Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
When the new year turns over, some people make new year’s resolutions. And then other people trash the very concept of new year’s resolutions.
As for me, I stopped making vague new year’s resolutions a long time ago: you know, the ones where you promise yourself you’ll read more, or exercise more, or be more kind. Those might work for some folks, but they’ve never worked for me; by January 3rd, I’ll have read nothing but Instagram posts while I sat on the couch feeling as unkind as the year before.
No, if I’m going to have new year’s resolutions, they have to be specific and measurable and actually realistic: I’ll read four books this year, I say, because despite what you might think, reading actually doesn’t come naturally or easily for me. I’ll sign up for a three month program at a local gym. I’ll try going for a whole week without yelling at someone in traffic. (Okay, that’s probably not realistic.)
Even then, though, some fall by the wayside, and I join the chorus of people who like to make fun of new year’s resolutions.
So, if you make resolutions, how are yours going? Or did you give up on the very concept of resolutions long ago? (Honestly, many years, I’ve thought, “I can’t do resolutions and Lent, and Jesus only asks me to do the thing for forty days and not three-sixty-five, so I choose Jesus.”)
I’ve lamented the way that we’ve started to increasingly trash the very concept of resolutions as a culture, but recently, I’ve been rethinking the whole phenomenon. Maybe we’re not so much trashing other people’s resolutions to be better. Maybe we’re just being more realistic about ourselves and other people.
Because you see, it’s a really common human thing to assume that everyone else has it more together than you do. As we age, I think, we start to realize that just about everyone around us is faking it and just doing the best they can with what they have, but even then, our tendency to assume that other people are more on top of things than we are is pervasive.
As an example, take this: every now and then, I catch a mood to watch an historical documentary. I especially like the ones from contemporary history, that is, history that I either remember because it happened within my lifetime or the lifetimes of people still alive today. It’s the history that I feel closest to, for obvious reasons: we can talk about the events that we all witnessed together. While all history is putting together a puzzle, we simply have more of the pieces from the most recent past, and we don’t have to do as much imagining as we do, say, when we talk about the American Revolution. When we think about the American Revolution, we often romanticize our brave forebears. We assume that they were brave and had it all together. When we talk about the 1970s, we do far less romanticizing.
I watched a documentary a year or so ago about the 1960s. I had forgotten just how turbulent the 1960s were, and to this day I can’t imagine the seismic shifting that occurred during that decade: fears of nuclear annihilation, assassinations of key figures all over the place, including the President of the United States, hugely shifting social sands, the draft, and much, much more. After watching this documentary, I sat at coffee hour in our fellowship hall and somehow the topic came up. I asked three or so of you who can remember the 1960s a lingering question that I had, a simple one:
How did you all not freak out for that entire decade?
The answer came swiftly: we did.
Someday, thirty, forty years from now, I imagine some punk will watch a documentary and ask the same question of me: how did you make it through such turbulent times?
I’ll be thinking about my answer until then, but for now, all I’ve got is prayer, good friends, and not a little whiskey.
You see, just like we assume that other people around us have it together, keeping their new year’s resolutions, improving their lives, being good parents, having everything on track, we assume that our forebears in history and in faith did too. Whenever someone says to me, “Things were so much better in America when I was a child,” I can’t ever help thinking, “Of course they were. You were a child.” It was the adults who did the freaking out when you were a kid, and now the job falls to you.
Life is messy, and we’re all faking it, trying to do the best we can and improve our lives during turbulent times. This has basically always been true. A quote often loosely attributed to Mark Twain goes like this: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
We are always going into an unknown future, and we are all faking it.
And today we’ve got Jesus in the Jordan River, baptized by John, at the beginning of everything. Just like we assume our forebears in history had all their stuff together, so we assume the same is true in the Bible. You can hold the whole story in your hands, and you know how it ends. It seems clean, finished, inscribed in religious history forever.
What we forget is that all of history, including religious history, is full of humans who couldn’t see the future any better than you can and didn’t have it together any better than you do.
Yes, one of the characters here is the Son of God. You can make a solid theological argument that he could tell the future and had everything under control. But I don’t need to remind you that none of us is that guy in the story, and that’s kind of the point of why we’re all here.
It’s not a clean story: the Jordan River wasn’t, isn’t, a crystal clear stream. What’s more, people didn’t shower every day or wear deodorant. So here at the beginning of everything, the thirty-something Son of God plops his feet into the mud and wades out with John, John, the religious fanatic crazy person known for wearing camel’s hair, and is submerged below the cloudy water. When he comes out into the sunlight, muddy water flowing from his hair, the heavens open and he is declared the beloved Son of God. John didn’t know how all this would end, or that he wouldn’t live to see it end. The crowd didn’t know how it would end, either. But it began in the water with the word “beloved.”
And that is why we welcome babies into the world and into the church with water and the word “beloved.”
Because we do not know how this story ends; we only know that we do not walk alone.
Maybe, despite everything, our worth isn’t in how much we produce or how much we have everything together or keep our new year’s resolutions or don’t freak out. Maybe being more fully human means admitting that we don’t have it together and that we need each other to make it through. God’s promise to us and our promise to each other is that we do not walk alone.
Back in 2013, I was a hospital chaplain in midtown Atlanta for a year. Being a chaplain is a weird thing. You see, these days I go into hospital rooms and care facilities offering the same comfort and accompaniment, but nearly always these days, the person I’m seeing knows me and has often even asked to see me.
As a hospital chaplain, you go into these waiting rooms and ER bays and hospital rooms where people are in crisis and you say “Hi, I’m a religious person you don’t know!”
Just what everyone wants, let me tell you.
It was always a wonder to me that everyone didn’t immediately throw me out. But almost no one did.
To begin with, I never knew what to say, but quickly, I learned: I am powerless. I’m not Jesus; as yet, I’ve been completely unable to raise the dead or heal the sick. But what I learned is that that wasn’t what anyone was asking for. Those who wanted me to stay with them just didn’t want to be alone. I learned the lesson that my dog had been trying to teach me all along: we can’t change anything, we creatures, and none of us has it all under control. All we can do is be beside each other and let that be enough.
So today, as we remember the muddy water and the Son of God, take this: in the waters of baptism we are bound together. None of us has it together; all we can do is be beside each other and let that be enough.
When I was the staff chaplain at Camp Calumet this summer, I had the pleasure of chatting with the mostly college student counselors for the summer. After having a talk with them that’s not dissimilar to this one, I ended with this poem that defines our baptismal promises to me. It’s by poet Naomi Shihab Nye, a poet born to a Palestinian father and an American mother in 1952, another turbulent time. It goes like this.
“A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.”
The times will always be turbulent, beloved. So wade into the muddy waters with me and remember the promises. We don’t have it all together, but we are all together, and that is enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.