Sunday, January 9, 2011

Baptism: The Springing Forth of New Things

The new year is a time for fresh beginnings: for evaluating the past twelve months; for arranging priorities and setting goals. Americans traditionally use the occasion for making resolutions which are commitments, hopefully, to change and improve. Yet, if we're honest, yearly resolution-making amounts largely to a game for a lot of folks. We even joke good-naturedly each year about our broken resolutions. In the post-holiday scatteredness, we may accomplish something for the short term, but eventually we find ourselves failing.

As believing persons, individually or as a community of faith, we can ill afford to renew our resolutions only yearly. We should, in fact, be keeping our commitments year-round. The root of our frequent failure might be because we disallow ourselves to become truly convinced of God's Word to us. As a result, we find our lives unfocused and ourselves spiritually off-center.

In today's reading from Isaiah (42:1-9) God assures us: "I am the Lord. I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand and kept you...I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other..." Paul Tillich writes: "...within the name, that which bears the name is present." There was an ancient idea that you could hold in your power a being whose hidden name you knew. If we scrutinize our faltering efforts to pray and to keep our other commitments, might we not admit that we often invoke or try to make claims on God's name in order to harness God's powre for our own purposes? God's name isn't empty; it bears power and Presence. That's why we dare not take it in vain, for though it surely has power to heal us and make us whole, it can also be our undoing if we try to manipulate it.

There's a way that you and I, individually or corporately, can take God's name in vain. It's when we become so comfortable, so self-assured that we think that we can explain or interpret God to others, or even to ourselves.When we become that proud and independent that God, we find ourselves actually pushing God aside and away from us. We find ourselves surprised and astounded at our lukewarmness, at our lack of anything but a superficial dedication as a "good Christian",  at the felt "absence" of God's presence. Perhaps that's God's way of helping us to realize our utter helplessness, and of giving us a chance to recognize anew that God is the center and the sole reason for our being who we are, individually or corporately.

When we, individually or corporately, become humble enough to learn how to speak God's name in what Tillich calls "the embarrassment of awe", and to respond by letting God take us by the hand and keep us, then, as Isaiah says, "new things...spring forth". Our baptismal covenant is a sign of such "new things" and of the power of God's name among us.

What all this implies, in this new year which begins with the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, and in this season of Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus, is that we have a tremendous responsibility to continue allowing the name of Jesus, that is, himself, be at the center of our lives. The Letter to the Hebrews begins with an astounding statement, one which can keep us reflecting for the rest of this Epiphany season and in the lead-up to Lent. "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word..."

You and I are called, by our Baptism, to let this Jesus be manifest, to be seen, in us. At the threshold of this new year the Lord of all asks us for more than a few nominal resolutions which will go by the wayside. He invites us to a firm commitment to examine our hearts and to make some radical inner changes: by letting ourselves be called "in righteousness"; by allowing ourselves to be led and kept by him; by being signs to one another of his Covenant; by bringing others, locked in their inner and outer dungeons and darkness, into the light of his Presence; and by living to the full each day the new life which he brings forth in us.

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