At the noon service today the readings were Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-end and Mark 1:9-15.
The gospel passage, in the typically economical language found in Mark, tells in these few verses of Jesus’ baptism, temptation and return to announce the good news of the kingdom of God.
In my sermon I challenged people to stop hiding what they are really like as God already knows anyway. No amount of subterfuge or fig leaves can change that! Honesty and accountability allows us to grow spiritually and become the person God made us to be. Jesus became who he was meant to be when he accepted baptism. Only then did he hear God’s words: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Once again we had a wonderful crowd of people in attendance. Some indicated that they were going away to think through the message. Here it is if you missed it:
Some of you may be aware that I recently completed training as a counsellor. I did several courses, with the last one taking 10 weekends spread across a year. It was very intensive training and each Sunday afternoon my brain was aching with all I had learnt. Sometimes to relieve the constant learning of theory, we had a technique demonstrated by a couple of the tutors. These times were ones to sit back and observe how what we had been taught about actually worked.
On one occasion we were learning about Socratic questioning, named from the way that Socrates taught, by drawing out the answers from his students. (The word education literally means ‘to draw out’ in fact.) There are various types of question: clarifying the concept, probing assumptions, probing reasons and evidence, questioning viewpoints, probing consequences, questioning the question.
The conversation went something like this:
Client: ‘I’m really worried that I can’t go on holiday with my family this year.’
Counsellor: ‘Why do you say that?’
Client: ‘They want to go to the Maldives.’
Counsellor: ‘You seem to be assuming that’s a problem.’
Client: ‘It’s a big problem. The flight is much longer than to Spain. I’ve never been on a long flight. I can’t be on a plane that long.’
Counsellor: ‘What are you assuming will happen?’
Client: ‘I’ll panic when I’ve been on the plane for more than two hours.’
Counsellor: ‘How do you know this?’
Client: ‘Well, I don’t know it.’
Counsellor: ‘So it’s possible to assume something else?’
Client: ‘Yes, I might find I could stay on the plane without panicking.’
Counsellor: ‘What would happen then?’
Client: ‘I might not panic at first but I would worry that the plane might run out of fuel and crash.’
Counsellor: ‘And what if it crashed, what would happen then?’
Client: ‘I’d be dead.’
At that point everyone in the room collapsed laughing. The ‘what if’ type questions had led to a point where any further questions really wouldn’t make any sense. The whole process was good to help the client to clarify his thinking but we couldn’t be sure what would really happen.
The gospel passage today could lead to a lot of ‘what if’ questions. Jesus came out of obscurity and made his first adult public appearance by the Jordan where John was baptising. Typically of Mark, we get few details here, just the action but it’s enough. What if Jesus had decided to announce himself as the Messiah there and had baptised John, instead of the other way round? John seems to think this would be appropriate when we read the other gospels. And what if the people, seeing that John must be a sinner himself, decided to flock to this new person, Jesus? What if Jesus had been catapulted into his ministry without being baptised or going to be tempted in the wilderness? What would have happened to his ministry then? Might he have ended up doing things to please the crowds? Would he have pleased God?
You might think that this is just idle questioning but the baptism of Jesus is a pivotal moment in history and it might not have happened. Jesus had a choice about whether to be baptised or not, as he had a choice in all things, and I would maintain that it was a costly choice. Baptism was looked down on by the Jews as something that Gentiles needed, not they, the chosen people. It was humiliating. It seems that John was really reaching people though and they were prepared to accept that as the cost of making a new start. I think you can near enough guarantee that there would be onlookers and gossips observing the proceedings as each person was baptised. You can just imagine the conversations: ‘I reckon he looks like a thief, see his shifty eyes.’ ‘No you’re wrong. He’s definitely an adulterer. You can tell the type.’ And so on. Even if the person wasn’t saying what had been wrong in their life, someone else may well have been making assumptions.
It would have been no different when Jesus was baptised. He could easily have hidden behind the protection of being a fine Jew. He didn’t need to expose himself to being talked about and speculated about. He had lived an exemplary life. However, Jesus had to set aside any cover his religion and blemish free life gave him, for a very important reason. Jesus had to be prepared to be baptised in order to hear God’s voice affirming who he was. As he stepped into the Jordan with John and allowed himself to be submerged in the water, he stepped into the person he was meant to be. He came up from the water to hear, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Only then could Jesus undergo the refinement of his mission to align it with God’s will, in the 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, culminating in his emerging with a strong, unwavering message: ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.’
Jesus didn’t have to work hard to make himself what he really was. There was no need to gain the approval of the crowds, to perform miracles, teach wonderful truths as might have happened in my ‘what if’ scenario. Those things followed rather than preceded Jesus being confirmed as the Messiah. It was in approaching God clothed only in humility that he became what the angel Gabriel had foretold before his conception, the Son of the Most High.
Let’s think back for a moment to the story of Adam and Eve. Right at the beginning we hear that they were ‘naked and unashamed’. Later, when they had disobeyed God, they covered their nakedness with fig leaves and hid from God. Of course, we may laugh at the futility of the exercise. There was no way a bit of home sewing was going to hide them from God. Laughing at Adam and Eve does not cover up the fact that we still do the same thing today.
There are two kinds of nakedness. The first is physical. If we were a congregation in real life and I asked you all to take off all your clothes so everyone could see you naked, I anticipate that you would be extremely reluctant to do so, as would I. Clothes cover many imperfections and help us project an image of ourselves. Without them, others would be better able to see the evidence of over-eating, under-eating, lack of exercise, the effects of the ravages of time which tend to send much of our bodies south, the scars we have from operations and so on – things we would rather hide.
Even if we might just possibly be persuaded to appear physically naked, there is another nakedness that we would be even more reluctant to endure. It’s what the fig leaves could never cover for Adam and Eve, and that is what is going on in our mind and emotions. Can you imagine how exposed you would feel if suddenly your thoughts and feelings appeared above you head where your name shows now? What if a similar thing happened in real life and the people we met each day could see exactly what we were thinking and feeling? I know it’s a crazy idea and society couldn’t function if that was the case but it points to an important truth.
Herbert McCabe says: ‘The root of all sin is fear: the very deep fear that we are nothing; the compulsion, therefore, to make something of ourselves, to construct a self-flattering image of ourselves we can worship, to believe in ourselves – our fantasy selves. I think that all sins are failures in being realistic; even the simple everyday sins of the flesh, that seem to come from mere childish greed for pleasure, have their deepest origin in anxiety about whether we really matter, the anxiety that makes us desperate for self-reassurance. To sin is always to construct an illusory self that we can admire, instead of the real self that we can only love.’
While it would not do to reveal all our thoughts and feelings to everyone, hiding from the truth by constructing an illusory self is a way of revealing them to no one at all. Perhaps here in SL, where we can hide behind our avatars, we are even more in danger than people in RL. We can see the outcome of hiding the real self when we observe high profile Christian leaders falling spectacularly from grace. For them, to show their imperfections to others is even more frightening than for ordinary people. They are built up in the minds of those who admire them until it is very hard to appear other than perfect. Only when the all too real imperfections in their lives reach mammoth proportions does the truth break out, leaving many hurt and bewildered.
A way to counter the danger of hiding our true selves is to find people with whom we can be honest. It may be only one or two people but that’s enough. The kind of honesty we really need will take time to develop as we learn to trust one another. Then we can hold one another accountable and encourage one another. A story of the desert fathers told by Rowan Williams illustrates how this kind of honesty allows us to help one another to accept what we are like, with all our weaknesses:
A self-satisfied monk called Theopemptus was visiting the much older Macarius. When they were alone Macarius asked, ‘How are things going with you?’ Theopemptus replied, ‘Thanks to your prayers, all is well.’ The old man asked, ‘Do you still have to battle with your sexual fantasies?’ (an interesting conversational gambit!). He answered, ‘No, up to now all is well.’ He was afraid to admit anything. But the old man said to him, ‘I have lived for many years as an ascetic and everyone sings my praises, but despite my age, I still have trouble with sexual fantasies.’ Theopemptus said, ‘Well it is the same with me, to tell the truth.’ And the old man went on to admit, one by one, all the other fantasies that caused him to struggle, until he had brought Theopemptus to admit all of them himself.
If you are interested in learning more about this kind of accountability you might like to ask Wilfried Ansome or Able Shepherd for more information about how this works in the SL environment. I know from personal experience that it is very challenging to be honest in this way but also very freeing. It can lead to a time of great spiritual growth. It’s only by being open that we can become what we are meant to be.
Jesus risked humiliation in front of the people when he chose to be baptised. He had to take that risk in order to become all he was meant to be by God. He is our pattern. If he can risk humiliation so can we.
Peeling off the carefully created masks we wear and allowing our thoughts and feelings to be observed by God is something that many of us are deeply afraid of and yet God sees us anyway. We are naked before him and always have been. I’m sure we’ve all seen the little child who covers her eyes and thinks that because she can’t see us, we can’t see her. That’s what we try to do with God even though it’s as futile as it was for Adam and Eve.
I remember when I was on a retreat having the experience of seeing myself as I really am. It’s hard to explain really. I felt totally unworthy to be alive because I saw just how poverty stricken I was in a deep sense rather than on the surface where things looked pretty good. For a while it was an experience that shook me to the core but actually overall it was positive. Through it all I knew that God saw me just as I was seeing myself. I didn’t feel condemned by him at all but totally accepted. Within a few hours I felt closer to God than I have ever felt in my life. I have to assume that it was my mask that was keeping me at a distance from him not his judgement of my inadequacy.
I wonder, when you enter water, how you do it. Do you plunge in as fast as possible, swimming as soon as the water is deep enough? Or do you do like me and prolong the agony, inching your way in as the water creeps up your back? Whether with caution or abandon, I invite you to strip off anything you are hiding behind and take a risk. Take the plunge and allow yourself to be submerged in God’s accepting love and his grace. You will emerge as the person God intended – naked and unashamed.