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Genesis 1:1–5 | Acts 19:1–7 | Mark 1:4–11
Some people in Ephesus—on the west coast of modern-day Turkey—had somehow caught on to a message from this guy named John down in Israel. This makes the story about HOW MANY people from the countryside and Jerusalem were coming out, more believable! John’s message to a people who were tired of things going on the same way—of themselves going on in the the same way—was catching on: There was a readiness for this Baptism of John’s: Repenting and being washed in the water in order to start anew. (Remember that “repent” means literally to turn around.) This message was compelling enough that people far away were imitating and practicing this baptism. As Paul is traveling around to share the good news of Gods’ revelation and love in the person of Jesus—he somehow gets connected with these 12 people. Paul listens and asks questions about their enthusiastic new way of being in the world and checks in, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”
Now, we might wonder what exactly he’s talking about. How does one know if the Holy Spirit has been received? As they wonder, too: “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” I’m going to be a little cheeky and say that some would say that they were just Lutherans, right? Even though this denomination has a rich sense of the Holy Spirit, it’s usually just easier to talk about the other parts of the Trinity: God and Jesus. Plus, we tend toward the rational—maybe a bit suspicious of experience or however the Holy Spirit might show up. What’s going on here with these 12, however, is already the Holy Spirit. Why have they been drawn toward this message in the first place? Why are they wanting to know more?
Father Thomas Keating in his book “Invitation to Love”—which I just keep revisiting, if you haven’t noticed :) —talks about the spiritual journey never being “once and done” but one, rather, that gets more and more demanding: It is “characterized by (p.78) an ever-increasing knowledge of our mixed motivations, the dark sides of our personalities and the emotional traumas of early childhood.” With this knowledge, we respond in equal measure by dismantling the false self and refusing to act out of our emotional programs for happiness that can never work: That is our knee-jerk bid for affection/esteem, power/control and safety/security. But then God responds to our generosity as if saying ‘This person is serious about the spiritual journey. Let’s go to work and clean out the junk.’ [In which case] God turns up the voltage and… the damage that our emotional programs for happiness are doing to us and to our relationships becomes apparent.” And the way ahead, may indeed, become dark. There is disorientation, loss.
So Paul’s visit to the 12 in Ephesus is timely. These 12 are going to need something very strong for the transformation ahead: The Holy Spirit that will “infuse into their minds the insight that God alone can satisfy their boundless longing for happiness.” (p. 80) That is, they’ll need senses other than their minds, that are open even more to the presence and work of God. The Holy Spirit will permit them and shore them up to trust God with the process and in the midst of what they don’t understand. This actually shows up in the “speaking in tongues and prophesying”—which isn’t going to be the experience for many of us—maybe for some! But I do think it reminds us that we, too, have a sense of being connected to something we don’t understand, but that is present. It’s the gift of our own baptism, for one. We can perk up to these moments and realize that they aren’t all that rare. That is, the experience of the Holy Spirit. Knowing and trusting this is important for those times when we feel like we are going backwards- but when we are really going deeper and being loosened of our “overdependence on the senses and reasoning… as God is offering a more intimate relationship; a ‘growing up.” (p.80)
The Spirit we hear, has been around since the beginning in Creation. Not unlike what we heard about the Word (that became flesh) last week in the gospel of John, here is the Spirit in the beginnings—Genesis. It’s the ruach from God the swept over the face of the waters—the formlessness—or as we soon hear, the “deep” (tehom.) Tehom is a technical word used elsewhere in scripture for water, with the added meaning of the chaos and even creativity that dwell in creation still. So the Ruach sweeps over the Tehom… And not just then, but as a pattern that will be part of the divine presence. Chaos. Order/Order. Chaos. These two seem to play with one another. And now we have Jesus—outside the orderly cities and in the chaotic wilderness- immersed into the deep (the water) in a baptism of repentance. The Spirit sweeps again, out of the torn heavens, accompanied by a Voice.
“This is my son.” We might say, God turns up the voltage. On everyone and everything! The humiliation and chaos of being dunked in a river and the power of God in Spirit-form: a dove. The fabric of creation gets electrified. No wonder it’s is so important to hear again about this thing called baptism. Also, it’s the sole beginning of our gospel for the year of Mark. Mark begins, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Then comes John, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you…’” Then the baptism of Jesus.
In which we learn that the repentance that John had been calling for—like all the prophets- “Turn around! You are going toward your own destruction!”—will live itself out in Jesus. Jesus will be the one that is fully transformed because he’s willing to live constantly in truth—despite the difficulties it brings. He names it. He responds to it by tearing apart the lies: “In trying to save you life, it will lose it. In losing your life for my sake, you’ll find it.” Jesus embodies, proclaims, MAKES REAL this good news: Repentance, reconciliation, forgiveness, salvation can and will happen. But it’s gonna take the Spirit to help transform in all this chaos.
And in a town called Ephesus. In in a town called Strasburg. And Evergreen. Where else? Thanks be to God. Amen.