When scholar and pastor Eugene Peterson died, his son, Leif, noted that his father "only had one sermon, one message.”
At Eugene’s funeral, Leif shared this poem about his father:
“It's almost laughable how you fooled them, how for 30 years every week you made them think you were saying something new. They thought you were a magician in your long black robe hiding so much in your ample sleeves, always pulling something fresh and making them think it was just for them. They didn't know how simple it all was. They were blind to your secret.”
Leif Peterson knew this because he heard the sermon every night,
"For 50 years you steal into my room at night and whispered softly to my sleeping head. It's the same message over and over: 'God loves you. He's on your side. He's coming after you. He's relentless.’"
The secret is out: that’s the only sermon in my closet, too. I pull it out and accessorize it with stories, high-brow theology, and flowery language. But it’s all I will ever say because it’s all I know to say. This is gospel. One important theologian, who wrote masses of texts, was once asked how he would summarize the millions of words he had published. His answer? "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Though, to be fair, sometimes it lands harsher, like law, when the same blessing is proclaimed about our neighbors. We’re given commandments because we fail to believe that the gospel holds true for all, and not just the people we deem worthy.
At the very least, the church can preach love with confidence, and has been seeking to for two thousand years. The sermon has yet to go out of style or become inessential in a world starved for good news. Like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain, only for it to roll back down the hill, I stand behind the pulpit and proclaim this message, which is more or less the same one that God gave to Jesus at his baptism. And then, I do it again the following week.
At least I’ll never be out of a job.
Jesus’ baptism is a microcosm of salvation history and a recapitulation of what has happened prior. Jesus is down at the Jordan River, that is, the same place where the Israelites entered the promised land after being led by Moses through the Red Sea into freedom out of Egypt. He is there alongside streams of people who are looking for a fresh start. In came the racists and addicts, the spouses in the midst of infidelity, the CEOs and stockholders. Surely, there were others who appeared healthy and happy, but were harboring some kind of guilt or darkness deep in their souls. It was a shameful and embarrassing lot of people for a king and messiah to be caught naked with. But Jesus, who didn’t need the water, hopped in line because we did.
We can’t reach up to God. There’s no tower of Babel that can climb to the heavens. God descends low enough to take a bath alongside us— like a parent who reaches down into the bathtub to scrub a screaming toddler and then, climbs in to be with her, soothe her, show her all will be well. God comes down, down, down until God was immersed into the scum and slime of a river. In other words, Jesus emptied himself into every part of our world so that we might be immersed into all of God.
Here, at Jesus’ baptism, Israel’s longings are answered. Isaiah’s prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” is finally answered. The Spirit that hovered over the chaotic waters when the world was birthed is now hovering over Jesus’ water-logged body, bestowing a new creation. The dove that Noah sent out when the ark waded on sea waves has returned with another olive branch—Jesus. Finally, God speaks from the heavens: “You are my child, my beloved, and I am pleased with you.”
There it is, the sermon, and the reason why God goes to all this trouble to play with water.
Water is completely ordinary, just a compound of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, but it also sustains all life. Water nourishes us in the womb and runs through our veins. It’s the only satisfaction for a dry mouth and the foundation for all food that is complex and delicious. It is water that cleanses our children following an afternoon of marching through the forests and later becomes the bubble bath for the overworked mother or the sponge bath for the elderly resident in the nursing home. Even tears are drops of water that cleanse our eyes and hearts. But that's not all, water is security, sustenance for the future, and as the Israelites who crossed through the Red Sea remind us, an escape route.
Water: cleansing, sustaining, and saving. The best news about your past, present, and future.
The first thing that I do every Sunday is walk over to the baptismal font and pour water into a bowl. It’s a sermon that splashes and trickles. I plagiarize the sermon given to Jesus by saying something like this: “Remember your baptism. You are a beloved child of God. This is your family. Welcome home.” We are baptized only once, but we are called upon to remember our baptism every day. To bathe in it. Splash in it. Die in it. Be born in it.
Baptism doesn’t always seem to work, at least not immediately. Change, I’ve learned, takes time—especially the kind that reorients your entire constitution of desire. This is why we have to keep reminding ourselves of the water. It’s not that the gift is imperfect, but that we are. We must die to ourselves in order to rise with Christ, but sin is a hard thing to drown. Right when we think we’ve gotten it under control, it rears its head, takes another breath, and whispers 'there are other means of salvation, like that new toy from REI or your next one-click purchase. Shove the cleansing and healing water back into the font and close the lid. Forgot about it. Drink from the water of Starbucks while worshipping at the altar of Target. Turn back to the gods on your screens and in your wallet (or maybe a Dairy Queen Blizzard) to quench the ‘worthiness’ thirst.' Or, thus says the little voice in my head.
I think this must be why Martin Luther often dipped his finger in water during times of great stress and said to himself, ‘remember you’ve been baptized.’ The water was a reminder of his identity, and also a calling to live into a new identity. Now, he may have equally often picked up a stein of beer. But one of the two bestowed true life and the other bestowed life that was followed by a headache.
There is a paradox at the core of baptism: everything changes and nothing completely changes. If baptism is efficacious, then it works slowly like a seed that is planted and still needs watering, a marriage that must be attended to, a child who grows into the life that waits for him. In a sense, we’ve not exited the pool; we’re still immersed in the waters—dying, reforming in the womb, and rising into new life.
Baptism is more than a rite of passage, or a graduation ceremony for infants. It’s a death and resurrection. The start of something new. TS Eliot in his Four Quartets writes that “In my beginning is my end.” He must have been speaking of baptism. The font is the starting point for the journey and it’s also the endpoint. We can’t say in what oceans we’ll end up swimming or who ends up with us in the boat. We’re not promised calm or tumultuous waters, but only a Christ who will walk toward us on the waters. And when we come to the end of all our exploration, we’ll realize we’ve been at the end all along— swimming in the deep, rich pools of God’s grace claimed as God’s own children.
We need to be reminded of the truth about ourselves from time to time. After all, it can take a lifetime to claim what was named at the waters. And so every week we gather at the waters and I share the only message I know: you are beloved.
Danielle carried him out of the bedroom, his hair tousled from a restless night. He smiled and his eyebrows wrapped around his face in a cartoonish sort of way. Today is the last Monday I’ll count Pax’s age using months. Next Monday, he’ll be a year and two days old. It will also be Christmas Eve, and the day we brought him home from the hospital.
It’s serendipitous that we came home from the hospital on Christmas Eve, baby in tow, preparing to celebrate another baby. Saint Ephrem the Syrian said that at Christmas a baby grabs the reigns of the universe.i Our reigns were also taken by a seven and a half pound ball of flesh—though, in a less cosmic sort of way.
All babies, not just the salvific kind, wield tremendous amounts of power. A newborn’s yawn disarms the hardest soul. Go ahead and try not to smile. A child’s complete reliance demands every minute of your day. All of it. It’s a full-time job and not a once a week, for an hour, kind of a thing. All hail King Baby. I’ve had pregnant friends tell me, “I’m going to make my baby’s schedule when she’s born. I’ll still have a life outside of baby.” And that’s when the universe gives them a baby with colic.
When we were pregnant with Eden, one friend put it to me like this: “Every day is more difficult, but I can’t imagine life any other way.” That seems right. And I think I could say the same thing about anything that really matters.
Luckily, Paxton has been gentle with the reigns, by not pulling them as taut as he might. There has been plenty of slack—quiet dinners out, decent sleep, and self-entertainment. Still, he holds the reigns. All it takes is one missed nap or an incoming tooth and I remember that I don’t captain this ship. This morning, I set up a barricade around outlets and wires because he was chewing on an I-Phone cable like a wad of bubble gum. To spite me, Pax staggered straight to the coffee table and swiped my cup of coffee to the ground.
“Uh oh!” he chirps.
It’s an apt first phrase for our species. We come into this world delicate and beautiful, and while the beauty remains, we immediately start making a mess of things. Or, maybe it’s parents who make a mess of their children. That will depend on your theology of original sin and sin, or maybe Family Systems Theory. What’s clear is that children are more like bulldozers than flowers. Last month, I gave Paxton the silent treatment for half a day when he pulled my computer off the table and caused irreparable damage to the hard drive. Uh oh.
And he smiled. He smiles all the time.
My favorite part of Monday is putting him to sleep. Pax reclined on me, facing outward, nestled into me like I’m a La-Z-Boy. The soft, morning light shone through the crack between the broken, crooked curtain and window casing. He grabbed my finger like it was a life preserver before he sunk into deep waves of sleep. His shirt rode up and his rolls hung over the elastic waistband. I’d have laughed if it wouldn’t wake him. Most mornings he hits himself in the face to stay awake, or he flicks his bottom lip up and down, but today his eyes rolled around, flipped upward, and eventually closed. He snored like an old man.
When Paxton woke up from his nap he cried out, “Uh oh!” (I usually feel the same way). He woke up crying after his second nap, because he wasn't quite ready. He quickly fell back asleep to Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
Daytime consists of the simplest forms of entertainment: standing and falling. He pinballs from the coffee table to the couch, to the side table. He falls over. Most of the time he’s looking to swallow some object that will end his short life. I’ve already pried the remote control from his hands twice, as he tried to pry out the silver batteries. I chased him when he crawled down the hallway. He stopped, turned his head, and giggled. Then, he kept crawling away.
Nothing’s extraordinary, but everything is extraordinary. Nothing’s unique, but everything is unique. Objectivity doesn’t exist with your children. As far as I’m concerned, mine are the best. Is that how God looks at us? I wish I could look at others in the same way.
When we walk into Eden’s school to pick her up from class, Pax grabs my left thumb when someone starts talking to us. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s reassuring for both of us—we’ll survive the small talk. Pax misses his sister on Mondays. She makes him laugh like no one else. Eden misses him, too, I think. She ran to him, wrapped her arms around him, planted one on his cheek, rammed her fingers under his flabby arms and said, “tickle tickle.” At home, he laughed when Eden asked Alexa to play Can’t Stop the Feeling. He flung his arms in the air just like her.
My life has the potential to be interrupted by a flash mob of dancing and I'd have it no other way.
I should mention that Pax eats—he eats a lot. If there’s a plate in front of him, and food is on it, then life is good. When he wants more to eat he says, “Mmmm,” which isn’t at all demanding. It’s more like a southern-passive way of asking for more food. I interpret it like this: “Mmmm. That apple pie sure was great. It’s a shame I only got one slice.” We gave him strawberries, rice, and other vegetables that he shoveled into his mouth by the fistful.
The day ended soon, but not too soon.
I work night hours so I had to leave right after dinner. I made it home to hear a story with Eden, but Pax was already down for the night—at least, the first shift of the night. He ended up in our bed at some point and we wrestled with the dark until his eyes rose to meet the sun and we rose to meet him. Almost a year ago we held him in our arms on winter solstice, the longest night of the year, just as the sun rose. With every passing day and year, the sun rises a little more over horizon revealing who he is and who he is becoming—who we are all becoming—it happens Monday after Monday.
i. This was Jason Byassee's observation here
“There is snow everywhere. It must be Christmas!” says my daughter.
Which is fortunate or unfortunate depending upon how your December is progressing. If we keep power and heat, then this will be good news for most of us. We’re an overworked people in an overly anxious season. Christmas is two weeks away, which means that Advent is halfway over. It’s a perfect time to stop for half-time. To take a break. Slow down.
Snow should be on the checklist for every great Advent-Christmas, along with shopping, hot cocoa, Home Alone, and at least one good meltdown. With nowhere to go, nothing to do, we are invited to unwrap true sabbath rest as even most critters go into hiding. The streets shut down and everything is quiet, until the silence is finally broken by chirping birds and crunching snow. It’s an open invitation to be a child again—binge those Christmas classics and make a snowman. Heck, make a snow-family. The world slows enough to notice that ice crystals fall from the sky.
What’s advent without one day of wonder?
Zechariah, who we met last week, was forced into a season of silence when he didn’t believe that his wife had become pregnant with child (who would be born as John the Baptist). And who would? But the angel sealed his lips and held is tongue. John must have come out of the temple miming a ‘Y’ with his arms stretched upward and a beachball with his arms outstretched and rounded.
He lived like this, in a perpetual game of charades, for nine months until his wife gave birth. Now, this is often interpreted as a punishment—usually by extroverts, I imagine. This might have been a blessing. It’s December and we can’t talk! Silence is free therapy. It's a way of watching and a way of listening to what is going on within and around. Before we inquire about the gift that is to come, we must first come to understand what is happening around us—to sink deeper into each moment and let your eyes linger on those things that are so often ignored.
It might be that our angel takes the form of snowflakes and icy roads.
The December calendar fills up quicker than any other month of the year. Advent has been hijacked by Christmas busyness, loud noises, and too many bad songs. Bah humbug. There’s not a spare minute to prepare a room for the coming child, to make a wish list, to dwell in the stillness. Christmas arrives and there’s no room in the Inn. Go next door, Jesus. This house is full of eggnog and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.
Then, we’re blindsided by snow and the calendar is suddenly empty. There is absolutely nothing to do. Many of us can’t even distract ourselves with church—even church is cancelled. Turns out that we have to find God in snow blossoms and white blankets covering lawns. We’ll have to look for God in a quiet house, the children sledding, the neighbor who needs a warm place to stay. It’s even possible that we might have to play board games with family. Oh, the horror.
Worse yet, we might have to look within ourselves and prepare a place in our hearts for Christ to be born. Where is Jesus’ looking to be born this year? In your heart? In our world?
As much as I love the cheer, it’s not always helpful. Welcome to the season of imposed (faux?) happiness! Christmas is a slow, steady morphine drip in the veins of the world's brokenness and grief and despair. If we manage to schedule our calendars full enough, then we can ignore the pain during ‘the most wonderful time of the year!’ Or, we can throw money at it, which usually works temporarily.
But what happens when there are no distractions? Enter melancholy and stress. Silence can often be the precursor to an avalanche of worry, dread, and pain that you never heard coming. If there’s one person I don’t want to be in a room alone with—it’s me. There I am, face to face with my receding hairline, that weird pain in my throat, and too many meetings scheduled for next week. God may not even show up. I’m left all alone with just thoughts, lost dreams, and false hopes. And it feels way too close to death.
At least I can still send text messages.
The desert fathers told this short tale: A brother in Scetis went to ask for a word from Abba Moses and the old man said to him, “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
But there’s also a threat with these kinds of snow storms. Trees fall and transformers blow. Roads are snow covered and slick. We are fragile and dependent people. Milk and bread is no condolence. Thousands are not only stuck in silence; they’re cold and fearful. Literally yearning for someone to turn on the lights. Will we ever be warm again? When will the quiet, stillness of advent’s labor move into transition? And that's the cry of a people who wait.
Someone once said that silence is the loudest cry. For whom is the world cold this year? What blankets can you offer them?
A couple of snowy days is the perfect Advent gift. Here’s why: advent is about anticipation and longing and quiet can be the medium to develop that patience. If we sit long enough, we’ll long for a savior. Maybe even prepare a room in our chests. A child will come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Quiet is busy, though it’s a different kind of busy—the kind that Advent intends: waiting, wonderment, joy, yearning. It’s sledding down a hill, but also introspection. It’s The Great Christmas Light Fight, yet longing for a more just earth. It’s making sure your street is warm and fed and talking about nothing.
For one day we will look for peace on our streets and create peace in our hearts. And that’s what advent is about. After all, there will be no peace on earth if we can’t first find peace at home.
Advent is a season of pregnancy for Christians. Well, that’s to put it mildly. This is the season when we become like a woman in her third trimester. We’re waddling around like we’ve just eaten at Golden Corral. We’ve already decorated the baby’s room. And redecorated it. Forget about getting any sleep. Speaking of forgetting, why did we just get in the car? Everyone tells us to savor the season—the anticipation, warmth, and wonder. But all we really want is rest and normalcy. We’re yearning and praying for this child to be born among us. The world is broken and we need a Savior—like, now. In fact, yesterday would have been great.
I think this is one reason why the secular culture loves Christmas. It’s a sign-act that we’re not giving up on this world. Help is on the way. And for us, help means a newborn baby. Even strangers can’t help but to come near to the church, to touch her protruding stomach. Our houses are strung with lights and trees are standing tall in living room windows. The darkness will not overcome us. We sing, we eat, we snuggle. We buy each other gifts, which is a good instinct if it can be reigned in, subverted, and made cruciform. Take that, despair.
I wonder if we criticize people too deeply—the ones who never quite make it all the way to Christ’s stable. They stop short at “Happy Holidays” with shopping malls. Or, they watch from the fringes at the Christmas parties with one too many egg nog mixed drinks. Maybe, they’ve followed a different star and ended up at a different stable. But we’re on this earth together, each of us waiting for the darkness to recede and the light to shine longer and brighter.
A life without hope is not a life. This is why Dante wrote that the gates are hell are inscribed with ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here.’ We need hope so much that we can’t make it through Thanksgiving without singing Away in a Manger. For three years at my first church we argued about Christmas hymns. The congregation wanted to sing the carols. Life is painful. Can we go ahead and celebrate Christmas now? I wanted to make them wait until Christmas Eve. The congregation won.
Christ is born in Bethlehem. Today, Today, Today.
And why not? We’ve all seen the news. The world has dealt us so many blows. Not to mention the disappointment of so many prior Christmases. We’ve gone under the tree, picked up the present, shook the package, and ripped the paper. Great! It’s another pair of underwear. Something more must be under that tree—more than sentiment, good cheer, pieces of plastic. Or maybe that's all we'll ever unwrap.
Advent begins with uncertainty and a high risk of miscarriage. Pregnancy is full of excitement and wonder, but it’s also a season of fear. You place your hope in flesh and blood vessels and cells that need to divide and grow. Everything is supposed to ‘just work,’ but we still wonder if the heart is still beating. We can’t control it—we’re held hostage by a bundle of cells the size of a mango. All of our hopes and fears are bound in a tiny package marked 'fragile.'
The church teaches that hope is waiting for deliverance from something that can only come from the outside. We've been waiting to be freed once and for all for a couple thousand years. If that’s the case, then why should we dare to hope for more than the emptiness and silence? Will this finally be the year that the humble will be exalted? That the rich will be sent away empty?
Most Advent seasons Zechariah is my patron saint. What’s hope look like for Zechariah? It’s showing up to work on time. Zechariah is a priest of Israel. His job consisted of going into the temple, deep down into the Holy of Holies, the place where God resides. And he burnt incense. No one else gets to go that deep into God’s heart. Others would have tied a rope around his leg in case he died back there so they could pull him out.
Exteriors are often misleading. Through another lens, Zechariah was dealt a difficult hand. He and Elizabeth were childless. To say they were righteous and childless would be like hypocrisy. Other Jews would presume they were being punished by God for their unrighteousness. So what’d he do in his brokenness? He went to work.
Sometimes that’s what hope looks like. Hope does not know any excess. But it also doesn’t know any dearth. A sky ripped open sounds great, but most of us are just hoping for a good night’s sleep. A better co-worker. That she’ll get out of the hospital by Christmas Day. Hope doesn’t always have to be so heroic. Sometimes hope is brushing your teeth and getting dressed the week after the funeral. It’s planting a garden when last year’s was destroyed by a groundhog. Hope is buying energy efficient lightbulbs after the latest climate report has been released. When the world is caving in on itself and we can manage to sit down at the piano and write a song. That’s hope, too.
God uses people who have just enough hope to show up. It’s not bold or heroic; it’s the path of least resistance. It’s the bare minimum amount of hope—just enough to pass the course, to get the pay check, to stay out of the hospital. But it’s an open door and God’s done more with less.
Does Zechariah expect God to show up? Doubt it. Regardless, he's given these words:
Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
John became the unexpected gift to Zechariah and to the world.
Now, it doesn’t always end that way (spoiler: it usually doesn't). We’re not promised every happy ending. But it often begins the same—in darkness and barrenness. The blues of advent can be as deep as the blues of lent. This year Advent begins with tear gas, fires that terrorize entire landscapes, guns in schools and synagogues.
Here's the question: do we dare to show up for work?
Saint Augustine says that “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” I also think that Hope has two less attractive, chain-smoking stepdaughters. They’re named Duty and Perseverance. Duty to show up today, and Perseverance to show up again tomorrow.
And so we show up. Not because we want to, but because we have to wait. Christmas will arrive, but there’s no way to induce it to come earlier than scheduled. In the mean time, we go into the temple and burn incense. We wait. Light the Advent wreath. Wait. Speak up with the voiceless. Wait. Deliver cookies to the shut-ins. Wait.
Something might come when we least expect it—during a rally or a dinner at the women’s shelter. We’re sitting on the couch watching a Hallmark movie and suddenly something contracts. It’s go time. God is speaking something new into existence. A light is rising against the night sky. A shining star is appearing. Follow it. Follow it all the way to the stable. A Savior will be there. He must be, right? It's our only hope.
Until then, all we can do is show up. And then, show up again tomorrow.