Meditation: Now the green blade rises from the buried grain;
Wheat that in dark earth for many days has lain.
Love lives again, that with the dead have been:
Love is come again like wheat that rises green.
I came across a really interesting thought by a man named John Punshon (1987). He said: “The ways of God are many. They appear when we are ready for them and when our faithfulness has shown we can live with the consequences of further growth.”
That got me to thinking. Lots of people say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” And that’s true. I’ve experienced that in my own life, as I’m sure you have as well. But it’s the second part of the sentence that tickles my curiosity: “and when our faithfulness has shown we can live with the consequences of further growth.” It’s not just enough to receive the gift; we have to be able to use it, and to grow into something else. Are we ready to grow, or are we comfortable with where we are right now, and have no desire to go further? Are we actually ready to grow, or are we just setting ourselves up for failure.
Living with the consequences of further growth. Part of me understands and embraces that, but part of me is threatened by it as well, because it means that if I am prepared to accept God’s gifts, I’m going to be growing into something that I now am not. Choices always entail embracing one option to the exclusion of other options. If I choose to get married, that means I’ll no longer be single. Walking down one path means I won’t be walking down the other. It means being willing to change might mean I have to give up other good things that I treasure. Am I really okay with that?
In the church calendar, this is the day of two festivals: the festival of Epiphany, where we celebrate the coming of the light (Jesus) into the world; and the festival of the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus is both the light, and coming into the light. He is both the giver and the receiver.
Before His baptism, Jesus must have felt something ‘becoming’ inside of himself. He leaves his carpenter’s bench, and his family, and he searches out a prophet named John who is preaching and baptizing people in the Jordan River.
What is He thinking as He makes His way to the river? What does He imagine His life is becoming? We don’t know; Scripture doesn’t say. All we do know is that when He reaches John in the middle of the river, something compels Him to go under the waters: to die to one way of life in order to rise to the next. Until He fulfills this act of obedience, He can go no further on His inner journey.
And so John lowers Jesus into the water, and when Jesus comes up out of the water, a Voice from heaven says, “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
But can Jesus live with the consequences of this act of faith? Because there are consequences. Immediately, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness where, for forty days and nights, he has no food. And at the end of those 40 days, the evil one comes, the tempter. He lays before Jesus the ways of prosperity, of security, of power. What will He choose? When He has been frayed to the point of exhaustion, what will Jesus choose?
And John Punshon’s words come back to me: “The ways of God are many. They appear when we are ready for them and when our faithfulness has shown we can live with the consequences of further growth.”
The consequences of further growth can be rugged. We can look at our own lives as a metaphor. We’re born, and in no time at all we’re supposed to be walking. But that comes with spills and bruised knees. And just when we’ve gotten being a child down, our hormones go on a spree and the whole world goes upside down and we end up in middle school. Which is another definition of hell.
And then, just when we think we’ve got being a teen down, we’re shoved out of the house and told to start ‘adulting’- showing up to work, paying our rent. Every time we grow into a new stage, and get good enough at it to get comfortable, something comes up, and we have to leave that which we know, that which we’re good at, and face a new wilderness. And if we’re smart, we embrace the consequences of our further growth. And if we’re not, we keep trying to cling to that which cannot be our future.
I knew a couple about 20 years ago whom I greatly respected. Bill and Helen. They were in their late 70’s. Helen had the beginnings of Parkinson’s, and all their kids were at a distance. They lived in a very nice condo, but they both realized what the future was holding. And so while they were still energetic and able, they moved into a retirement community that could care for them when they could no longer care for themselves.
“The ways of God are many. They appear when we are ready for them and when our faithfulness has shown we can live with the consequences of further growth.”
The consequences of further growth means that what we are now is not what we will be then. We don’t know what that is going to be. And our choice is to shut down, close our eyes, hum loudly, and pretend like nothing’s going to change… or open our eyes and embrace whatever is coming, with as much grace and courage as we can.
“The ways of God… appear when we are ready for them and when our faithfulness has shown we can live with the consequences of further growth.”
The truth is, the example of our aging is an imperfect metaphor, because our growth and end will come whether we hum loudly or not. But sometimes, we are perfectly capable of stymying our growth, stymying what God would have for us.
When I was in my early 20’s, I prayed that God would reveal Godself to me. I prayed that I could believe. I prayed that I would be saved. But… nothing. Big fat empty nothing. I prayed the prayer in the back of the tract that I found on the bus:“Jesus, I believe and I need the salvation you have provided. Come into my heart, rule my life today, and show me how to live. Amen.”
Nothing. Cosmic silence. I guess God knew I wasn’t ready. I guess God knew that I wouldn’t be able to live with the consequences of my further growth. I still needed ti me to ripen. What was it inside of me that put on the brakes, that kept what I was to become at bay? A lack of trust? Fear? A need to be in control? I don’t know. I thought I was praying with a full heart, but something inside of my stopped short.
I kept praying, and kept reading for over a year. And one day I prayed the agnostic’s prayer: “God, if there is a God, save my soul, is I have a soul.” And that must have been a true prayer, something that God could work with. Because things started to move, to shift inside me.
I thought maybe I was supposed to be baptized, and so I went to the first church I ran into, which happened to be University Congregational Church. That’s the reason why I’m a UCC minister today, as opposed to a Presbyterian. Because the Presbyterian church was on the other side of the block. It wasn’t the first one that I walked into.
I asked the Congregational minister there to baptize me. He told me to come in the next day- Monday- during my lunch hour. And I came in, and he baptized me… and a life and a Spirit so powerful that I can still feel it in my bones came through me. God appears when we are ready, and when our faithfulness has shown that we can live with the consequences of further growth. Or as the Buddhists say, When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And not a moment before.
When was a time that something shifted for you? When something inside of you said, “It is time”? Was it when your fear of being unemployed was overcome by your need to find a whole different vocation? Was it when you were able to embrace a commitment to your spouse? Was it when you were willing to give your heart to God, no matter where it led you?
The church word we use for this whole process is ‘conversion’ from the Latin for turning over, turning around. Immediately, we have an image of a religion-crazed maniac falling down on his knees, screaming, “I BELIEVE, Jesus! I BELIEVE!”
And you know, maybe for some folks that’s a true turning. But I think for most of us, our turnings come more gradually, as desire burrows deeper and deeper within us. Like a bulb whose roots grow down deep into the soil before sending up the first shoot… That manifestation, that epiphany, that revealing comes long after the first stirrings of life begins within us. But it is only when we are ready for that new life that the green shoot appears. Try to break forth before we are ready, and the green shoot withers.
But when we are ready… when we are ready the teacher will appear. And the light will break forth from the darkness, and our Lord will call to us: Behold, the Child of God with whom I am well pleased.
In the Name of the One who is waiting, who will never let us go: even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Scripture for Jan. 7, 2018 MARK 1:4-12
John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and as they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the river Jordan. Now, John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and honey. He proclaimed, “The One who is more powerful than I am is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie His sandals. I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And just as He was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descended on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, saying, “You are my Beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness.
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to Him.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today