Words, Mystery, Baptism and Community*

A Meditation based on 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg


1 Corinthians 10:1-13 (NIV)**

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

"Mist in Yosemite Valley" Photograph by Anthony Dunn, copyright 2002 http://www.adunnphotography.com/index.asp

"Listen, I tell you a mystery!" (1 Corinthians 15:51) Paul said. And then he talked about something enduring, eternal, he talked about seeds that must die in order to rise to new life and death’s defeat. A mystery, like this picture, we see treetops, but there is so much hidden, there is so much there unseen, undefined, but real, in fact the foundation of every standing tree, yet hidden in the mist, it is almost eerie, on so we come up with the word
myst-ery.

“Listen, I tell you my-story” God says. But to us, his my-story is mystery and it takes millennia to tell. It’s a story of one Word told in the void, one Word enduring forever while all things fade away, one Word, the substance of all reality for by this one Word all reality came into being. The story of that one Word is the drama still being played today.

In this past few weeks, we have experienced a mystery. As Carlos Castaneda said in Journey to Ixtlan, “The world must be brought to a stop... otherwise it cannot be seen with different eyes.” In the past few weeks we have experienced that. Death has brought our world to a stop. Memories spoken have richly expressed the void we feel. Hope voiced our hunger and longing for reunion. We have seen with different eyes. A funeral became a resurrection. Our emptiness an expression of our fullness. And if these words are unclear, poorly defined, confusingly expressed, it is because they are words of mystery, where we recognize that so terribly much of Truth is in what we do not see, and cannot explain, or make flat. We journey through mountains and valleys and the eerie mists hang over the richest parts of our existence. The mystery is that in having our world come to a grinding halt, we have discovered in our shared story, in our puddles of tears together a deeper truth about community, for even though each of us is an individual, we are united, we are one, one in our grief, one in our story, one in our words, one in our love. Though most of the time we just see individual treetops, there is so much more, the unseen community ecosystem with its symbiotic relationships all expressions of the one Word. There is so much more, so much mystery to community.

“Listen, I tell you a mystery” history proclaims, and that mystery has to do with baptism, with community and with the Word. Paul talks about the forefathers who were under the cloud, wrapped within mystery, we see some that stand out, Moses, Aaron, but under the mist are thousands of those who walked through the sea, a community together, baptized into Moses. And what strange terminology - “baptized into Moses.” It all started with a few powerful divine “I am who I am” words spoken through Moses: “Let my people go!” With nation destroying power this word spoke, and as the waters divided in front of them, the children of Israel, from grandfathers to babies unborn were baptized as they traveled between the Red Sea’s walls of water.

In their baptism they entered into the mysterious. As our eyes open under water without goggles gives a blurry picture, so too, Israel was starting a journey under the cloud, where so much was unseen, where steps taken are taken by faith. Baptized into Moses - they were going somewhere - it was called a land of promise, a land of the forefathers 400 years earlier, a land which the Word said belonged to them, but their pathway led behind the pillar through the cloud of mystery in a desert were roads were not marked and maps were not drawn.

Humans, however, don’t tolerate mystery well. Mystery demands faith, conviction of things not seen. And soon the people of Israel demanded
“Give us clarity!”
“Give us a road map!”
“Gives us a clear destination so that we know how long this journey is going to be!”
“We want to know the conclusion and exactly when this is going to happen!”
Humans, however, don’t tolerate mystery well.

To have clarity, to see the next step is to have control over the journey. You see, we like the myth that we are here in control, that we determine our own destiny. The people of Israel, in their desire to master their fate, turned to a god that they could see, make, define, and they worshiped it hoping that it would remove the unseen, the cloud, the mystery. They gave themselves to sex, at least that was "a losing control" that was under their control. That was controllable mystery. Others doubted the reality behind the mystery, they tested the Lord, the Word at work. Still others grumbled: “Give us something clear!” These did not finish well. Those who could not embrace mystery, in the mist of the desert, their bodies were scattered making it a truly eerie place. Their days were like grass, the wind blew over it, they were gone, remembered no more. But the Word of the Lord...

Once again, we are pushed back to the mystery for their failure is not the whole story. Paul tells us that even in their failure, even in their not finishing well, they all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.

Listen, I tell you a mystery - in this telling truth is real, but it is very hard to define. We would love clarity, but what is needed is faith. Our minds are pushed into hazy corners where we don’t often travel. Our hearts can only wonder at the amazement. Paul talks about eating from Christ - the Word of God.

They all, from the little child to the elderly father of many, ate and drank the same spiritual food, even though so many did not finish well. They were fed by words. Words that formed a story. Words that shared the divine drama. From the early morning when they got up to late at night, words fed them. In their festivals set up by divine command, they enacted these words. In celebrations of thanksgiving they danced the words. They ate and drank and made merry with words. You shall not live by bread alone, but every word... These words were good for eating. This Word enriching the palate of the soul. They ate and drank.

Listen, I tell you a mystery. Even as they ate and drank the Word, who is Christ, that same Word became them. For the simple truth is, as we say, you are what you eat. Their existence an expression of the Word that accompanied them, temporal but very real. Even as I speak these words about mystery, they appear, and as quickly as you hear them, they disappear, they are a temporal expression of a deeper meaning. The meaning, the reality, the essence, the Word continues though the sound has long disappeared. Their days were like grass, the wind blew over it, they were gone, remembered no more. But the Word of the Lord stands forever. And the surprise of this passage, a surprise especially to us who love clarity and self determination, is that it was not those who made the choice to enter into the sea and be baptized into Moses, rather it was those who in their infancy, in their youth, those dragged along and carried, those whose destiny was determined for them, those who could do no other, they were the ones who entered, they were the ones who finished well.

Together, in this past few weeks, we have been stopped, we have had the opportunity to see the world with different eyes, we have sensed the power of mystery and the wonder of the unseen in community. Here as we journey in the valley of the shadow, with care, we take steps of faith. But the wonder of it all, is that we too are eating and drinking words, story, redemption’s drama, and even as we do, that story becomes us - "It is not that I live,"  Paul would say, "it is Christ (the Word) in me, the hope of glory." Baptized into Christ - we are temporal expressions of the eternal creative Word, and every step we take is wrapped in mystery.

I will never forget a mother, her arthritic hands deformed into nothing but knuckles, raising her fist and crying out “Hij is gedopt! Hij is gedopt!” At the time I was not sure if her fisted cry “He was baptized!” was not more than a misunderstanding of baptism, an expression of anger at God, or words of desperate hope that God, whose Word writes mystery, was making sure his Word would not return to him void.

She was crying for her son George, who had been a normal young teenager, faithful in coming to church, faithful in hearing the story, the Word, but then he got into the wrong crowd. Quickly he was trapped by the anaesthetizing lure of alcohol, and his life went from bad to worse. Most regarded him as a lost cause except his mother. With his wife, who in wisdom left him, he bore two children both of which hated him. His, their dysfunction so deep that his own son, in anger stabbed him with a knife severing important nerves to his left side, disabling his arm completely and hindering his ability to walk from then on. I even called crime stoppers on him in the hope of curbing his drinking and driving. He had swindled pension money from his own mother. “Hij is gedopt!” his mothers trembling fist would cry.

My connecting with George was sparse until the week he entered the hospital, his body a skeleton, his skin jaundiced, his belly bloated, his cirrhotic liver failed.

In the hospital I experienced mystery. I talked about God, he talked about talking to God. Words, family words, community words, heard when he was young were words, even in all of his brokenness, that resonated through the emptiness of his fractured heart, the Word he had eaten and the Word he drank while young had become part of him, and that same Word accomplished its purpose, he talked to God. I buried him around the words of Isaiah

 42: 3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

Listen, I will tell you a mystery. “Hij is gedopt!”

Most of us here today were baptized, we were baptized into a community, into a Savior, into the Word, the living enduring Word of God. And we are called to finish well. But the wonderful reality is that even on our all too often failing journeys, we eat that same spiritual food and drink that same spiritual drink and the Word becomes us...
 


*Many of the themes in this meditation were inspired by the book The Poet, The Warrior,
The Prophet
by Rubem A. Alves, SCM Press, 1990

**(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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