THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
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.
“This is my son.” I have used those words more than a few times over the last two and one half decades, always with a deep sense of pride and joy. But now I cannot speak or hear them without feeling also an undertow of sadness. That is because I remember so well my own son’s deeply felt pride and joy in introducing to me to his son, my grandson, Parker. Twenty-four hours later my wife and I were holding my son as together we grieved Parker’s untimely death in the neonatal ICU. In so short a time, one life brought such outbursts of joy and such a tidal wave of grief. Two fathers, one mourning the loss of a son, the other powerless to comfort a son experiencing the most horrible thing that can happen to a parent. This is my son.
I cannot help but wonder if there is not a similar underlying sadness in the declaration of God the Father: “Thou art my beloved Son.” John tells us that God desires to share with us the same love that has existed eternally between the Father and the Son. How else can God love us other than to become human flesh? How else can the Word of God embrace and comfort us when all spoken words fail? And what shape other then the cross can such love possibly take in a world driven by unbelief, fear and hatred? The cross is the terrible cost of the Incarnation; the cost of Trinitarian Love born into a sinful world. This is my Son.
“A child is something else again,” as poet Yehuda Amichai tells us. We have no idea of all we let ourselves in for when we decide to have children. Still less can we predict the ripple effect that child’s life will have on the rest of the world. “A child is a missile into the coming generations,” Amichai says. She or he is our contribution to the ongoing saga of creation. We cannot foresee the joy or sorrow our children will bring with them into the world or experience themselves. Yet we know this much: our children will one day know death-that of their loved ones and their own. Their hearts will be broken, their bodies grow fail and their minds will become dim.
Into just such an existence God births the Son. And because the Son is God’s Son-the One whose innermost being is love, the Lamb of God incapable of violence, cruelty or cunning-he is particularly vulnerable to those most vicious characteristics of our world. The only question is whether the Son will continue to be the Son despite all that the world is about to inflict on him. The New Testament answers that question with a resounding “yes.” Jesus is God’s arrow of love shot into the world. That Trinitarian love proves stronger than the powers of evil even as they employ their heaviest weapons against it. Jesus lived, suffered and died cruelly in this world, but went on loving. He would not be sucked into the vortex of retribution that imprisons us. That is the “weakness of God” Paul recognizes as God’s greatest strength. It costs God dearly to hold all things together in Christ against the divisive forces threatening to rip creation apart. Our assurance is that God will never lose God’s grip. If the crucifixion of God’s beloved Son cannot cool the heat of God’s passionate, Trinitarian love for us, nothing can. Still today God the Father raises up to us his bloodied and wounded child saying to us, “This is my Son.”
Here is the poem by Yehuda Amichai I cited above.
A Child is Something Else Again
A child is something else again. Wakes up
in the afternoon and in an instant he’s full of words,
in an instant he’s humming, in an instant warm,
instant light, instant darkness.
A child is Job. They’ve already placed their bets on him
but he doesn’t know it. He scratches his body
for pleasure. Nothing hurts yet.
They’re training him to be a polite Job,
to say “Thank you” when the Lord has given,
to say “You’re welcome” when the Lord has taken away.
A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I’m still trembling.
A child is something else again: on a rainy spring day
glimpsing the Garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.
Yehuda Amichai, “A Child Is Something Else Again” from The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. (c. 2015 by Yehuda Amichai, Translated By Chana Bloch and published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). Yehuda Amichai is one of Israel’s most prominent poets. He was born in Germany in 1924 but left with his family for Palestine in 1935. He fought in the 1948 Arab/Israeli war. His poems have been translated into English, French, German and Swedish. You can read more about Amichai and his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.
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 the Epiphany of Our Lord, Sunday, January 3, 2016. Suffice to say that this Sunday’s lesson comes from Chapters 40-56 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.
The cry “fear not” (Vs. 1) is a refrain heard throughout this section of Isaiah as it is also sounded throughout the Gospel of Luke. In contrast to the prophets of the 8th and 9th Centuries whose prophesies were more often than not declarations of judgment evoking fear, the glad tidings of release from exile and return to the land of promise banish fear and inspire hope. The term “redeemed” (Vs. 1) is a technical/legal term pertaining to ancient family law. It refers to the payment made to a third party releasing a relative from slavery or imprisonment for debt. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 116. The promise to deliver Israel through waters and through rivers unmistakably evokes the Exodus miracle at the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan under Joshua. Vs. 2.
“Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men for you, peoples in exchange for your life.” Vs. 4. Of this verse Westermann goes on to say, “here we also have one of the most beautiful and profound statements of what the Bible means by ‘election.’ A tiny, miserable and insignificant band of uprooted men and women are assured that they-precisely they-are the people to whom God has turned in love; they, just as they are, are dear and precious in his sight.” Ibid. 118. The distinction here is not between Israelites and members of other nations as people, but rather between the glorious status of the reigning empires to whom this God prefers a band of exiles. This is, of course, consistent with the prophets’ and the psalmists’ insistence that God is particularly concerned with the widow, the orphan and the poor.
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. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 261; Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalm, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 143. 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 is said to have composed hymns from common 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 hurricanes, floods and earthquakes that damage homes and take lives. Are such events God’s doing? Does God send storms or just allow them 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 her 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.” Vs. 16. 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” (Luke 4:1), 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’s gospel will likewise animate the mission of the church in his Book of Acts.
“The heaven was opened,” is a term used frequently in apocalyptic literature. Vs. 21. The Greek word used by Luke 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. Mark 1:10. In both cases, however, the rending of the heavens is a literary device used to announce the radical intervention of God. In the 64th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet prays, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” Isaiah 64:1. 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.