An Unexpected Way

Isaiah 43: 1-7 & Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

 © Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Baptism of the Lord/ 7th January 2007

My friend, Mark Greiner, is a Presbyterian minister who just recently moved from New York State with his wife, Kolya, to take up a new call in Takoma Park, Maryland.  I met Mark almost twenty years ago during summer Greek at Princeton and we’ve stayed in touch all these years.  Every year, Mark and Kolya, send out handmade Christmas cards, full of quotes that capture their spiritual journey for the year.  I always look forward to receiving them.  Mark offers his favorite quotes and Kolya offers hers.  I love seeing the writers, thinkers, and ideas shaping their lives.  The quotation on the bulletin cover this morning was included in Mark’s list of quotations, from the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross (1542-1591).  Mark is about the most mystical Presbyterian I know and so I wasn’t surprised by the quote.  It struck me because of its wisdom and truth.  I can resonate with these words on so many levels, it is what mystical theologians call the via negativa, the negative way of the Christian life.  It’s there in the quote from St. John, “To enjoy what you have not/ You must go by a way you enjoy not;/ To find the knowledge you have not/ You must go by a way you know not;….”[1] It’s a way not immediately evident, or easily embraced; it’s often overlooked, and even rejected outright by other expressions of what it means to be a Christian.  Yet, it’s a mature understanding of the Christian life, defined by insights into the nature of truth that come from the costly walk with Christ.  The via negativa is the unexpected way toward God, the road not taken because it is not sought after.  It is the way of the Christian as paradox.

The Christian life is full of paradox.  The claims of the gospel are counter-intuitive, not necessarily logical, or immediately evident.  Such a view is more comfortable in the world of “both-and,” than the world of “either-or.”   Several weeks ago, on the Reign of Christ Sunday, the choir sang an arrangement of Sylvia Dunstan’s (1955-1993) poem, “You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd,” entitled Christus Paradox.  It’s both beautiful and profound in its summary of the way of Christ, lifting up the paradox that is Christ.  “You, Lord, are both lamb and shepherd.  You, Lord, are both prince and slave.  You, peacemaker and swordbringer.  You, the everlasting instant; You, whom we both scorn and crave. …You, who are both gift and cost.  You, who preach a way that’s narrow, have a love that reaches wide.  You, the everlasting instant; You, who are our death and life.”   Christ the paradox.  Christ, not the one we would expect from God.  His way is the unexpected way.  God’s way is the unexpected way.  And entrance into the kingdom of God is through paradoxical, unconventional, even scandalous ways.

Did not Jesus teach us that if we want to gain our lives, we first have to lose them, and the one who loses his life for the sake of the gospel, will truly find it (Luke 9:23-37)?  In the kingdom, the last shall be first, not the first – who will be last (Luke 13:30).  These are themes found especially in Luke’s gospel: those lifted up will be brought down so that those on the bottom will be lifted up (Luke 1:46-55).  In the kingdom, the unclean and diseased are among the first to receive the blessing of the Messiah(Luke 4:31-41).   The kingdom of God is the place where the vulnerable, the weak, the left out, and excluded are safe, secure, included, and welcomed home, where prodigals receive a banquet in their honor (Luke 15).  This is not the expected way. “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh (Luke 6: 21).”  “Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied (Luke 6:22).”  “Love your enemies (Luke 6: 27)” – that’s counter-intuitive.  Who is the greatest?  The one who is least among you (Luke 9:48).  Unless a wheat of grain is buried and dies it cannot grow to bear fruit (John 12:23-25).  There is no resurrection without death.  There is no empty tomb without a cross.  And that the way to the Holy is through the void.  The only way out of death is by going through it. 

But the ego doesn’t want to go that way.  There might even be a part of us getting angry when we hear these words, because they’re not what we expect, not what we want, not the easy way.  Resistance to loss, the need to be first, the fear of death, false security in logic or reason or money, other personal strategies of avoidance are all the calculating ways of the ego, bent on self-preservation and survival.  Included in this is the avoidance or fear of suffering.  Now, no one wants to suffer and civilization tries to do all it can to alleviate suffering.  But when we look carefully at scripture we find a life with God that actually costs us something.  Paul talks about love as that still more excellent way (1 Corinthians 13), but the way of God’s love is suffering love: a love that suffers with and through and for the other.  God’s love through Christ is costly love and it costs us something too.  Israel experienced slavery, alienation, and exile before it could embrace liberation and that way out of slavery – that exodus, literally meaning, “way out” was through the wilderness.

And it’s in the wilderness that we find John the Baptist baptizing the multitudes, including Jesus.  The door of the kingdom is in the wilderness, found on the edge of everything. This unexpected way of God is beautifully captured in Jesus’ own baptism.  It’s often asked why does Jesus need to be baptized?  He’s without sin; he didn’t do anything requiring repentance.  But baptism is more than purification, although it includes this; and it’s more than repentance, and it includes this too.  For Jesus and Luke, baptism was not about joining the church, and certainly not something “done” to infants, as we view it today.  It’s far more significant and radical, and this view needs to be reintegrated, I believe, into our understanding of the sacrament and what it means for us to be baptized.  Baptism symbolizes the totality of the Christian life, baptism symbolizes the unexpected way of kingdom life, baptism symbolizes the Christian life as paradox.   It means placing the ego aside so that the heart can be free to take up the life it really wants to live.  And what the heart really wants is God and only God. Baptism is about identifying with God, our identification with God’s ways, God’s hopes, God’s plans and when this happens there’s usually a cost involved. 

Baptism is an act of opening ourselves up to God’s ways.  Note the order here in Luke, first Jesus is baptized, then he enters into a time of prayer with God, and in the praying, in opening himself even further to God, the Holy Spirit descends and the voice is heard, “Thou are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3: 22).”   Baptism marks a significant transition in human life that is received only after loss, we give up one way to accept God’s ways.  The waters of baptism are a sign of resurrection, but first you must go down deep under the water, a symbol of death and loss.  The old self ruled by the ego is left behind for the new self emerging in Christ.  And, I might be blasphemous here, but I think that if we open ourselves more and more to God that we just might hear a similar voice that says to us, You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.”  “You are my beloved daughter, with you I am well pleased.”   Baptism doesn’t produce this change, but is a tangible, external sign of an internal change that has taken place in the heart of the believer, of the new life given in Christ.

In a beautiful baptismal sermon from the fifth century by the old bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428), he told those who were about to be baptized what was going to happen to them.  He said, “You will kneel on the floor, and you will face the West, the region of evil and darkness, and you will point your finger at the accuser, and you will say, ‘Satan, I renounce you and all your vanities, and all your angels and all your ministries.”  In other words, “Evil, I don’t have any more time for you.”  “Then you will face the East, and you will find that the Bishop is in new clothes which are resplendent and dazzling and light, a symbol of a new world which you are entering.  They dazzle because you will shine in that world.  They are graceful and delightful for you will be graceful and delightful.”[2]

This morning we will be given an opportunity to remember our baptism, to divine into paradox, to renounce evil, to reaffirm our commitment to God’s way, which is to be committed to Christ’s way.  It’s an opportunity at the beginning of this new year, to renounce those things that hinder us in our walk with Christ, in order to take up the life Christ calls us toward, calling us in unexpected ways.  And maybe even come to experience, as the good bishop said, ourselves as shining in the new world of Christ, with lives that are graceful and delightful.  Unrealistic expectations, maybe, lives that are graceful, delightful?  Too much to hope for?  Too much to expect?  Not for the God who delights in the unexpected.

[1] The rest of the quotation is:  “To possess what you have not,/ You must go by a way in which you possess not./ To become what you are not, /You must go by a way in which you are not.”

[2] Cited from a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long, “Just…In Time,” given at the Covenant Network Conference in 2005.  The full text can be found here: