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“‘Go Plow Your Corn’”

January 12, 2015

“‘Go Plow Your Corn’” Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11 © 1/8/12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Into the dark and swirling chaos of time’s beginning, God spoke, and brought order and light. He called everything “good,” and his creative Spirit hovered over the primeval waters, bringing the spark of life.

Into the darkness of human sin and brokenness, God spoke a Word made flesh, and there was a new creation. It came in and as a man born and living in a particular place and time among a certain people. He shouldered the burden of human sin and went to be baptized by a desert eccentric.

They were cousins, these two, but John, the older, claimed he was not worthy to be the other’s slave. He kept insisting that there would come one greater than he. And that one would baptize not with water but with the fire of the same Spirit that brooded over the prehistoric stew.

So one day, the Promised One arrived. Jesus, now an adult, ready to take up his mission, to strike out on his own, came down to the water. John’s ministry by Jordan was the trigger, the cue. Now was the time!

The Church has always struggled with why Jesus came to a man who was baptizing for “remission of sins.” Jesus, we affirm, was sinless and had no need for repentance. But isn’t this precisely what the Word becoming flesh is all about? He was one with a sinful nation. He knew unity with folks among whom he walked and lived and with whom he talked and ate and played. He came to be with them. Freely and completely.

Jesus wading into Jordan shows us that God begins with us where we are, that God believes in us and wants to bring the same order to our mixed-up lives as he did at creation. Jesus came to Jordan because God wants to reconnect with people who have turned their backs on him. Jesus went to John because the best way God could bring us to heaven was to get down to earth. Jesus’ baptism is another way that in him, God is with us.

Long years before, Jewish exiles in Babylon gathered in their synagogues and heard the words their priests had written. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” the text began. And they felt God’s presence, too. They listened to how God had ordered by his voice the formless and empty void. And they believed that once again, and again, and again, God could and would order the chaos of their lives under their oppressor. The holes in their hearts could be filled with hope again. God’s Spirit could brood over the stormy waters of their lives in Babylon, a storm that had shattered their dreams, and once more light would shine in the darkness. God had made them, they were told, and so they belonged to God and with God, and God with them. The Babylonians and their gods had not won the battle, did not hold the truth, could not control their destiny. God the Creator was their Redeemer and their Sustainer, and nothing could thwart his purpose, which was their good and their joy.

The baptism of Jesus brought together again the voice and the Spirit that the Jewish priests celebrated in their worship and their writings. The voice and the Spirit heralded a new creation, filled with grace and power from God himself. In Jesus the new creation comes. In Jesus, God speaks a redeeming word. In Jesus, he invites us into relationship with him.

For Jesus himself, his baptism marked a new era in life. His public ministry began at the Jordan. He had faithfully obeyed Mary and Joseph, presumably worked in the carpenter shop, learned the traditions of the prophets and the lawgivers and the sages, cared for his sisters and brothers. Now was the time to leave hammer and pegs and saw, to stop constructing houses and furniture and build the kingdom of God.

I don’t know what leaving home and going out on his own was like for Jesus. I’m reluctant to modernize or psychoanalyze him. Maybe he didn’t want to go, but felt compelled. Could be he bolted out the door. Perhaps like most of us, he had mixed feelings, craving the security of the old traditions and places, yet longing for the freedom to be who he felt called to be. At such a time, as we would, our Lord needed strength to press on without a look back. He longed for assurance that he was doing the right thing, going in the proper direction. Getting baptized by John was a statement about where his loyalties lay—not with the establishment, entrenched religion, but with something fresh that God was doing. Not with business as usual, but with the way of repentance and change and renewal. But was all this just a pipe dream, a fantasy? Could he do this? Should he do this?

He got the answer he sought when the heavens split open and a dove descended. Then he heard a voice. As scholar Walter Brueggemann once put it: “The way of God with his world is the way of language. God speaks something new that never was before” (Genesis: 24). That’s true whether God is creating a world or calling someone to ministry. As Susan’s late dad said at the birth of a grandson many years ago: “It’s happened a million times, and it’s never happened before.” God does something new, unique, special with each person he calls, whether it’s Jesus or you or me.

“You are my dear Son,” said the voice. “I’m pleased with you.” For Matthew, everybody heard what was said and saw the descending Spirit. For Mark, the blessing and the dove were for Jesus alone. It was a personal, private vision to help Jesus start his ministry with resolute confidence, to strengthen him for what ultimately awaited him. And so nourished, Jesus headed for the desert.

We’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ baptism, and in the process have also actually been musing about our own. Baptism for us, as it was for our Lord, is the beginning of a journey. For some of us, parents, grandparents, friends and mentors carry or carried us along the road for a time, and we travel in the strength of promises made on our behalf. Then one day we come to a mile marker called “confirmation,” and we say for ourselves that we belong to God and intend to follow Christ on this pilgrimage. For others, baptism happened after a decision for Christ as a teen or an adult. We stood before a community of faith not unlike this one and made some promises. Maybe we were plunged beneath the waters or felt them sprinkled or poured on our heads. But however and whenever and wherever we experience baptism, we know it as the gift of God’s grace.

Our baptisms strengthen us for times of hard testing. Martin Luther, the 16th-century Reformer, frequently counseled distraught believers to remember what God promised to them in their baptism. He wrote of the believer, in the gender-specific language of the day: “In [baptism] he possesses something which he can hold against a scornful enemy, something he can oppose to the sins which assault his conscience, something which is proof against the powers of death and judgment. Finally, he has solace in every temptation, in the unique truth, which he utters when he says ‘God is faithful in his promises, and I received his sign when I was baptized. If God is for me, who can be against me?’” (The Pagan Servitude of the Church) In baptism, God promises to keep us safe, to guide us to the place he wants us to be, to comfort us in trouble. He declares to each of us: “You are my beloved child; with you, I am well-pleased.”

But if God gives us assurance in baptism, he also calls us all to ministry. The Spirit who descended on Jesus to empower him also gives us gifts. Baptism sets apart every believer for the work of ministry. And, as it was for Jesus, discovery of our ministry is a very personal, though not private, task. The community of faith helps us find out who we are and what we’re supposed to do, what gifts we have, how we are to bear witness to God’s love.

For all our uniqueness, though, we have something in common. It’s this: ministry is a very concrete thing. It is among and for a particular people in a certain place and time. Several years ago, my successor in Kentucky, Jonathan Carroll, put it this way as he told about himself in one of his blogs: “I am a child of God. …. I am a pastor of the Presbyterian bent, a local man rooted in a particularity of place—that being Owensboro, Western Kentucky, the Ohio River, Downtown, next door, right here, which is not that far from you…. This is the land of my life: the country of ministry” (www.ournewmagnificat.blogspot.com).

You and I are called to name the land of our lives, the country of our ministry and enter into it fully. Ministry isn’t to people in general. It’s to the neighbor down the street and a world away and with family and friends we know all too well. It’s not to humanity; it’s to specific men and women, girls and boys, with all their foibles and fears and needs and joys and sorrows and sins. It doesn’t take you and me out of the world; it plunges us more deeply into it, sometimes in the most mundane and routine ways.

There is a story in Greek mythology about a giant named Antaeus. He could never be defeated in a wrestling match as long as he kept contact with the earth. But if an opponent could separate him from the ground, he was easy prey.

So it is with ministry. We have to keep in contact with the source of our power. And God in his wisdom has made that source the people, the places, the things that make up our lives.

The work can be difficult and unrewarding, and sometimes we wish we could escape such burdens, taking on tasks we believe would be easier and maybe even more faithful. The late great Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard once told a story about a man from his hometown named Uncle Jake Gaines. Uncle Jake, who was the laziest man in town, claimed to have gotten a message from God while out in the fields one day. He got up on Sunday morning to testify. “‘His words were written across the sky,’” he began. ‘They said, “Uncle Jake—go preach the gospel.”’” Grizzard observes: “You never know, so they let Uncle Jake preach the morning sermon. Billy Graham he wasn’t. After the service, my grandfather took him aside. ‘I think you may have misread the message, Jake,’ he whispered. ‘You sure God didn’t say, “Go plow your corn”?’” (Won’t You Come Home, Billy Bob Bailey?: 60).

Uncle Jake wanted ministry to take him away from his daily life, which he found dull and hard. But as someone has written: “To act creatively does not mean going to another place. Creative action begins where we are… To withdraw from our present position is a cowardly retreat and a denial of the calling of our Lord” (Ben Johnson, Experiencing Commitment: 135). We are each and all called to go plow our corn, to answer God’s call faithfully and well wherever and however we earn our livelihood, live in families and communities, and relate to the world around us.

God’s grace and strength don’t come to us in a vacuum and for no particular reason. The nurturing, nourishing environment for our ministry, the matrix of it, is the real world where we live every day. That’s where we act as the children of God; that’s where he promises to be with us; that’s where we will hear his voice; that’s where we will feel his power.

Thanks be to God.

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