“New Things I Now Declare”
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
January 12, 2019
First Sunday after Epiphany, Baptism of Christ
Psalm 29; Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
The passage from Isaiah sounds like God narrating a home movie of the baptism of Jesus. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him…” This is exactly what happens in the Gospel story.
The early church connected Isaiah’s suffering servant passages like this to Jesus. There’s only one problem. Isaiah was not talking about Jesus or any other Messiah. He was talking about the whole people of Israel, he was talking about all God’s children, he was talking about you and me.
The Isaiah passage has a vision that we need right now, which is that the salvation of the world is up to all of us together. Our primary task as individuals, as a church, as global humanity, is to let the Spirit of God flow through us. This is what we were created to do, it is what all living beings and the earth were created to do, to let the Spirit of love and life and light that created us flow through us.
The book Active Hope says that when we are facing hard decisions and we have to discern what we will do, we should ask what is going to happen through us. The book reminds us that we are not what the plot of the movie of our life is all about. We are serving a much greater plot, and our contribution to it gives our lives meaning and purpose and makes our individual gifts beautiful and holy.
It is important to picture Jesus not alone with John the Baptist but among hundreds in the river and on the banks. He was part of a much bigger story. And when he came scrambling up the bank as a new man, it echoed back to the emergence of the first terrestrial beings crawling out of the primordial waters. We need to see the oneness of Jesus with the whole continuum of life on earth, all sharing a common source and a common goal.
Isaiah describes in detail what the Spirit that created the universe put us here to be and do. Isaiah says, “He will bring forth justice to the nations.” That justice includes liberating the oppressed, freeing the captive, healing the blind. “The coastlands wait for his teaching.” We are to be a light to the nations, helping one another gain greater vision.
We also are to be nonviolent and gentle. A bruised reed we will not break, a dimly burning wick we will not quench. We will bring compassion, we will bring hope to the hurting and downhearted. We will be courageous and strong in the Spirit, we will not grow faint, we will not let ourselves be crushed.
This is what justice looks like when the Spirit of the universe is happening through us. We each have our part in it,
some of us by being lawyers or engineers, some by lobbying the legislature, some volunteering at the food shelf, some by working for economic equity, some by volunteering in prisons, some by fighting racism and bigotry, some by reducing our carbon footprint, some by teaching in school, some by being healers, some by being visionary writers or musicians or artists, some by the way we are parents, some by making meals or giving rides, and on and on.
“They also serve who only stand and wait,” when waiting is what the Spirit needs to have happen through us, as the Christian poet-activist John Milton wrote.
There is one other important thing to note about Isaiah’s vision of what we are here to do. The last line of the passage says, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”
The Spirit of the universe that we name God does not create a final product and call it good and done. The creator sets in motion an evolutionary process. Former things come to pass and new things spring forth.
The first life on land emerged around 500 million years ago, the first modern humans only 200 thousand years ago. Look at how far we have come! We have no idea how we will evolve if humanity survives for 500 million years. Try to imagine humanity even 200 thousand years from now and it boggles the mind. We do not know where the Spirit of the universe could take us eventually in its flow, but it is very clear where it needs us to go right now.
I quote Gus Speth often, because he really said it perfectly: “Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that the transitions required can be achieved only in the context of what I will call the rise of a new consciousness.”
The Spirit of the universe needs us to make the evolutionary leap to a new consciousness that has been foreseen by prophets for thousands of years. In order for humanity to survive we need our generation to make that leap. We need human civilization to have the heart and mind of Christ and live by the global ethic of compassion, the Golden Rule and love of neighbor, applied to every aspect of life—corporations and governments included.
In other words, we need to dismantle the civilization we have made based on selfishness and greed and violence and build a new civilization that is based on the Spirit of justice and healing and nonviolence that Isaiah described. We need to evolve to survive.
“See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”
As the book Active Hope puts it, “If we trace the development of life…we see a recurring pattern of smaller parts coming together to form larger integrated wholes…. Throughout human history we have followed this same evolutionary pattern of smaller parts coming together to form larger complex wholes.” Active Hope says that the planetary emergency we are in could make us fall apart into factions fighting over remaining resources, but we could also take the next evolutionary leap to the largest complex whole of all, the oneness of all peoples and creatures and earth.
The question is, how? How can we serve the Spirit, doing our part of what it needs to help humanity and all life on earth survive?
As you would expect, the Spirit works in similar ways all over the world. Psychologist Carl Jung told a story he heard from Richard Wilhelm, a missionary in China. There was a great drought where Wilhelm lived; for months there had not been a drop of rain and the situation became catastrophic. The Catholics made processions, the Protestants made prayers, and the Chinese burned joss-sticks and shot off guns to frighten away the demons of the drought, but with no result.
Finally the Chinese said, ‘We will fetch the rain-maker.’ And from another province a dried-up old man appeared. The only thing he asked for was a quiet little house somewhere, and there he locked himself in for three days. On the fourth day the clouds gathered and there was a great snow-storm at the time of the year when no snow was expected, an unusual amount, and the town was so full of rumors about the wonderful rain-maker that Wilhelm went to ask the man how he did it.
In true European fashion he said: ‘They call you the rain-maker; will you tell me how you made the snow?’
And the little Chinese man said: ‘I did not make the snow; I am not responsible.’
‘But what have you done these three days?’
‘Oh, I can explain that. I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order; they are not as they should be by the ordinance of heaven. Therefore the whole country is not in the Tao, and I also am not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country.
‘So I had to wait three days until I was back in the Tao and then naturally the snow came.’
(from p. 419-20 Mysterium Coniunctionis, vol 14 Bollingen Series XX: The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, 2d edition, Princeton University Press 1976)
Isaiah was getting at the same path of quieting and opening so that the Spirit happens through us. Jesus humbled himself and went through a ritual dying and rising again to new life in the River Jordan so that the Spirit could flow through him. In the Christian contemplative tradition this is known as kenosis, or self-emptying, leading to metanoia, the expansion of our consciousness, which in turn leads to agape, a Christ-like love. The contemplative tradition teaches us to open ourselves completely, letting go of our selfishness and our conformity to the way our culture lives, so that we let the Spirit guide and empower us. Then what happens through us will be the best contribution we can make to the transformation the world most needs.
God needs to do a new thing on earth right now, and we are all God has to work with, so we each need to decide, will we join this movement? We stand on the banks of the River Jordan? Will we choose to die to our old self and rise into an evolved consciousness? Will we choose the Spirit’s dove and let the Spirit happen through us, using our particular gifts to serve the cause of love and light? If so, let us go down now, into the flow of the river within us, into the Tao, into the silence, and pray and wait…