Baptism of Our Lord
January 13, 2013
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Greetings and welcome to the season of Epiphany. It will be a short one this year and that is unfortunate. I say that because I believe we in the Lutheran tradition need a good dose of Epiphany. The focus of much of our teaching and preaching has been on justification by faith in God’s saving work of atonement through Jesus’ suffering and death. I don’t fault the reformers for grounding our confessions of faith in the cross. That is entirely consistent with the New Testament witness. But unless it is seen through the prism of Jesus’ life and ministry, the cross can easily be misunderstood. In his book, The Nonviolent Atonement, J. Denny Weaver, a professor of religion at Bluffton College in Ohio, discusses at length how Christian attempts to explain Jesus’ saving work over the centuries have too often led us to violent portrayals of God. For example, the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement,” still popular among many Christians, views Jesus as a “substitute” victim offered in our place to appease the wrath of God that should rightly fall upon us. God invariably comes off either as a vengeful and blood thirsty tyrant who must have his pound of flesh for each and every transgression against his law; or as a helpless victim of his own regulations who would really like to let us off the hook-but you know how it goes. Once the ticket is written out, the meter maid cannot simply rip it up and pretend it never existed. As much as her compassionate heart may bleed for you and the fact that you had to get your sick child into the doctor’s office and had no change for parking-the rules are the rules. So the long and short of it is that there is no way for us to get back into God’s good graces unless somebody pays-with blood. Consequently, God sends Jesus to the cross where he pays the ticket.
Defenders of substitutionary atonement would surely criticize me for caricaturing their understanding of Jesus’ mission and ministry. To be fair, there are many thoughtful and articulate defenders of this understanding of atonement who have written extensively to explain their theological approach in ways that do not lead us into such a dark and distorted view of God. I appreciate these efforts. Nevertheless, it still seems to me that when you have to work that hard to prevent your teaching from being misunderstood, you need to ask yourself whether there is not something about the teaching itself that invariably lists toward misunderstanding.
Focusing on Jesus’ mission and ministry during Epiphany shapes our perspective on the cross. We see that the forces threatening to destroy Jesus rise with the star that led the wise men to the messiah. We hear in the declaration “my beloved son,” an echo of the pathos experienced by Abraham as he made the journey to Mt. Moriah with his own beloved son, Isaac. As we see opposition mounting against Jesus as he does the compassionate work of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, speaking truth to power and proclaiming good news to the poor, it becomes clear that the cross is the shape faithful obedience to God takes in a sinful world. Did God send Jesus to a cruel death on the cross? I would prefer to say that God sent Jesus to live a life of compassion perfectly reflecting God’s love for us, knowing that such a life in our sinful world could end in only one way. You could say that the cross is the price God was willing to pay for the incarnation, for being “God with us.” It is both a damning indictment of our perverse rejection of God’s compassion and the victory in God’s heart and on this planet of compassion over the powers that reject it. Jesus’ resurrection, then, is God’s resounding and eternal “yes” to us and to the life and way of Jesus.
For a more thorough discussion of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and the place of this reading within it, I refer you back to my post for Epiphany, Sunday, January 6, 2013. Suffice to say that this Sunday’s lesson comes from Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah, which are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews around 537 B.C.E., declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile in Babylon to their homeland in Palestine.
I have a fondness for these verses. As a matter of fact, this lesson was one of the readings for Sesle’s and my marriage service. I cannot remember what my thought process was in making this choice. In retrospect, however, I can attest that God has indeed been with us through some pretty rough waters and has gotten us out of some fiery predicaments over the years. Perhaps I was thinking that a marriage is a very fragile thing. It needs a lot of help to become strong, to remain healthy and to survive. I expect that the Babylonian exiles were probably feeling pretty fragile also. Having lost the land they called home, the temple that was the symbol of God’s presence in their midst and the line of David that gave them a national identity, they were now living in the land of their conquerors as a community of foreigners. I expect that they were struggling to pass on their identity to a new generation of Jews who knew nothing first hand of Israel’s past glory and saw only the social and economic benefits of blending into the surrounding culture. Little by little their language was becoming a relic used only in worship. The prophet’s call for these defeated and demoralized exiles to make the long and dangerous journey back to a ruined land was a daunting challenge laden with risks and uncertainties. The odds against the returning exiles were even more formidable than those facing a marriage.
But the people of God do not make their decisions on the basis of statistical probabilities. They live their lives in the light of God’s promises. That is why we enter into marriage with promises to remain faithful until death parts us-knowing full well the statistics on divorce and separation. That is why I baptize infants of parents who promise to bring their children to the house of God, teach them the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments-even when I am fairly confident that they intend to do no such thing. It is God’s faithfulness to God’s promises that make the difference-not our own faithfulness which is fickle at best. So with each baptism I pray that the infant will pass through the baptismal flood to a new creation; be purified, but not consumed by the fire of God’s Spirit and be brought at last into the Sabbath rest of all people called by God’s name. I continue to stay in touch with these families-sometimes to the extent of making a pest of myself-in order to keep alive their tenuous connection to the family of God. I do that because I believe that when God adopts someone and says to them, “You are my beloved,” God means it. So I strive to keep the door open as far as possible.
Many commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. Other commentators have maintained that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai. Nothing wrong with that. After all, Luther composed hymns from drinking songs.
The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly embarrassing in the shadow of hurricane Sandy. Was Sandy God’s doing? Did God send Sandy or just allow it to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it anymore comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a hurricane to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?
I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps part of our problem is our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded by our insurance plan, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits? I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.
Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either. No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-a place where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.
But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror. The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!
I must admit that I don’t know what to make of this brief snippet from Acts. I don’t know how a person can receive the Word of God without the aid of the Spirit, nor do I understand how one receives the Spirit apart from the Word. But one of those things or both seem to have occurred here. Rather than trying to make theological sense out of this, I prefer simply to take this passage as a warning against becoming too dogmatic about how faith and the Holy Spirit work. As I said before, I have performed more than a few baptisms where there appeared to be little in the way of proper motivation or even openness to faith. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but that is really out of my hands. When you invoke the Holy Spirit, you are by definition placing matters in hands beyond your own. In a sense, I suppose I am hoping that what happened in this text will eventually occur for these families, namely, that the Holy Spirit will fall upon them-however belatedly.
A couple of things are worth noting here. First off, the Holy Spirit falls upon Jesus well after he is baptized by John and while he is praying. The voice from heaven addresses Jesus specifically in the second person. It is not even clear that John is still present when this occurs. In verses 15-17, where John disavows any messianic role, he also downplays the significance of his baptizing ministry. “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Thus, John’s baptism, whatever it might have accomplished, did not confer upon those baptized God’s Holy Spirit. According to Luke, Jesus’ receipt of the Holy Spirit seems to have occurred separately from his baptism by John.
The other significant aspect of this text is its location. In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit still sopping wet from his baptism out into the wilderness to face temptation by Satan. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ receipt of the Holy Spirit is followed by a lengthy genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam. One cannot help but see in this the foreshadowing of what will occur in the second chapter of Acts where the Spirit falls upon the disciples who then preach the gospel in tongues understandable to a multitude of people from all corners of the known world. Jesus will be the conduit through which the Spirit of God will reach all peoples. Just as Jesus begins his ministry “full of the Holy Spirit” at the beginning of Luke chapter 4, so the church at Pentecost will begin its ministry filled with the Holy Spirit. If we would read Luke rightly, we need to keep the Book of Acts on the horizon. The same Spirit that animates Jesus’ ministry in Luke will likewise animate the mission of the church in Acts.
“The heaven was opened,” is a term used frequently in apocalyptic literature (such as Daniel and Revelation; see discussion in my post of Pentecost 25). The Greek word translated “to open” here is milder than the term “ripped open” used in Mark’s gospel to describe the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus. In both cases, however, the rending of the heavens is a literary device used to announce the radical intervention of God. In Isaiah chapter 64, the prophet prays, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” That is precisely what is happening here as Jesus prays. The heavens are rent and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus through whom God will now act.
What do all these texts have to say about baptism? The take away for me is that, when all is said and done, this is God’s act. We have no idea what we are unleashing when we stir the waters of the baptismal font over which the Spirit hovers and take the creative Word of God upon our lips. We can no more channel the power of God’s Spirit than we can control the raw energy of a storm. At most, our worship makes room for the Holy Spirit to enter in. But the Spirit blows where it wills.