Each and every one of us has had our own season in the wilderness, and Lent is the time which the church sets aside to honor that struggle each year. Some years you might remember an intense period in your life a few months ago, maybe this time around you’re coughing up sand and shielding your face from the scorching wind right now, wandering in your desert. Other years you might have some hard-won hope, a cherished deep-breath at an oasis in the desert, a momentary break from being a wayfaring stranger yourself.
Finally, Elijah is called to the Jordan River. He’s been moving back through the whole history of the relationship between God and his people in this sacred land. He’s been watching his life flash before him, in a way. Of course, Elijah himself wasn’t there for the battle of Jericho or the wrestling with the angel, or the first crossing of the Jordan at Gilgal, but Elijah’s life is so wrapped up in the life of the people he serves, so intertwined in the story of the Israelites, that their story IS his story. So on this last day of his time on earth, he walks himself back through all these stages and promises and miracles, all these times that God has shown up for his people in staggering and undeniable ways. And Elisha wants to drink all that in. Elisha wants that life, too. Elisha wants to know the story of Israel and of God in his bones. Elisha wants to follow wherever God leads and to lead God’s people wherever they’re supposed to go.
What do you want to be free of? Is there a burden you carried here today that you don’t know how you can keep carrying? Is there a sickness or a weakness in your body like the fever that Peter’s mother-in-law had, and you just aren’t able to do what you want to do anymore? Is there a sin that part of you wants very much to be free from, but another part of you won’t let go of? Do you find instead that by any reasonable standard you’re as free as a bird, free to do or be far more than your grandparents would have ever dreamed, but you don’t know whether you’re doing something with all of your freedom that really matters?
Church is part of the life Christ calls us to, because Christ calls us together. Once, St. Peter says, we were not a people, but now we are the people of God! God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, St. Paul writes, and he has given to us the ministry of reconciliation. How can we claim to be a people if we never come together? How can we pursue reconciliation if we stay at home, if we keep to ourselves? In the world we read about in the newspaper, with nation set against nation, race against race, rich against poor, how can we proclaim to the world that there is hope in Christ of justice, mercy, and reconciliation unless it starts here with us, in our church, in our neighborhood?
The stories of dramatic and complete transformation are inspiring, the moment that forever changed everything is such a desirable outcome, but I haven’t managed to have one of those. I have days or even weeks that feel reformed, I have moments and phases that seem like progress, but then I have those other days, and those other weeks. The ones that feel like the same old Emily, the same old prideful, disobedient, un-surrendered, rebellious toddler. And apparently, this happens even to prophets, even to people who have a whole book named after them in the Bible.
Epiphanies in the Bible characteristically do not come as the result of our own search. The word of the Lord comes to young Samuel while he is asleep, in an age when “the word of the Lord was rare,” and “visions were not widespread.” Samuel, the text says, “did not yet know the Lord.” And when the word comes, he’s confused by it—no fewer than three times, he jumps up out of a sleepy fog and runs over to Eli saying, “Here I am! You called?” Samuel didn’t find the Lord. The Lord found him.
The question that stared me in the face all week while I was thinking about this sermon was, “Why did Jesus have to be baptized?” If baptism has to do with breaking the bond of sin, of making a statement and ritual that darkness and evil doesn’t get the last word in this life that’s being shoved under the water and dragged back up, and if, of course, Jesus didn’t sin, and was God and so there was no darkness or evil in him, why did he go and be baptized?
If it isn’t true, like the Gospel of John says this morning, that the eternal and almighty Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, then Christmas may well be the cruelest of holidays. The vision it holds out is too good, too beautiful, too peaceful and joyous for any home or any world that we’re a part of to ever live up to, if we have to make Christmas ourselves.