Listen to the sermon from Sunday, January 8, 2017 titled “Sticking the Start” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
As the New Year dawns, we enter the spiritual season of Epiphany, from the Greek ἐπιφάνεια, meaning “appearance.” Epiphany is one of those two-sided words because it refers both to an appearance by God and to the experience of God by a person.
We believe God is always with us, but now and then, here and there, beyond our control and never on demand, our “hide-and-seek” God appears so vividly, we are transformed, convinced, inspired, and enthused. Such epiphanies usually come with a revelation or calling to some great work.
So think of epiphany as an “aha” experience. Think of epiphany as the moment when you say, “That’s when it dawned on me.” An epiphany may be a dramatic encounter changing your whole life direction. Or it may be a quiet insight urging a gentle course correction.
Spiritually focused souls, adept at listening for God through observation, meditation, and prayer, experience such epiphanies more frequently. Now that’s subjective and thus subject to abuse. Watch out for those people who hear God telling them to do what serves their self-interest regardless of the effect on others.
But the other extreme is the subjective assessment of those who give up on God because God never speaks to them. It doesn’t occur to them it’s because they’ve quit listening. When was the last time God surprised you? How long has it been since you said, “That’s when it dawned on me?” Are you even paying attention?
The Christian season of Epiphany remembers the dawning of God’s light in Christ: the visit of the sages, the call he receives through baptism, his calling out disciples, his first miracles, the early events where Jesus’ unique identity dawned on him and was revealed to those on the scene.
Hence, the first Sunday in Epiphany is always a remembrance of the Baptism of Christ and an opportunity for us to renew our own. Ghirlandaio’s lovely painting at Santa Maria Novella in Florence shows the influence of Catholic baptismal practice in 1485. Jesus barely gets his feet wet.
I like how Epiphany always falls near New Years because it’s a season of beginnings. Like Lent or Advent or some major life event, say your 30th or 60th birthday, New Years is the time you find the will and feel the energy to change.
Our family had two weddings and a funeral, four birthdays and three feasting holidays from Thanksgiving to New Years, so naturally my diet went from kale to fail. I’m talking all butter, sugar, and fatty meats. Tuesday after New Years I’m resolved to eat right, lose weight, get healthy.
I open the fridge to plan my healthy day. I see half a ham, half a roast, an uncut apple pie, a 50 lb sack of peanut M&M’s. I remember I have a luncheon to attend at 11:30 a.m. That’s when it dawned on me: I wasn’t ready to keep my resolution.
And that’s our problem, isn’t it? We know what we need to do. We feel the energy, we decide to do it. But those deep-wired habits and soothing addictions and even surrounding social structures get in the way. So our well-intentioned resolutions rarely last more than a few days.
In gymnastics they speak of “sticking the landing,” which is all about finishing well. But I want to think today about “sticking the start,” what we might learn from Christ’s baptism to help us maintain faithfully to the finish as Christ did beginning with his baptism.
I’m sure this applies to trivial things like diet and exercise and positive thinking, but I’m more concerned with the larger life issues like Howard Finster suggests in his 1976 painting, “The Lord Will deliver His People Across Jordan.” Joining the symbolism of the exodus story of Israel crossing the Jordan into the promised land with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, Finster suggests Christ saves us not from one thing but many dangers, toils, and snares if we follow him. A better place, a better you, waits ahead. How do you get to that goal?
Sticking the start means choosing the right path to begin with. John the Baptist objects to Jesus: “Who am I to baptize you?” Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). Which is a fancy way of saying, “Do the right thing.”
Like us, Jesus’ baptism is a change of direction, a death to what has gone before and resurrection to a new path lived with and for and in God. What could be more “right?” than that?
Frederick Buechner advises, “Listen to your life.” What is it time for you to let go of? What is it time for you to take up? Do you need a major change in direction or maybe just a minor course correction? I mean, you can’t get to Los Angeles if you’re riding the bus to St. Louis.
Spend some time discerning the direction you are heading and choose the right destination instead. When you get where you’re going, where will you be? More importantly, who will you be? What is your heart telling you? What is God telling you? Are you following your dream or fleeing your fears? “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark,” observed Plato. “The real tragedy of life is when adults are afraid of the light.”
Second, sticking the start means taking the plunge. Forget Ghirlandaio’s toe dip in a shallow stream. We all know Jesus was immersed in the strong current of the cold River Jordan. And that’s what it takes to stick the start: total immersion in the new direction, letting go of the old and taking up the new comprehensively and wholeheartedly.
A small add-on or tentative trial run won’t do. If your start’s going to stick you’ve got to give yourself to it. You’ve got to be all in because the end is worth the effort it will take. As Christopher Columbus observed, “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Third, sticking the start takes reinforcing affirmation. Affirmation is the fertilizer of human growth. It helps us believe in ourselves and encourages us to sustain best practices. Jesus began his ministry with Divine affirmation: “Just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:16-17).”
If you are going in the right direction, the reward itself will affirm you. But in those hard places along the way where nothing is working and the new has not yet become you, you need positive encouragement to keep going. You have to follow Ann Bradford’s advice: “Tell the negative committee that meets inside your head to sit down and shut up!” Silence those voices that say, “You can’t, you won’t, you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not strong enough, you aren’t enough.” But through prayer and meditation listen to God say, “You are my beloved child and I delight in you.” You can’t do it alone, but as Paul said, “I can do all things through (Christ) who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). And Christ is with you!
Finally, sticking the start means connecting with a community of soul friends encouraging you in the right direction. Faith is contagious. So is courage. Affirmation is the courage-building context we give one another. So connect with a community of encouragers who will go where you need to go.
Jesus rose from the waters of baptism with Divine assurance of his decision to follow God’s path. Like us he was immediately tested in the wilderness, tempted to turn back or take a disastrous detour. But he discovered the abiding presence of an affirming God. And after the wilderness he gathered a community of disciples to journey with him. If Jesus needed connection with God and connection with community, don’t we as well?
It’s a wonderful season to make a fresh start, to begin again by renewing your journey with Christ. So we invite you today to renew your baptism and refocus your life. We invite you to the table that shows Christ is all in for you and calls you to follow him in serving God’s dream.
Come to the font. Come to the table. Maybe that’s when it will dawn on you that Christ is ready to help you stick your start. As Lemony Snicket said, “If we wait ‘til we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.” So start here. Start now. Amen? That’s right. May we pray?
As we celebrate these sacred rituals today, dear Lord, reveal to us your will, your presence, your abiding delight in our being. And renew our faith and courage to be your beloved community for God’s sake and in the name of Christ, Amen.