How desperate do you feel? Thoreau believed most people “lead lives of quiet desperation” (Walden, “Economy”), not the frantic desperation of someone who’s in imminent danger, but the subtler kind, the low-level anxiety that slowly eats away at us. We may pretend it doesn’t exist, but once in a while it bubbles up and lets us know it’s there.
There’s the huge desperation, of course, over what’s going on in the world, and we may wonder, in the words of the prophet Habakkuk, “Must I forever see this sin and misery all around me? Wherever I look, I see destruction and violence. I am surrounded by people who love to argue and fight.” (Hab. 1:3 NLT). It’s a desperate complaint right out of today’s headlines.
But usually we feel it closer to home, as the prophet Haggai described. “Consider how things are going for you!” he wrote. “You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; your wages disappear as though you were putting them in pockets filled with holes” (Hag. 1:5-6). It’s a desperation that wonders if you’ll ever catch up or get ahead in life.
Or it comes in grief when you starve for “normal” and wonder if it will ever come again, and you try to pretend it will. It comes from losing ourselves in the fruitless attempt to please others. It comes from telling ourselves, “I’m not good enough, I’ll never be good enough.” It’s a desperation that looks at how life has turned out and asks, “Is this all there is? Isn’t there ever going to be something more?”
The first disciples felt it – James and John, Andrew, Peter, Matthew, the rest of them. That’s why they were able, on a moment’s notice, to leave behind the life they were living and follow one who promised more and better life than they ever dreamed of (John 10:10). James and John left their fishing nets, their families, and their livelihood to follow. Matthew left the table where he collected taxes, apparently left the day’s receipts right there on the table, and followed. Every one of them left something to follow one who promised a new and better life.
Even Jesus must have felt it, and maybe that’s why he went to John, who was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). John was calling people to leave behind their lives of quiet or not-so-quiet desperation and start living a new life in which they would find the wholeness they craved.
Maybe Jesus, because he was fully human, was desperate for that life, also. So at his baptism he made the commitment to enter into a new way of life, a new and life-giving relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation. And it was there, in that moment of radical surrender, radical commitment, that God’s Holy Spirit entered into him. And he heard God’s affirmation, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
How desperate are you? Desperate enough to drop everything and try a new way of living? Desperate enough to lose your life, as Jesus said we must (Mark 8:38) – not your physical life but your identity? (The Greek word here for “life” is psuche, “psyche,” all the identity and self-image that makes us who we are.) Are you desperate enough to leave the nets of identity and habit and status quo that bind you, and turn your life around and start living in a new direction?
John invites us to turn our lives around and start all over again, so that we can be made whole. Jesus invites us: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens [and are desperate for something more in life], and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28 NLT).
And St. Paul reminds us “that when we became Christians and were baptized to become one with Christ Jesus, we died with him?” – that when we were baptized, we committed ourselves to leave behind the life, the perspective, and the values of the world around us, so that, “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of [God], now we also may live new lives” (Rom. 6:3-4).
After his baptism, Jesus began his ministry by saying, “The life you’ve been desperate for, what you call the ‘kingdom of God,’ is at hand, spread upon the earth” (Mark 1:14-16; Gosp. Thomas 113). And he invited those around him to turn their lives around and start living as if that good news is true. That’s the invitation for us today, for us who have been baptized and who have made the commitment to learn from Jesus a different way to live this life.
During Advent we anticipated the coming of a messiah, anticipated the fulfillment of God’s promise of a fully restored relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation. During Christmas we celebrated the coming of one who embodied the fulfillment of our deepest human yearnings.
Now in the season after Epiphany we reflect on what the fulfillment of God’s promise means for us. We try to work out how we are to live in harmony with God’s reconciliation of the world, knowing that God is at work in us (Phil. 2:12-13). We learn how we will be in the world in a way that embodies God’s will, God’s initiative, to reconcile all things and all people (2 Cor. 5:16-21).
It’s not easy as we model for the world a different way of living, and one of the hardest parts is working out the details of our Christian faith in practice. But because we are all members of the same body of Christ, we can work it out with the wisdom and support of others who are growing in faith with us.
“So here’s what I want you to do,” Paul wrote to the Romans, “God helping you. Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for [God]. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings out the best in you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (Rom. 12:1-2 MSG).
Do that, and the peace of God, surpassing all understanding, will settle into you and displace all of the anxiety and desperation that unsettles your life (Phil. 4:7).
These ruminations were delivered as a sermon at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Lancaster, New York, 13 January 2019.