A sermon preached on January 10th, 2010, based upon Luke 3:15 – 17; 21 – 22.
Consider this flight of fantasy: What would it be like if through some magic or futuristic science it were possible for you or me to spend some time literally inside the life of another person. Imagine fully experiencing what it would feel like to be them, encountering the world through their perceptions as they go about the moment by moment choices they face, and then afterwards, return to ponder what we had experienced?
I suspect that to be inside somebody else’s unique experience of the world would quite literally blow our minds. We would be humbled, to say the least. Though we may know better, we tend to assume in our human interactions that life is coming at everybody else pretty much the same way it is coming at us. We judge others as “idiots” when they don’t make the choices we’ve made in what appears to us to be similar situations. The fact is, however, that each of us has an absolutely unique perception of reality arising from a totally distinct genetic code interacting with an unrepeatable environment creating a personal history that is all our own.
To experience pretty much any other person’s life from the inside would probably do the trick, but imagine if sobriety comes easily to you what it would be like to experience the addictions of another, and how hard it is for that person to make the choice to turn down the drink. What would it be like to be inside someone suffering from the burden of mental illness? If you’re an extrovert, to experience what it is like for the introvert who finds a crowd of people anxiety provoking? Or if you are an introvert, to experience how easy it is for the extrovert to put his or her foot in their mouth because they aren’t weighed down by the same thought police that stand guard at the doorway of your mind? If you are a man, to experience for a few moments what it is to be a woman, or vice versa. If you are straight, to experience what it is to be gay.
Imagine finding yourself in a situation that in your old life would have seemed pretty routine, but here in this other person’s life, you find yourself stepping on emotional land mines, exploding with waves of anger and sadness.
Think of the possibilities if every person with strong political or religious convictions were to experience what it was like to be inside someone with a very different point of view.
Initially we would be struck by how different we are from one another. But I suspect that if we were able to undergo the experience for an extended period of time, we would begin to come around to seeing an underlying similarity to all human experience as well. We all have a different combination of strengths and weaknesses, talents and shortcomings, but everybody still has to deal the reality pointed to in the serenity prayer:
Lord, grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change, the courage to change that which I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
Over time, the significance of the external contexts of our lives would probably lessen. On a given day one person wins the jackpot lottery, and another suffers an auto accident that leaves him a paraplegic, and on that day their experience seems as different as night and day. But follow those two people a year or two or three down the road, and the interpretations of “fortunate” vs. “misfortunate” I suspect would begin to blur. (Researchers indicate that the paraplegic is slightly more likely to describe himself as “happy” than the one who has so much money she no longer needs to work.)
Over time, the external context of our lives may come to appear more like simply “window dressings”; interesting, but not the most important thing. Certain basic questions arise to be addressed in every life, in every context: How do I come to terms with the fact that one day I will die? How to I give and receive love? Where do I find meaning?
One person moves into her “dream house”, and another is arrested for a felony, sentenced to several years in prison. In time the one in the dream house discovers that the house itself didn’t make her as happy as she had imagined, and that there are these ongoing tedious responsibilities to deal with of paying the mortgage and making the repairs that occupy so much of her time and energy. The inmate discovers that even in the prison there are people to love and be loved by, and a life that has meaning, and that strangely, prison life removes some of the tedious burdens of daily living that can distract people who aren’t incarcerated.
Underneath everything else, there is this question that everyone of us must face: What will I do with the life God has given me? Our life is distinct, no one else gets to live it. Will we?
In the Gospel story, the thirty year old Jesus appears for the first time. What has he been doing with the life that God has given him? We don’t know for sure, but in terms of outwardly impacting the world, apparently very little. Presumably, he has been discovering his unique giftedness — the ways he is unlike any other man.
As Jesus shows up at the River Jordan he has a choice to make. What will he do with this extraordinary giftedness he has discovered within himself? He can, in theory, use it for his own personal glory. He can hoard it, so to speak. Or, he can live for the glory of God. He can dedicate his gifts to God’s purposes in this world.
Choosing to enter the water of John’s baptism expresses a couple of powerful themes. On the one hand, Jesus is choosing to be with all the rest of us poor slobs. This is what the incarnation is all about: God choosing to be with us in the muck of life; to experience our lives from the inside.
The creeds of the Church speak of Jesus being simultaneously human and divine, which is a tough idea to get our heads around. He is human – he is just like everybody else. But he is something vastly more as well.
One way to conceive of the God-nature of Jesus is to consider the fact that God is the only one who is capable of fully carrying out the exercise I have fantasized about. God, having made each one of us, knows what it is like to be every single, distinct human being. Jesus, in turn, surely had a capacity far beyond ours to intuit what it felt like to be all other human beings, and to empathize with our plights, which we get a hint of in so many of the things he said, for instance, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The choice to enter the waters involves solidarity with all us poor slobs, and it also expresses the willingness to risk all in faith. It involves letting go — trusting God to be with us, come what may, and trusting God to work things out as God sees fit as time moves on. As such, it’s a little like going into the deep water without a flotation device to support us to get dunked.
Today is Stewardship Sunday in our church. Our time, our talents, our gifts and our money are all part of what God has given to us in our absolutely unique life. These things vary enormously. But the underlying issue is the same. What will we do with what we have been given?
Luke’s Gospel is the one that tells us about a rich man who apparently lived a respectable life and a poor man named Lazarus who lived on his doorstep. As different as their lives were on the outside, they both had to face the fact that one day they would die. For Lazarus, this was probably something of a no-brainer; he lived very close to death every day. The rich man, however, avoided the fact of his death, using his money as a buffer. But one day they do in fact both die, and there is a reckoning and a reversal of fortunes. To him whom much has been given, much is expected, and the rich man has not used what he has been gifted with for God’s glory. Lazarus, at his doorstep, went without food.
It is also in Luke’s Gospel that find the story of Jesus in the Temple watching people making their offerings, taking note of the poor widow who gave her two copper coins – all that she had. In terms of the spiritual meaning of her offering, Jesus said, her gift far outweighs the bags of gold placed by the rich people. She has given all, letting go, trusting God with her life.
What will you do with what God has given you? Will you embrace the gift of your life, with all the limitations, but with all the possibilities as well? If you don’t, who will?