Rev. Dr. Scott Herr


“Down Low”                                                                                      Please read:
A Sermon by the Rev. Scott Herr                                                        Genesis 1:1-5
The American Church in Paris, January 8, 2012                               Mark 1:4-11

Most of you probably know that January is named after the Roman god Janus.  Janus was the god of beginnings, and had the unique image of one head, but two faces, each focused in opposite directions.  The point is, I suppose, that naming the first month of the calendar after Janus indicates the ambiguity of beginnings.  On the one hand there is looking back and looking forward, but on the other hand, who knows what this New Year will hold?  Things could go this way, or things could go that way. 

Beginnings, even as we turn over the pages of a new calendar year, have a way of prompting reflection, refocusing, reassessment of our life situation. Our men’s group this week reflected on whether or not resolutions are useful, and we came down I think on the side of yes, depending on what your goals and means of achieving your goals really are... We saw the connection with repentance, making changes, and setting new goals.

But making changes is possible only if we are honest with ourselves about those areas of our lives and faith that need changing! And this gets a little tricky… Robert Trevers recently published a book called The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self Deception in Human Life.[1] In this book he wrestles with deception ranging from childish fibbing to “false historical narratives.” We all know that we shade the truth to some extent, but often we don’t realize the extent of the distortion, whether it be in our personal or global history.

Part of the celebration of Epiphany is the story of King Herod and the Magi. It was the wise men to whom the Christ child was revealed as Savior and so they worshipped him. Epiphany is a holiday because the magi were the first gentiles (non-Jews) to acknowledge and worship Jesus as the Christ. But of course, the story is full of deception. Herod asks them for intelligence about where to find the baby. He says he wants to worship him too, but we all know he really wants to kill him and protect himself. In fact, the wise men deceived Herod, and probably helped to save Jesus, but Herod was infuriated and had all of the boys in Bethlehem 2 years old or under killed!

And we all have our own struggles with dealing with truth and shades of the truth. We all struggle with power and how the story really goes for us and our history. For example, we’ve all heard of the holocaust, and all honest people acknowledge that 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. But how many of you are aware of the Belgian Congo of the late 1800’s, where it is well documented that as many as 8 million Congolese died, over half the population at the time? At least in the west, we don’t talk about it… The point is this: it’s difficult to understand how to make changes when we can’t even trust ourselves to honestly tell the real stories of our lives and world…

Under the fixed stare of the god Janus, things could go forwards, backwards, or sideways pretty quickly. Such divine ambiguity might give one the idea that life’s outcome is really up to us, that we decide our fate, which is pretty precarious if honesty has anything to do with it!

How different is the beginning according to our Scripture readings.  The Genesis text is the beginning of the Bible, of course, and describes in theological language how God created the heavens and the earth. We read how the Almighty God of the universe speaks and brings order out of chaos, form from the void, calling forth light from the darkness… the first day. If we would read on in Genesis, we would discover our own rather ignoble beginnings, being formed out of the dust of the earth.  We discover the truth that God created not only the heavens and the earth, but God formed US, male and female he created us in his own image… starting with dirt.  Yet as we read on in the creation story, surprisingly, God loves us, places infinite value on us, and calls us to partner with him in the work of creation and salvation…

That’s a comfort to me as I begin this new year, that in the beginning God laid the foundations not only for big ticket items like the universe, but for my life, and invites me to listen for his creative and powerful word to bring forth new life in and through even me.  There is still ambiguity and complexity to what the future may hold, of course, but there is the implication that come what may, God will not abandon us to chance, random ordering, or survival of the fittest!

The Gospel lesson is Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus' ministry.  It is the description of Jesus' baptism. That’s another event we celebrate in Epiphany. Echoing the grace of the Genesis text, notice how Jesus hasn’t even begun any ministry, and God is already declaring his love for his son from the heavens. The God who made the heavens and the earth rips through the clouds, Mark writes, to pre-empt any worthiness on Jesus’ part to say how much his son is loved… That’s a word which all of us can savor, that we too, in Christ, are beloved sons and daughters of the Most high God, that before we even get involved in any ministry or mission, before we try any good works, God has already declared his love for us.  That’s good news! 

But even more surprising is the fact that Jesus begins his ministry with baptism. 

          Baptism is both a beginning and an end, isn’t it?  The term "baptism" comes from the Greek word  bautízo  which literally means to be immersed, overwhelmed, or covered.  In the Greek language, the earliest usage of the word bautizo was in connection with the pickling process.  Yes, that’s right.  I said pickling process. Just like we do today, the Greeks would take a cucumber or some other vegetable and bautízo it into scalding water, then put it in brine to change the flavor.  I love that image! Baptism as a pickling process!  All who have descended in the waters of baptism have been pickled into Jesus – you have been blanched to self and marinated in the brine of Christ’s grace!

In the New Testament,  it was John the Baptist's custom to fully immerse a person into the waters of the river Jordan.  This was done as a symbol of a complete turning from sin and to the cleansing power of God.  Baptism was the outward sign of an inner grace that resulted in the transformation of the heart and mind.  A person who becomes baptized is saying yes to repentance, to turning back to God, making a new start with the primary acknowledgment of God alone having the power to save!

          This should raise in your mind the question why did Jesus receive the baptism of John?  Surely Jesus did not need repentance?  Surely he did not have sin in his life?  Scripture affirms that indeed Jesus was tempted in every way,  but without sin (Hebrews 4:15),  but here we read about him coming to John for baptism.

          The baptism of Jesus points not to Jesus' own need for repentance,  but rather to his solidarity with and compassion for a humanity in great need of repentance.  He was baptized because he sought to show that the way of salvation begins for all of us with yielding obedience and submission to God.  As the carmen cristi affirms (Philippians 2:5-11),  "though he was in the form of God,  [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself,  taking the form of a servant..." 

          What an appropriate reminder as we begin a new year and welcome new leadership. Jesus gives us the example of servant leadership,  of humility and deference, of a heart of love which offers up all for all… Even as he began his ministry, he descended down into the waters of baptism, not because he had to, but because he wanted to identify with all who had need of God’s cleansing, healing power to save…

It’s important to note that as Christians we are not called to debase ourselves, or to feign a false humility or faux inadequacy. Short of the grace of God, the Biblical story is that we come from dirt. Atheistic world views put our lineage as a combination of pond scum and lightning.  Voila! Human DNA.  As Indira Ghandi once said to one of her officers, “Don’t act so humble; you’re not that great.” 

It’s a paradox… Although we may have humble beginnings, it is God who claimed us, bought us with a price, and placed an infinite value on us. But we would do well to be reminded that in following Jesus, we are called to descend, to identify with those who are broken by life, those who are outcast, those who are powerless in this world, those whom the world would consider nothing. 

If we are going to talk about new beginnings of ministry, of a new life with Christ in this new year, it is important to recognize the pattern of servant leadership which Jesus models and to which he calls us, a pattern of descent and ascent. We must be willing to empty ourselves of all pride and prejudice, of all presumption and pretense, and pursue the way of self-emptying, self-sacrificing love.  Showing our love for God and our neighbors may make us look like weaklings, like fools for Christ, like our own righteousness or security is not what really matters.  Can you say with Paul, “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9)? Even more inner piety begins in humility. Did you know that the word “prayer” in English comes from an old French word that means “to beg,” to assume a posture of need?  Descent… and ascent…

          Whether it be the vows of baptism, or just recommitting our lives to the One in whose name we have been baptized, there is this pattern of descent and ascent, of lowering ourselves, that Christ our King might lift us up to new life!

          One of the heroes of French history is Joan of Arc. As some of you probably read in the news, January 6, last Friday, was the official 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc, the legendary teenage warrior-saint-martyr. She was the peasant girl who led French armies into some key victories during the 100 years war.

President Sarkozy took the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to her birthplace and predictably, she is now officially part of the presidential campaign strategy! Apparently, French kings ignored her because they didn’t like the idea of a woman savior. Voltaire mocked her as an “unfortunate idiot.” Then Jules Michelet wrote in the 19th century that it was Joan of Arc who transformed France into a woman worthy of love. In the first WW, French soldiers prayer to her and the US government put her on war bond posters. She was made a saint in 1920, and in WWII, she was used by both the Vichy collaborators and the French resistance movement as a source of inspiration…[2] Like I was saying earlier, it’s hard to be honest about such a legend. However… We do know this: The reason everybody wants to celebrate Joan of Arc, is that for the love of God and her fellow citizens, this peasant girl gave her life. You can visit Rouen to see the memorial where she died and the chapel also named in her honor.

I think one of the reasons we love of Joan of arc is we see in her a reflection of the glory of Jesus,  who took upon himself the form of a servant,  plunged himself down into the murky waters of baptism, obedient unto death,  even death on a cross… for us!

How about this for a new year’s resolution: Let’s give ourselves to something bigger than ourselves, to this vision of love which costs everything. Let’s be honest, and not trust in duplicitous selves, but in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that God is at work in our lives and has a plan and purpose for his church, and for each of us. May we resolve to follow Christ and associate with the lowliest of the lowly, to learn humility, to pray out of a needy heart, and to let the love of Christ be at the heart of our life together, and in how we reach out to people around us….

          In this new year, let there be no ambiguity of who our God really is. May each of us bow down to the One who gave his life for us. Deceptive and Self-Deceived Sinners that we may be, created from the dust, yet redeemed and called forth to new life as heirs of God’s everlasting kingdom, may we go down low with Jesus - and be raised again to show his love. 

                   In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit… AMEN.

[1] John Horgan, “Hodgepodge of Genes, deceiving and denying, but rich in human folly,” (International Herald Tribune, Cuture section, December 26, 2011), 11.

[2] Elaine Sciolino, “At 600, a virgin warrior continues to rally the French” (International Herald Tribune, January 7-8), p.3.