Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
If I could tell you the exact date of your death, would you want me to tell you? If you did know, what would that change? If you knew that you only had a few days, what would you want to accomplish while you still have time? What messages would you give and to who? Is there someone that you’d want to make sure they know how much you love them? Is there someone you’d want to apologize to for some regret that you’ve been carrying around? Is there one more adventure you’d like to have, one more place you’d like to see?
And what if I told you that you have many many years ahead of you? Would it cause the opposite? Would you relax and not worry about all those things on your “bucket list” because you’ve got plenty of time?
I know talk of our own mortality is strange on a day when we remember Jesus baptism and the beginning of his ministry but this reading has just as much to do with endings as it does with beginnings.
John is building on a Jewish tradition of ritual cleansing. There were many ways to become unclean. Maybe you came in contact with a dead body or blood, maybe you’ve converted to Judaism and need to be washed so that you can go to the temple. You could go to a priest and be washed clean so that you could once again, approach God. John took this same idea but rather than cleanliness it was about repentance which literally means entering into a new mind. Of course, if we’re entering into a new mind, that means letting go on the old one – an ending of what was in favour of what is. It’s a holy one in one out rule.
We see this in the ritual of baptism itself. Water for all intents and purposes is life. All life on this planet begins in water and depends on water for continued life. Water, at least for humans, can also mean death – spend too much time under it and we might find ourselves a bit breathless. As we dip below the surface in baptism then, we are reminded of the death of what was and as we are re-born from these life giving waters, all is new again – it’s a fresh, clean start.
John goes even farther with endings when he starts talking about what could be understood as the “last judgement.” He describes Jesus with a winnowing fork. This was the ancient middle eastern version of a combine. We’ve all seen the augers dumping grain into the back of the combine while a cloud of chaff blows in the wind. Long ago, farmers would use their fork to throw the harvest into the air so that the chaff has a chance to blow away while the heavier grain would fall to the ground.
Of course this idea has been used over the centuries to foretell a day when all the good people will be divided from the bad but I like to think more of this as an internal division – it’s a day when all people let go of the crud that each and every person carries in our hearts, leaving the love and holiness that is also contained in every person.
However you slice it though, in this ritual of beginnings is also a reminder that there will indeed be an end. We have a limited number of days on this earth and then, at least for our bodies, we become compost. And this isn’t only limited to living things – anything that has a beginning, has an end. The greatest empires in history have come and gone, buildings are constructed and then eventually come down. What about Canada? We’ve been around for almost 150 years but will we be around, at least in a form that we recognize in another 150? What about St. Andrew’s? At current trends, we can afford to stay open for another 5 years but then what? Will we exist in another building? Will we say a tearful goodby?
I don’t mean to be a Sunday morning downer because as odd as this might sound, this is good news. We are all going to die and everything that is built by human hands will eventually come to an end but, as heartbreaking as death sometimes is, this is in some ways a blessing.
Right from the beginning of the Luke’s version of the Gospel, we’re told hints of Jesus’ death. It’s right there in the gift of Myrrh, an ointment used to anoint the dead. In this reading, there’s the hints of John the Baptist’s death – it’s in those few verses that are left out of the lectionary. Did you notice that there are a few verses left out? Those that formed the lectionary cycle may have thought it unrelated but in those few verses, it talks about how John has upset Herod’s wife, who will soon see to his death. For both of these two though, their impending mortality was a sign that they had to get busy – John has to prepare the way for Jesus while he still can and Jesus has to deliver the Gospel to enough people so that his message from God will continue. Their inevitable deaths gave them an urgency that might not have been felt if they thought they had all the time in the world.
When Jen and I lived in Quesnel, we talked about planting asparagus but didn’t because it takes 3 years to grow enough to harvest and we might move before then. This was completely the wrong attitude. What we should have thought was, “we might not live in this house too much longer so we should plant while we still can!” We lived in that house for 6 years and so we lost 3 good years of feasting. Needless to say, every spring here in Moose Jaw, we enjoy a spring time feed of asparagus. The finality of time was a gift that we ignored and so an opportunity was lost.
What if you only had today? What would you do? What would you say to whom and what relationships would you try to mend? Where would you go and what would you want to see? And what about our church? I have a pretty optimistic view of this church’s future but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend we’ll close in 5 years. What would you like to see happen in that time? What crucial bit of work do we need to accomplish? What’s this church’s asparagus crop?
This is why I think our efforts to be an affirming, welcoming, safe, inviting church is so important – there are too many that have been told by churches that they’re not loved by God and not welcome in church – we’ve got to let people know that this simply isn’t true – we don’t get to say who God loves and so we should always err on the side of compassion and love. If we only have a few years left, we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do while we can!
We have children that are going to need to be taught at Sunday School, grieving families that will need to be comforted, and celebrations to be shared. There is a world of people outside and inside our doors that need to hear the good news that God loves them. This is crucially important work and there’s not much time and it’s going to take all of us to lend a hand.
Each and every one of us is going to face our mortality and we have no idea how many days we have. Maybe we’ll die in our sleep at a very old age but maybe that bolt of lightening will have some unlucky aim. There’s so much that we simply can’t know or control but what we can control is what we do with today, right now. In our limited days, God has supplied us with unlimited love and it’s a gift made to be shared. Let your baptism be a reminder that you are part of the family of God, but also that yesterday is done and washed away, and tomorrow doesn’t and may never exist. All that’s left is right now, don’t let it go to waste. Embrace the love that God has given us and share it, wastefully, and without fear or reservation, but also, love urgently!