1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,' " 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
In the 2001 song, “My City of Ruins,” Bruce Springsteen asks a devastating question. In response to the decay that all but taken over the much celebrated resort town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, a town Springsteen himself celebrates in song, he asks this question, “how do I begin again?” I name this question as devastating because it is so deeply honest. It is the question of a man who has seen all that he loves corrode and then fade, only to exist in memory. And this question strikes us as true, as honest, because one need not be mourning the loss of a resort town in order to ask it. Instead, this question is prompted by any number of circumstances. How, indeed, do we begin again after death or divorce, after losing a job or suffering a blow to our health? How do we begin again when all that we know and love seems to be fading away as the world continues to change at a dizzying rate? But, it is not just tragedy or painful experiences that prompt this question, perhaps these moments just bring our situation as humans into focus more clearly. For really, aren’t we always beginning again? Though we like to think of ourselves as progressing, as constantly improving, I wonder if there is another way to look at it. I mean, really, no matter how much life we have lived, no matter how many years accumulated at work in or in marriage, isn’t it true that these time lines are all the result of beginning and beginning again? For instance, you have a frustrating week and work and yet, on Monday morning, you are right back there, having decided to begin again. Or you have a major fight with your spouse or child, and yet the reconciliation that comes after is a sign that both parties have decided to begin again. And, I cannot help but wonder if we answer this question on a daily basis, answering it with what we do, with what we value, with how we make decisions.
If this is true for the rest of our lives, it is, perhaps more true indeed for how we live into relationship with God, and to be sure, the beginning that is prompted by God has an entirely different feel to it than what we experience in the remainder of our lives. To begin again in relationship to the living God, well, that is something quite different, indeed. To begin, again, with God is to do something very radical, it is in fact to admit who we are and to be found by a God who we seldom, if ever, really come to anticipate. This sort of beginning is given voice by our first reading, in which the prophet Isaiah provides the template for a new beginning, and what a strange beginning it is. “Comfort, Comfort Oh My People,” says God through the prophet, but look what comes next. “All people are like grass, their constancy like the flowers of the field.” Yes, take comfort says God, but this is not the sort of comfort that you can generate for yourselves. Take comfort, begin again for God is coming to you says the prophet, but please notice the source, the location of this comfort: it is in God, in God’s delightful action, in God’s faithful care and not in anything that the prophet’s audience can create from within. For they, the audience, are like us, like all humanity, frail as a flower amidst mighty wind, as fleeting as grass scorched by the summer sun. And that is what is remarkable about these words, for they ask us to be found by a comfort that admits our frailty, admits our infidelity, admits our vulnerability.
Though we tend not to think of comfort as the result of looking this honestly at ourselves, the question being asked of us is this: can genuine comfort ever really come to us without this sort of honesty? Can we ever begin again if we do not start from the messy and painful reality of who we know ourselves to be? Is there any real comfort, any true beginning, in running from the buffet of fear and pride that churns within? Well, as strange as it might sound in a culture of constant self-improvement, and naïve optimism about what it means to be human, the answer is no. Any true beginning must come from this sort of honesty, from the honesty that says along with the prophet Isaiah, that I, too, am grass. I, too am frail and full of doubt, tired and scared. There is no point in avoiding a truth we all know, though that does not stop us.
But, again, this remains but half the story. For earlier, I said that any true beginning comes from honesty about ourselves and honesty about God. Even as we stand as tenuously in this life as a flower in the wind, the surprising news is that God does not refuse us in our humble condition. No, with the delusions of self-sufficiency having been cast away, with the frail security we build for ourselves having been torn apart, for the heavens are about to be ripped open, a new reality emerges, a new beginning dawns, and it is God’s beginning. It is the beginning of a joy and a comfort that breaks open a new horizon. Yes, it is the joy of knowing a God who carries you in the divine bosom, a God whose patience and gentleness names you, remembers you and raises you to a new life from which you will never, ever be taken. It is the reality of God whose words of comfort will keep and guide you, even as our own self-styled projects fade like grass. Yes, this reality, this newness, this is what the Evangelist calls the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And it has again, begun in our midst.
And it is in knowing this, in knowing that a beginning has cracked open among us that the question of 2 Peter comes into a sharper focus: what kind of people are we to be? Having been brought safely into the sweetness of God’s beginning in Christ, how are we to become what God has already named us to be? There are as many wonderful ways to answer that question as there are people present, but let me sketch a few answers that are appropriate to today’s activities. We are people who give generously, generously of our time, our abilities, our resources, for we need no longer fear that we are alone in this old world, so gently and purely has the Father loved us. Having been found by that security, by this Christ who will never leave nor forsake, we are free to begin again in the baptism that daily raises us from the small deaths that keep us from God, from our neighbors, from ourselves. For we are always beginning, always being greeted anew by a mercy that we cannot fathom nor create. And it this beginning that we again celebrate here today. We celebrate this beginning as we are gathered around Christ’s body and blood, as we are joined in joyful fellowship, as we go out into the world to be little Christs to our neighbor, loving as we are loved. Yes, we celebrate this beginning as we thank each other for all the work that has been done this year by your volunteering and as we make our pledges towards God’s work here at Centennial. How do we begin again? As we always do, with the hopeful expectation of those who have been gathered into the crucified and risen Christ, who is always making his beginning in and among us. In Jesus’ name, amen.