Posts Tagged ‘baptism of Jesus’

Not the way it ought to be…

January 15, 2017

Not the way it ought to be…we have said that often enough.  In the last 12 months, I have certainly said that often enough.  When things are sliding south – when troubles mount and anxiety and grief are overwhelming – it is natural to consider that life isn’t as it should be.  All of us believe (at some level) that there is a ‘master plan’, except that it has been abandoned in favour of chaos.

This may be what is behind John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus.

John has been acting as a herald – the one who proclaims that God’s ultimate messenger is just over the horizon.  John is the prophet of “big changes are coming”.  He sings his songs in the key of Isaiah, for the kingdom John proclaims is God’s kingdom of justice and peace and righteousness.  John describes “one who is coming” to set things right – a king unlike any king the world has ever known – and on very little evidence (at least it is so in Matthew’s gospel) John has decided that Jesus is THE ONE.

Everything we think we know about the relationship between Jesus and John comes from other sources.  Matthew’s gospel brings us first John, then Jesus praised (and baptized) by John.  Whatever their relationship, John has decided that the kingdom is upon them and that Jesus is the embodiment of that kingdom – God’s justice; God’s peace; God’s righteousness have come together (for John) in Jesus…and yet Jesus asks to be baptized by John…it defies logic!

Whatever John expected, this wasn’t it.  Why would God’s chosen one need repentance?  Why would the one who represented God’s righteous judgement – God’s merciful justice – why would such a one as Jesus submit to such a humbling act as Baptism?  For Baptism was (and remains) an act of great humility…

But here he is, and surely Jesus has been among the crowds long enough to know that Baptism demands repentance – signifies a turning from self and a turning (again) towards the things of God…and that is when we discover that Jesus Ito is familiar with Isaiah’s songbook.  “Let it be so now…for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness…”

Jesus – even Jesus – will humble himself in the sight of the Lord; for justice is not the concern of the proud; righteousness is not the territory of the powerful; real righteousness is the privilege and property of God.  God calls servants in righteousness – indeed, God’s call defines righteousness – and it is God’s righteousness that is satisfied by Jesus insistence on being baptized.  Jesus follows this path of humility and service for God’s sake, not for Jesus’ own agenda.

Jesus is not ‘proving’ his omnipotence – Jesus is not suggesting that he knows how the story will end so that John will provide the necessary plot line.  Jesus is acknowledging that no matter how he (or we) might interpret Scripture, or the events of our lives, there is always a power at work that outranks, out thinks and out lasts us all.

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This is our hope – when we declare with a sigh that “this is not the way it should be…”  Our hope is that “master plan” that lies hidden at the edge of our awareness actually has a Master; our hope is that the plans we make – plans that always seem to be frustrated by circumstances beyond our control – might somehow be rescued by divine intervention.  Even those who claim no; faith carry that hope within them – that is why there are lotteries in developed countries.  (no, I’m not suggesting that God is somehow at work in lottery wins…)

The point is we hope for help from beyond ourselves because we recognize that our plans are not always successful, and our abilities are not always sufficient to navigate the changeable circumstances of life on this planet.  And we find that hope in Jesus, because Jesus points to God in hope when he asks to be Baptized.  Jesus is seeking God’s will – not because he knows what it is, but because he trusts God to meet the needs of God’s faithful people.  Putting yourself in God’s hands, as Jesus does, is to admit that there is a power in creation that wants (ultimately) only good for us (and for all creation)

So things aren’t supposed to be like this.  Churches aren’t supposed to struggle – the Good News shouldn’t be so hard to share (or so hard to hear…) – those who follow Christ, who answer, in faith, the call of God, ought to find peace and comfort and joy in abundance…but reality is uncomfortably intrusive.  Churches are closing.  The faithful are struggling to find interest and enthusiasm for the message of the Gospel.

The ‘timeless promises of God’ seem to taunt our efforts to live into the peaceable kingdom declared by prophets and poets in Scripture.  And Jesus comes – at a time when chaos reigned and the Romans had their way with the world and says quietly to John “Let it be so now…”

Let the powerful make their noise; let it seem as though chaos will reign.  The peace that passes understanding is a whispered word in the furious storms that surround us, and whispers are often lost in the wind, but this Word made flesh will one day still the storm and hush the wind.  Jesus, who comes in humility and points to the rock-solid constancy of God, will demonstrate for us how to navigate the stormy waters of uncertainty.  Aware of the chaos, but never losing sight of the presence and purposes of God, Jesus  leads us through baptism – through death – and into the heart of God’s “master plan”.

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So Jesus is both prophet and the answer to prophecy.  He walks into his earthly ministry full of a desire for the things of God – never sure what they may look like – and invites us to follow his path; to walk with him on our own journey, that he might lead us to a life full of promise – full of hope – full of God; for that is how it ‘ought’ to be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen

The voice

January 10, 2015

In this morning’s lessons, it’s all about the voice. You know what I mean – you’ve each had a moment when, while you read or listened to Scripture being read; or while you pray; or as the credits roll on your annual viewing of “The Ten Commandments” you’ve said to yourselves, “I wonder if that’s what God really sounds like?” We may always struggle with what we learn, and what we think we know about our faith – but it boils down to the voice of God; how can I hear it? Why don’t I hear it? What should God sound like? and more importantly, what if I’ve missed it, somehow…?
The lessons set for this day seem to suggest that God’s voice would be difficult to miss…or to mistake for anything (or anyone) else. Genesis offers a glimpse into the power of God’s voice; things happen; the earth – all creation responds to the call of God; “Light”, God says, and there is light. Order, life, the seasonal mechanics and the whole of the biological catalogue; all it takes is a word from God. Genesis does not offer us definitive proof of the origins of the Universe. This book of beginnings presents (with real conviction) the character of God. We are introduced to an active, creative, intentional God, whose impulse is to know and be known by all creation. Genesis teaches us to yearn for the voice of God.
The Psalmist learned this lesson well. Look at the ‘evidence’ of God’s involvement, says Psalm 29 – look at the power in this mysterious, heavenly voice; our only response is to “Cry Glory!” and expect that our devotion might somehow grant us access to this heavenly gift of power. For all that this psalm sounds like a description of an ancient storm – full of destruction and the potential for disaster, the Psalmist leaves no doubt (in the end) that this is a display of God’s will; there is a precision and a sense of deliberate control. The voice “over the waters” reminds us that creation came from chaos too, and God is the master of all of it…
It is a different kind of chaos on the bank of the river Jordan that Mark’s gospel describes. A strangely serious man named John – fresh from the ‘wilderness’ – is welcoming one and all to confess their sins and be baptized. There is an aura of power surrounding John, for all he is dressed like a first century hippy. Mark describes him as a back to nature, locust-eating stranger who speaks of repentance and the coming Holy Spirit. There are crowds of curious people, and then all at once, there is Jesus. This is not like any Baptism we have ever experienced; there is confrontation, and perhaps some confusion – John has been hinting at the arrival of someone special; could this be him? – and then, something happens that (for Mark) marks this as a clear sign that God is, once again, at work.
Just as Jesus comes up out of the water (by now we cannot fail to make the connection…) the fabric of creation is ‘torn open’, a dove-like apparition descends on him…and that voice. It is the voice of God that ‘settles the issue’ for Mark, as he conveys the scene, and for us. A voice from heaven assures us that this is legitimate; that this otherwise strange scene just might have some lasting importance in Jesus’ life, and in the unfolding drama of our collective lives. This is an echo of that same, creative thunder that declared all things “good” in the beginning. This moment imparts a different kind of authority to all that Jesus does. and once again, we are drawn to the voice of God.
God’s voice – audible and alarming – doesn’t feature in our thinking. We speak metaphorically, or of ‘the still, small voice’ of conscience or nagging doubt. But we cling to the belief that God calls the faithful. We are called to worship; called to serve; called to share in the gritty glory of discovering and revealing God’s promises. A kingdom is coming; repentance and forgiveness are the founding principles; love and grace the currency. And it is the voice of God that draws us into this project. Not a thundering, terrifying noise from above that leaves everyone trembling – and not always a gently personalized whisper either – no it is the same voice, modulated, transposed, and transmitted by the witness of Scripture and the revelation of Jesus.
The significance of ‘the voice’ at the moment of Jesus baptism is to focus our attention on this new and different form of revelation. God-with-us, the prophet said; hard to imagine, and harder to ignore. In this promise is the hope that, even in a week filled with death and destruction, God speaks comfort, consolation and once again wills grace into the man made chaos that was the city of Paris. We may have found a different explanation for the awesome forces of nature that play themselves out in all seasons, but we can still be overwhelmed by God’s commanding counsel – in the inexplicable sense of comfort that comes when we pray or mourn or work together for good; or in the urgency that draws us together to defend justice, or dispense mercy; in the peace that comes when grace is offered to us.
The ‘voice’ made flesh draws our attention even now, inviting us to the communion table; inviting us to discover grace and do mercy and walk humbly with the one who commanded order, light and life out of chaos. Let us continue to tune our ears to God’s invitation, and may we give thanks to God for that voice that calls us from chaos to something better.

Baptism as an act of defiance. (Matthew 3: 13-17)

January 26, 2014

 

I was baptized as an infant – not an unusual practice in the ‘60’s.

I was brought to the congregation by my parents,

Who were marginally members

of the congregation of my father’s childhood.

Vows were made, water was added,

and I was ‘welcomed into the family of God;

Pretty standard stuff.

Baptism for the church (as we know it) has always been the sacrament of welcome.

It is the mark of belonging;

a rite of passage,

that marks a change in our relationship with God

and the people of God.

But for Jesus, it was different

The practice of Baptism is not unique to John –

it has been part of Jewish rituals of purification –

but John is suggesting that his Baptism (all baptism)

is a life changing event.

It marks the start of something, that’s for sure,

But it is not a sign of welcome or membership –

it is the sign of setting apart.

John offers Baptism as an act of defiance.

John’s voice might have been ignored –

all kinds of teachers attracted all manner of crowds in those days.

John might have been dismissed

as just another strange voice from the edge of the desert,

but he dared to address the few

who thought they knew what righteousness was;

the Pharisees and Sadducees who studied and interpreted the Scriptures.

John had the nerve to suggest that they should get their act together – that they too need to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

John played a dangerous game,

and Jesus comes from Galilee to be baptized –

ready to take his place in the game.

This is not baptism as we know it –

no frilly, family photo-op with everyone in their finest;

John holds court on the muddy bank of a minor river

on the edge of the Judean wilderness.

Pilgrims have travelled, and gathered, and listened,

and been convinced of their need to repent.

It is a noisy, smelly, dirty scene described by Matthew’s gospel.

There is tension and challenge in the air,

but there is also the promise of hope

that is sometimes heard in a prophetic voice.

And with these seekers, to this dangerous, dusty place,

comes Jesus of Nazareth.

You may well ask why?

Why does Jesus, of all people, need to attend to this particular ritual?

John asks that very question, and Jesus answer is…evasive;

“let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way

to fulfill all righteousness.”

And whatever meaning we attach to Jesus’ statement,

we are sure of Jesus determination to be baptized –

to offer himself as a man changed by this encounter in the water –

to be ready for the “…kingdom come near.”

Our modern notions of baptism are, as I have suggested,

not nearly so radical.

Oh, we will scratch our heads and offer our arguments

for and against Baptism for certain people,

or in this way or that,

but this Sacrament of the church has (unfortunately)

become the least sacred of our rituals.

Radical it is not!

So on the day that we recognize Jesus Baptism

as another in the countless ways he experienced humanity,

we are forced to see the radical roots of this act of faith.

Our baptism liturgy reminds us that we are linked to Christ in Baptism – joined to the body of Christ (that is, the Church),

which confirms the defiant nature of this ritual;

for in joining ourselves to the faithful –

by recognizing the nearness of the kingdom of God,

we are asked to see ourselves re-created, repentant,

and renewed, as God’s beloved.

Matthew’s gospel offers an astonishing conclusion

to the tale of Jesus baptism.

As he emerges from the water,

the Spirit is seen descending on his,

and a voice is heard,

proclaiming blessing and delight in Jesus as “beloved Son” –

signs to the gathered crowd

that underline John’s claims about the nearness of the kingdom.

While I have never heard voices,

nor seen the Spirit descend like a dove,

I am always moved by the liturgy,

and the act of Baptizing,

to recognize that we are part of a larger story

than the one we tell about ourselves.

We are asked (in Baptism) to devote ourselves

to the pursuit of justice, mercy and love

in the name of Christ, after the pattern of God.

We are urged to teach one another the way of Christ;

to live in the knowledge of God;

to engage in Christ’s mission to the world.

To do this is to defy the “normal” order of things –

to work in community rather than fierce independence;

to share burdens and joys, to encourage the down-trodden,

to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

We don’t often think about these things in terms of our Baptism,

but Jesus deference to John

suggests that there is something more than tradition and ritual

at work in this simple Sacrament.

There is a power present in our Baptism that cannot be controlled.  This power shows itself in the persistence of the Church of Jesus Christ,

in spite of centuries of persecution, outrage,

ignorance and misdirection.

This power sustains the unsustainable,

gives strength to exhausted servants –

this power brings the dead to life.

It is to this power that we have been joined in Baptism.

The power of God in Jesus Christ sustains our faith,

and it will change our lives, if we let it.

Are you ready to defy the status quo?

Are you prepared to say yes to the kingdom of God?