Sunday, January 13, 2019
Scripture Isaiah 43:1-7 & Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Over 100 years ago – not long after the Titanic tragically sank in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic – Congress convened a hearing about another shipwreck. Off the coast of Virginia in a thick fog, the Nantucket rammed the Monroe. Forty-one sailors died, and Congress was determined to get to the bottom of it. Captain Osmyn Berry of the Nantucket was charged for the incident, but, surprisingly, it was Captain Edward Johnson of the Monroe – the ship that was hit – who was examined on the witness stand for over five hours. Johnson had been using a compass that deviated as much as two degrees from the standard compass. Typically, this deviation still worked in navigating ships, but in this case, the results were disastrous. Even though his ship was the one hit, his faulty compass put him in position for the wreck. Following the trial, the two captains met and embraced and wept over the tragedy. This is a reminder of the tragic consequences of misorientation.
“The heart is like a compass,” Jamie Smith tells us. “We need to (regularly) calibrate our hearts, tuning them to be directed to the Creator, our magnetic north.” For a misoriented heart is destructive. It harms the life of the one who owns the heart, and it creates a path of destruction in the lives of those who encounter it.
It’s the new year, which means it’s a time for new beginnings. I believe it’s a wonderful time to gauge the direction of our hearts and to recalibrate them so that we are actually pointing our lives in the direction God created them to go. Even being off by two degrees can be destructive. This begins with remembering God created us out of God’s overwhelming abundance of love.
You are because you are loved, and orienting our hearts properly means getting our loves in order. St. Augustine once said, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” Our first love must be God, who is our true north. When the compass of our heart is misoriented, it begins to point to other things that will never satisfy us. Only God can do that. There is freedom to be found in living fully as God created us to be. About a century after Jesus walked among us, Irenaeus declared, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Living into who God created us to be leads to fullness, and one of the most pernicious lies of this world is that orienting our lives to God will lead to a miserable, boring existence. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Yet our hearts are prone to wandering from God – their true north. Proverbs 4:23 urges us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” The heart is our orientation to the world. We often believe that our minds direct our steps, but I find that the mind is only part of the equation. It is our whole self that causes us to believe and act. Sometimes I act out of my urges. Sometimes I do things that I shouldn’t do. I’m sure you’re the same. Scripture tells us that we love with our guts – the Greek is this lovely word, splachna. We love from the center of our being, not just from this organ that actually pumps blood through our body or just from the synapses in our brain firing in a particular way. Interestingly, scientists have started studying the way that microbes in our stomachs impact the activity of our brains. This impact is so significant that some of the scientists have nicknamed it our “second brain.” And if you don’t believe me, the next time your brain tells you to eat the salad but your guts tell you to get the deep-dish pizza, I think you’ll start to understand!
Our hearts are shaped by our habits, the millions of little behaviors we do each day. These habits orient us, and if our habits are not orienting us toward the God who loves us, then they are likely leading us in a way that could ultimately harm others and us. So at this time of year when we get so focused on exercising more or eating better or becoming a new “you,” we really have to begin all of those areas of possible improvement with this question: Are these new habits leading me towards God or not?
You know, it’s funny. Back in my far more innocent and idealistic days when I first felt a call to ministry, I couldn’t wait to preach and teach. I was so eager to look out over my congregation and say, “Hey, everybody! If you do this one thing, then your life will be better!” And then, of course, the whole church would go, “Troy! You’re right! We’ll get right on it.” Turns out that generally is not the case. We hear the good news. We might even say in our hearts, yes – that’s right! It would be good for me to make a change! But then we leave church. We watch a football game. We get ready for our next day of work. We get busy. And nothing changes. I’ve come to realize how little power my words have, particularly because the power of habit is so much greater. Our orientation pulls us where we go, and changing that orientation takes commitment, creating new habits, and trust that God does indeed want what’s best for us.
As Jesus calls his first disciples he doesn’t ask them what they believe. He doesn’t give them a quiz about theological competency. Rather, he asks them a simple question, “What do you want?” It’s the kind of question we all may have an answer for on the tip of our tongues, but it’s also the question that we will spend our lives trying to answer faithfully in each season of life. What do you want? And how does what we want align with God’s creative purpose for our lives? What do you want? That’s a question worth asking at this time of year. But in the context of the question you must remember: You are because you are loved. You are beloved by God.
Over the past few weeks we have anticipated the coming of Jesus, and now that we’re on the other side of Epiphany (the day celebrating the visit of the magi), we are turning to the beginning of Jesus’ public life with his baptism. I find Luke’s account very interesting. Luke spends two long chapters giving so many details that give us much of what we tell as the Christmas story. It’s as though he wanted us to know that Jesus’ coming is a big deal.
Jesus’ baptism, however, is understated in Luke. Think about it. Luke begins, “Now when all the people were baptized….” Wait? You mean to tell me that the baptism of the Son of God happened in a huge group? He was one person among many who were cleansed in the Jordan River that day. Let me tell you, I’ve had people schedule baptisms to make sure their child was the only one to be baptized that day – the star of the show! Now, when one child is baptized here, there is way more of a fuss around it than with Jesus’ baptism. The parents have a meeting with the pastor. We reserve pews. There is liturgy. I run my hands through the water. I run the child down the aisle so we can sing to him. Families take pictures like it’s prom, and often there is a large meal afterwards. It’s a big deal.
But not in Luke’s telling. After his birth, around 30 years goes by with next to no news about Jesus. He’s been helping his dad build. He’s been learning. But Herod ceased to care about this rival king. None of the religious leaders are lining up to be excited about Jesus. And just as quietly, Jesus gets ready to go public by being one of many in a mass baptism. Here we see in Jesus how his heart has been formed. Not in a big moment. Not right from the beginning. But rather, it’s the millions of little things that he did from birth until baptism that shaped him into the one God needed him to be. It was quiet. It was away from the spotlight. It happened when no one was paying attention. Like us, Jesus formed the habits of his heart over years, which kept the orientation of his heart properly aligned.
Note also the reminder of his identity in our passage. God speaks, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”
In a similar way, the millions of small decisions and actions in our lives have shaped us, and we have shaped others with those decisions. Like Jesus, we are beloved by God, but unlike Jesus, the calibration of our hearts is often pulled in directions that draw us away from God.
Yes, you are because you are loved. You are beloved of God.
Yet, you are what you love, and many times what we love pulls us away from God without us even realizing it.
The brilliant writer, David Foster Wallace, gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College several years ago, where he bluntly highlights that our lives go in the direction of our love – whatever that love is. He said, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already….The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”
Jamie Smith reminds us, “To be human is to have a heart. You can’t not love. So the question isn’t whether you will love something as ultimate; the question is what you will love as ultimate. And you are what you love.”
Jesus asks those who would follow him, “What do you want?” I’d ask you the same. But I’d also encourage you to make sure what you want lines up with God’s design for your life, for a misoriented heart is destructive. But a heart that falls into sync with its Creator and moves at the direction of love? Amazing.