He was wrong.
Carrie adapted well enough. But as I waited at the top of what seemed like a very long and very steep slope, I was terrified. There was nothing to be done, of course. I had to get down, one way or another. So I eventually eased myself over the slope, and immediately I began doing everything I could to go as slowly as possible.
Our instructor kept telling me to keep my skis parallel, and to lean into the slope, and generally to ski like people are supposed to ski. But every time my skis got anywhere close to each other, I lost control, picked up speed, and ended up with a face full of snow.
Lying there on the ground, I would watch sadly as little children glided gracefully past me. Sometimes one or the other of my sons would ski up to make sure I was OK. Seeing that I was, they would zip down the slopes, with a father’s curse chasing after them.
Thankfully, things got better the next day. I stayed on the easy slopes. I continued to fall down more than all the rest of my family put together. But at least I enjoyed myself.
And every once in a while, just for a minute, I got it right. My skis were parallel, and I was leaning in the right direction, and I picked up a little speed, and I didn’t immediately fall down. And that was great.
The difference, on that third day, was that I listened to my instructor. I accepted that I could not always be in total control, and I let go of some of my fear.
I have no idea if my ski instructor is religious. But what he taught me about skiing is a pretty good life lesson, particularly for the beginning of a new year.
Every new year represents a new start. Many of us mark the new year by making New Year’s Resolutions. We do that because the new year seems like a chance for us to do a little better than we did last year, to live a little more like our best selves.
But, of course, we also enter the new year with all kinds of emotional baggage. We have old wounds. We have old fears. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It can be very hard to let some of that baggage go.
Particularly when we encounter new challenges, when things get rough, we are all tempted to lock down, to close in, to let our old anxieties and fears and wounds define who we are and how we will respond.
And yet, as I learned on the ski slopes, that doesn’t work. Whenever our fears govern our actions, we have a very hard time learning anything new, and we just end up making life more difficult.
Jews have a wonderful new year’s tradition. First, they wrap up the previous year with a Day of Atonement on which they confess their sins. Then, having experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, they can start the new year fresh, as the forgiven, purified, and redeemed people of God.
Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord, which also marks a new beginning. For Jesus, baptism was the beginning of his public ministry. For us, baptism is the beginning of our lives in Christ.
Matthew’s account of the baptism is short, but dramatic. John is understandably hesitant to baptize the incarnate God standing before him! But after a brief exchange, Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God descends upon him, and a voice from heaven proclaims that Jesus is God’s beloved son.
Our reading from Isaiah fills in the picture. In Isaiah, God promises to put the Holy Spirit upon God’s servant, just as happens at Christ’s baptism. God’s Spirit empowers God’s servant to bring forth justice. In case we miss it the first time, God repeats that His servant will “faithfully bring forth justice.” In case we miss it the second time, God repeats it a third time. God’s servant “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”
Peter says the same thing in Acts. Peter says, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.” God’s Spirit and power enabled Jesus to go “about doing good and healing all who were oppressed.”
In his ministry, Christ began the process of establishing God’s kingdom on earth. That process took a dramatic step forward when Christ died and rose again. It took another dramatic step forward when the Holy Spirit came upon the gathered disciples, filling them with power and commissioning them to carry on Christ’s work in Christ’s name.
At our baptisms, that became our task. On that day, people asked God to “fill us with [God’s] holy and life-giving Spirit,” and then to “send us into the world in witness to God’s love.”
That is an awesome responsibility. Faced with the task of establishing justice in our world, faced with the task of doing good and healing all who are oppressed, faced with the task of witnessing to God’s love in the world, we naturally shrink back because the job seems too big.
And so we turn inwards. We stick with the things that comfortable and familiar. And, of course, that is fine as far as it goes.
But our readings invite us to consider the possibility that God is calling us to something new, to something more, to something great. Our readings are all about the promise of the Holy Spirit, the promise of God’s power to do great things through us, the chance for a new beginning, to respond to God’s call in a new way.
I hear our readings a little bit like I heard my ski instructor. He told me to stop letting my fear define me. He told me to accept that I cannot always be in control. He told me to just go.
And our readings tell us to stop letting our fears define us. Our readings tell us to accept that we cannot always be in control. Our readings tell us to go where God calls us to go.
And behind our readings stands the promise of baptism, the promise of new life, the promise of ever-renewed life.
At the heart of the gospel stands the good news of God’s love, God’s promise that we are not defined by our sins and our weaknesses and our wounds and our fears, God’s promise that we are not defined by our worst moments and our worst impulses.
At the heart of the gospel stands God’s promise that we are God’s beloved children, that we have been set free in Christ, that we are being made a new creation even now, that new life and new love are possible even now.
It is a new year. In principle, our mistakes and sins and failures, everything that went wrong last year, is behind us. And even though we will undoubtedly make mistakes and we will sin and we will fail in 2017, for right now, the new year is young, and we can start fresh. My prayer for us is that we can be fearless, as we follow God into whatever future God has planned. And I pray this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.