carpenter with his father. Some folk think he may also
have been studying in the desert, with the Essene community, but
we don't know that for certain. And Mark says that Jesus came
from Nazareth to be baptised by John in the Jordan. Mark doesn't
tell us about John's sudden recognition of Jesus - whether he
knew him as his cousin or not isn't clear - but as "The
One" whom God was sending. But he does tell us that
"And just as he was coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens torn apart
and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
And a voice came from heaven,
You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.'"
For Jesus, this was a new beginning. No more working with his father and their nice comfortable life in Nazareth. Indeed, some traditions have it that his father had already died - given that we don't hear anything of him and we do hear one or two bits about Jesus' mother - and Jesus was walking away from a family company, which could well be the case.
Anyway, he goes off into the desert to come to terms with what has happened to him; we aren't told whether or not he goes to the Essene community, although that's possible, or whether he just wanted to go off to be quite alone somewhere with God. And he wrestles with temptations to misuse his divine power, to gather glory for himself instead of for God, to become a cheap miracle-worker making lots of money, rather like Simon the Magician, whom we meet in Acts. And so on. Jesus needs that time to come to terms with who he is, and what this means. His baptism marks out a new beginning.
4. A New Beginning for the Ephesians
And so to the third reading, chronologically. The conversion of the Ephesian believers. The whole thing starts with a misunderstanding, as the Ephesians think they are already followers of Christ, and rush up and introduce themselves to Paul on this basis. But Paul soon senses something is wrong, and asks them: "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" And they're like, you what? What's a Holy Spirit? So Paul explains, and they realise that they were only half-way there, waiting for the Messiah, God's anointed one, but not yet knowing him. And they promptly take that final step of saying "Yes" to Jesus, and are baptised in His name, and Paul lays hands on them and prays for God the Holy Spirit to come upon them, which He does, and we see the believers praying in tongues and prophesying. It's the start of a whole new life for them.
4. A New Beginning for Us?
You know, I often feel rather uncomfortable when I read that passage in the book of Acts. I wonder whether Paul would know that I was a Christian, just by talking to me, or whether he would find it necessary to ask me whether I had received the Holy Spirit when I believed? Don't you? The trouble is, we are apt to neglect the Holy Spirit. We take it for granted that we are filled, because we are believers, and forget that we leak. Or else we aren't too sure about the Holy Spirit, and rather gloss over that side of our walk with God. Or else we are hung up on the spectacular gifts of the Spirit, and forget that if we are not manifesting the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, then it's all so much froth and bubble.
All our readings today have emphasised the Spirit's role. In Genesis, we were told that he - or She, if you prefer, since the word in Hebrew is feminine - is "a wind from God [which] swept over the face of the waters". In the story of Jesus' baptism, we are told that the Spirit came down on Jesus in the form of a dove. And in Acts the Holy Spirit came on the believers when Paul asked Her to, and they showed this by speaking in tongues and prophesying, and, I imagine, later by showing that they were filled with love, joy, peace, and so on.
But for the Ephesian believers it was a new beginning. And Paul was able to write to them, some time later, "In Jesus you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;" (Ephesians 1:13).
I wonder, could he write that of us? Do we pray, regularly, to go on being filled with the Holy Spirit, as Paul wrote in that very same letter to the Ephesians? Would Paul - or anybody else, come to that - know we were believers simply by chatting to us?
I'm not, I hasten to add, saying that the answer to those questions is necessarily "No". I know people, and I'm sure you do, who are obviously Christians, even if they don't talk about Jesus; his love shines through every pore of them, and they really do show the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Okay, they probably aren't perfect, but who is? I know a couple of women, at the ice rink where I skate, who have totally transformed the atmosphere among the regular adult skaters, simply by being Jesus' people. And I don't think I was one of them, although I hope I've been part of it.
Now, here we are at the beginning of a new century, of a new Millennium. In some churches they've already renewed their covenant with God - I believe they are doing so this morning at King's Acre, and you will be doing so in a couple of weeks. It's a terrifying service, and I'm not that sorry not to be there, if the truth be known! But you remember the Millennium resolution we were all asked to make:
"Let there be respect for the earth,
peace for its people,
love in our lives,
delight in the good,
forgiveness for past wrongs
and from now on a new start".
And now is an awfully good time to make a new start in your walk with God - the century isn't getting any younger! Which we cannot do without the help of God the Holy Spirit, who swept on the waters at Creation, who came down on Jesus like a dove at his baptism, on the early believers like tongues of flame and a rushing mighty wind, and on the Ephesian believers, and so many others before and since, causing them to speak in tongues and to prophesy.
So let us pray:
Loving Holy Spirit, Wisdom of God,
Come down upon us afresh, we pray,
Help us to show you in our lives, and to reach out to others with the good news of Jesus.
Give us your gifts, as best suits each one of us, to enable us to serve one another and to serve your Church.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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