Menu Close
10th January 2021

Choices: Which Road

Passage: Mark 1;4-11


I was reading this story about how William Beebe and President Roosevelt would walk out and look up at the night sky together. Beebe was a famous naturalist and Roosevelt shared his interest.
They would look to find this faint spot of light-mist below the lower left- hand corner of the great square of Pegasus and then Beebe would recite: “That is the Spiral Galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is seven hundred and fifty thousand light years away. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.”
Then Roosevelt would say, “Now I think we are small enough.”

It is not unusual feel overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of nature. Three thousand years ago King David of Israel wrote “when I look at the heavens, the moon and the stars, I think what are we, mere human beings by comparison?”

This is a message we need to hear: that the universe is vaster than we can even begin to imagine; that there is a lot about the natural world which we do not and might never fully understand. We need to feel “small,” to realise our own limitations and show respect for that which is greater than we are. But right now, the pandemic is hurling this message right in our face- you thought you had conquered the universe but now the universe is conquering you. You thought you had nature under control but now it is showing its teeth. And we are feeling very small indeed.
In fact, at this moment in time, many of us are not just feeling small but virtually invisible, not to mention inadequate. Our confidence is draining; even the simplest choices in life scare us because we have seen just how destructive life can become. When we are faced with a choice of paths to take, we stand paralysed. I can’t do this.

Which may be why, when I looked at Psalm 29, as suggested for this Sunday in the year, my first reaction was “don’t even think about it.” It is all about God sitting there in the middle of storms and hurricanes, expecting everyone to shout, “Glory to You, Lord.” I thought people will throw things at me or turn off the screen. We don’t need to hear about natural disasters right now and we certainly do not need a god who is out to make us feel even smaller and more pathetic than we feel already.

You know, sometimes you do need to read something right through to the end before you understand what it is actually trying to say. And the final verse of this Psalm reads, ”The Lord gives strength to his people. The Lord blesses his people with peace.”
The comment on those lines in my study Bible is that God’s everlasting kingship is about commitment to his people; that his promise is of salvation and blessedness: “the crowning comfort in a world where threatening tides seem to make everything uncertain.” God does not ignore trouble. God does not cause trouble. In the face of trouble, God blesses his people with strength and peace.

I moved on then, to the Gospel reading- the story of Jesus’ baptism. Mark does not tell us much about Jesus’ early life, but it is clear that he sees this baptism as the starting point in Jesus’ public ministry. Up until that point, Jesus had been living a quiet life with his family in Nazareth. After this point, he is a public figure. To some he will be acclaimed as the Saviour of their nation; to a few he will be the Saviour of the world; to some he will be the best thing to have happened in their religious life and faith; to many he will be a dangerous subversive influence; to some he will be a kind, compassionate preacher, to others he will be a threat to society. Jesus is looking at a treacherous road in which the decisions he makes will not only mean life or death for him but for many others too.
If you have seen the Lord of the Rings films, you may remember the moment towards the end of the final film when Aragorn is crowned King of the newly established realm of Gondor, following an horrendous war against the darkest powers of evil. Aragorn has come to accept his destiny as King but, as the crown is placed on his head, you see a flicker of apprehension cross his face- can I really cope with all this?

I would not be surprised if Jesus’ face had worn much the same expression as he came up out of the water of baptism. Yes, according to Mark, he heard the voice of God saying, “You are my son, my beloved and I am pleased with you,” but was this going to be enough to keep him on the right paths through a difficult and dangerous ministry? Especially as the very next thing which happened was a period of total isolation out in the desert, during which he was tormented with doubts and conflicting ideas as to what he should do. And, as the devil inside his head kept saying- if you are the Son of God then why does not God save you from harm and hunger and obscurity? So why did not God rescue Jesus?
Well, actually, God did. Jesus came through that time of testing, victorious. He was given the right words and the strength to answer the devil back. He was given the wisdom to know the right paths for his ministry. He was given the peace of knowing that he was God’s Son and so would always have the gifts and the power to deal with whatever confronted him. God did save Jesus.

Baptism is all about admitting our need of God; admitting that life will be filled with darkness and despair and failure and threat as symbolised by the deep, dark waters. But baptism is also about our hope that God will turn the waters of destruction into the waters of cleansing and healing; that we shall rise out the water knowing ourselves to be children of God.
This was what Jesus did. He identified himself totally with our sin and our fear in the face of life. But as he came up from the water, he not only heard the voice saying “you are my Son;” he also received the power which would enable him to prove that sonship to the world and to himself.
God says, “You are big enough to deal with this. I have made sure of that.”

Right through the Bible we hear of what the Spirit of God can do in human lives. The Spirit breathes life into the universe and gifts human beings with the wisdom to explore and understand it. The Spirit creates good and just rulers of nations; the Spirit stirs up social activists to challenge unjust regimes; The Spirit enables prophets to gain insight into where the world is heading and gives them words to share their message; The Spirit sends the right person to the right place when someone is in desperate need; The Spirit tells us which voices to listen to and which to reject; The Spirit helps men and women to be good parents, even in the most difficult times; The Spirit breathes new hope and energy and even laughter into lives which are totally exhausted.

Theodore Roosevelt, President of what was arguably the most powerful nation in the world, was quite right to train himself in humility and reverence, to recognise his own comparative “smallness” in the face of the vastness of the universe. (One could wish that subsequent leaders might seek that same humility).
But maybe today, on this Sunday in the year, what we are being told and what we need to hear is that actually we are big enough? We can deal with this. We can come through the crisis because God makes sure that we have the gifts, the strength and the peace we need.

In the URC Prayer Handbook, Carol Dixon reflects on the voice of God speaking to Jesus at his baptism:
“I can barely believe it, God, that those words, spoken of Jesus… could possibly apply to my life. I am such a half-hearted, fearful follower, you can’t possibly want someone like me in your glorious kingdom.”
I spoke last week about how the underlying assumptions we make about life will affect our choices. Today maybe we need to look at our underlying assumptions about ourselves. When I asked you earlier to think about the words “You are my beloved child” did it make you feel good about yourself? Hopeful about life? Or did it make you feel nervous- can I live up to this?
What might this demand of me? Or were you just past thinking anything at all?

“I am such a half-hearted, fearful follower, you can’t possibly want someone like me,” is that where you are right now?
Are there issues in your life which you are really struggling to cope with?
Do you feel guilty that you can’t cope when other people are having a much worse time?
Is frustration getting at you because there seems to be so little you can DO?
Are you so exhausted that you cannot think beyond the next task?
Carol Dixon goes on:
Loving Father God, parent of all, help me rise from the waters of doubt to new life with Jesus. Let me feel your Spirit hovering close; hear your words of hope; and know I am forgiven, restored, and bathed in your amazing love for me.
Today God is not out to make us feel small enough but rather, making sure that we are big enough. In Jesus Christ we share the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us through. This is not what about how we feel but about what is God is doing and God is saying to us “You are big enough to deal with this. I have made sure of that.”
Let all in his temple cry “glory!” Amen.