The Beginning is Near

Behold, the former things have come to pass,
  and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
  I tell you of them.  (Is. 42:9)

A cartoon published in the New Yorker magazine last October depicts a fish who has sprouted little hind legs emerging from a body of water onto dry land.  With his front fins the fish carries a sign that reads: “The beginning is near.”  The artist, Robert Leighton, deftly teases us about both the origins and the ends of the universe, while taking a clever swipe at the stock in trade of cartoonists. What can we do in the face of this cartoon but laugh?

As a biblical commentary, Leighton’s image is not so bad.  The second verse of the Book of Genesis tells us that ‘the earth was without form and void, and the darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”   As the creation story unfolds, there is a sense in Genesis that everything God calls forth rises up out of those dark waters as the Spirit blows his breath and beats his great wings, uncovering continents and islands, the planets and the stars, fields and forests, birds and cattle and even fish, and finally that last, wondrous creation made in God’s own image: the human person.  All rising up out of the dark waters of creation.

What God began in the water he also continued in the water.  Noah would be delivered from the flood and brought to a rainbow of hope.  The children of Israel would be led out of captivity across the Red Sea.  And today we heard that it was as Jesus was coming up from the waters of the Jordan River that the heavens opened and that same Spirit spread his wings and blew his breath to carry the voice from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The beginning is near.

Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan and the promise of the Star of Bethlehem is uncovered.  The hope of Israel is revealed.  The light to lighten the Gentiles breaks forth.  Behold, the former things had all come to pass, and a new thing God now declares in the person of his beloved Son.  The beginning is near.

Christians are born in water.  We are brought up out of water by the great power of God’s Holy Spirit, breathing his holy breath into our lives, our lungs.  We are reborn into the world God made long ago, when God leads us through the fresh springs of a baptismal font, whether it’s three meters deep or three inches deep.  In water are Christians born by the power of God’s breath.  In water does God declare new things, new hope, new life.

Much has come to pass since the beginning: the creation of God’s majestic hand has been defaced by any means we can imagine.  As a people made in God’s image, we have erred and strayed from our ways like lost sheep.  As inheritors of light we have so often preferred the dark.  So much has come to pass.  But at the waters of baptism – so still and unassuming (not even a ripple) – the beginning is near.  The awesome power of God’s hand to make a new thing, to bring life, to bless, to anoint, to hallow, and to heal is right here at the edge of the water, where the beginning is near.

In baptism God calls us, his children, back to the beginning.  God buries us for a moment beneath the face of the deep, submerging us in those primeval waters so that we can be positioned beneath the wings of the Holy Spirit to uncover us and breathe his holy breath into us.  God, who has led us through the ages of human history, allows each of his children to begin at the beginning, unburdened by the baggage of what has been an admittedly checkered past.  So he leads each one of us to a place where the beginning is near in order to soak us in the gift of his blessing, his grace, his mercy, his love.

What God began in the water he also continues in the water.  For this reason you will find water somewhere near every door of this church, so that whether coming or going we can remind ourselves of who we are and what God has done for us.  He has brought us, by baptism, to a holy place in our lives where the beginning is near, so that we can be whomever it is he calls us to be.  Washed and reborn by baptism we emerge from the water onto dry ground so that we might evolve, day by day, into the creatures God made us to be: bearers of his own image and likeness, and members of the Body of his beloved Son.

Long ago there was a man named John who came to bear witness to that Son.  He baptized people with water, and his call to repentance was demanding, urgent, with not a little fury.  Even listening to him all these centuries later, we could be forgiven for thinking that his message finally, was that the end is near and if you don’t want to get left behind you’d better listen up!

But then came Jesus, to fulfill all righteousness.  And in the waters of the Jordan, John’s message was transposed: the fear of the end of time transformed into the hope of the beginning of time.  And a new world was born, full of promise and hope.  And the wings of a dove stirred the air with the power of the Spirit’s wings.  And a wind blew in with a voice from heaven.  And the Son of God was made known.  And the beginning was near.

Behold, the former things have come to pass,
  and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
  I tell you of them.

And that same Spirit hovers over us, always leading us to the water, beckoning us to be washed or to remember that once we were washed there in the water where God began his work of love and where he continues it day by day.  And where, day by day, the beginning is near.  Thanks be to God.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 January 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 14, 2008 .