The Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 | Acts 10:34-38 | Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
Almighty, everliving God who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him solemnly declared him your Beloved Son, grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit may always be well-pleasing to you. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
This feast of the baptism officially ends the Christmas season. What we’ve been focusing on is this most fascinating, interesting thing. It seems from the beginning of time, men and women have longed for something more than they have or more than they are, and whenever they seem to examine the life that they had, they said, “Someone has to come and give us something that we’re missing, because somehow we’re not connected, like we should be, to this whole thing. We need a Messiah, somebody who will come with great wisdom.” And I would add this one line that they wouldn’t have said, “But when we are ready — when we are ready for the Messiah.” We might say, “Well, why didn’t the Messiah come to Abraham? Why did we have to have 1,500, 2,000 years of struggle with one particular way of looking at the world and looking at God, God being the one who created us and is demanding of us that we respond to him, that we love him, but the only way we could show we loved him was to do what he said. And so we were bound by a very complicated set of rules and laws, and we kept trying and trying to keep the relationship going by being more than we were able to be. Kept being punished, and God would even threaten to destroy us when we failed so miserably in doing what he asked. Why did we have to go through all of that before we had his Beloved Son who comes into the world to reveal who he is? Why didn’t he start with who he was?” Well, I think it’s pretty obvious, because we couldn’t have handled it.
It was 5,000 years ago when God called Abraham, almost five. If that’s true, then people were not at all like they are now, in terms of being evolved and growing in a capacity to understand things, especially the things of a world that we can’t know directly but need help in knowing, and that’s the world of the Spirit. We know pretty much about the world that we live in. At least it seems that throughout history human beings were capable of figuring things out and discovering new ways of seeing the world and new ways of using things in the world to take care of themselves. We call it evolution. It’s so funny to me that one of the primary causes of the evolution of human beings, in terms of growing into knowing how to use the things of the earth to take care of them, was the weather. They had to learn how to protect themselves from the elements, and as they did that, their bodies and they themselves adapted themselves into becoming someone who could live in a certain environment, and that’s never ceased. Our environment is constantly changing. It’s not just the weather, but you think of the world we live in now. Even the world that I was born in 70 years ago practically, it’s so different, and yet when I see younger people getting into things that I can’t quite figure out, seeming to do it without any effort — they seem to understand how these things work, this technological world we live in. They seem to have an intuition about it that I don’t have. Is that because I’m stupid, and they’re smart? No. They have adapted from [sic] it from a very, very young age, and that means everything. The world I was created in and the world that I learned my basic ways of dealing with life is so radically different than theirs, and so I should — we all should give ourselves some slack when it comes to why can’t I figure all this stuff out. But we have grown, and we have changed, and God has revealed more and more to us. And I love the idea that the whole history of the human race is very much a kind of metaphor for what we individually go through, starting with childhood — childhood, infancy, adolescence, younger adult, older adult, wiser adult when you get close to 70, 80.
So what is it that we find in this conclusion to the invitation we’ve all had in the liturgy to remember this new creature that came into the world called Jesus? We end in an epiphany. Last week was the Feast of the Epiphany, but now we have a true epiphany. When Jesus the man was baptized in Jordan by John, there was this showing of his divinity. First of all, a spirit, the Spirit of God, took bodily form in the form of a dove, and the Spirit of God descending into Jesus is a sign and a symbol that Jesus, like us, not to the same degree, but he’s there to show us that we’re like him. And he’s the first one to say something that seemed almost impossible to believe, that God’s Spirit dwells in me and enables me to do things I could never do on my own just as a human being. And so we see the Spirit descending into this man, and then we hear a voice, and the voice says, “This is the one. This is my Son that I’ve always promised I would send to you. Listen to him.” That’s what he said in the same kind of theophany at the transfiguration. “This is my Son. Listen to him.” In this case, he said, “This is my Son. He has my favor and my love, my presence inside of him, and you can have it too. You can have it too.”
So we end on this note of baptism. Baptism is a very interesting sacrament. It’s something in the Catholic Church that is required, as it is in almost all religions, but the one thing interesting about the Catholic Church in its teaching on baptism is always recognize baptism in every other faith. It never rebaptized someone, let’s say, when you came a convert. So here’s a ritual that we believe always, always, always works, no matter who does it, no matter what religion does it, and what is it, when you baptize, that’s so important? Well, the ritual is essential in many ways, but in another way, it isn’t the only way one can receive the gift of baptism. The church teaches that you don’t have to be baptized literally by another person in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit to be baptized. You can be baptized — we call it a baptism of blood. That’s when you give your life completely over to the truth, become a martyr, give your life for your faith, or also just the desire, to want desperately to be filled with God, that’s a baptism of desire. So as much importance as we put on baptism, we wouldn’t say that a person who isn’t baptized doesn’t have God inside of them, because that is given as a gift to every human being.
We are redeemed people, and I want to see if I can try to describe what redemption is. It’s always been difficult for me to figure it out. If it means that we’re freed of sin, then why do we still do sinful things? If we’re told that we’re freed from the punishment of sin, why do we always feel that, and why does the church often say to me that, if you don’t do what God wants, he turns away, he punishes? It damages our relationship with him. He won’t dwell with us anymore until we get our sins forgiven in confession. That’s what I was taught. So how are we supposed to understand it? Well, here’s one thing that I hope helps, and it’s been something that I’ve been pondering these last few days. I hope it makes sense, but I know I can’t explain it, but I can point to it. I can’t describe exactly how it works, but in that moment that Jesus was baptized, he revealed the work that he was here to accomplish. The work was to reveal a dimension of God that we never knew existed, and that is that he refuses to punish a sinner. He refuses to separate himself from a sinner. He refuses to let our actions do anything to damage his affection, his attention, his desire for our salvation. I never knew that before, and I don't know that I’ve lived my life in any way, shape or form that I really would say I base my reactions to my weaknesses on that kind of truth. I base them more on the truth that the culture lives in, and that is, if you do something wrong, you’re punished. If you take someone’s life, we believe that the government has, or at least the government believes, they have a right to take your life. It’s just, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. You live in that all the time in the world, yet we’re told that our God, in fully revealing who he is is not that way at all. So how do we make this adjustment? How do we think about sin as not being something that damages our relationship? Because otherwise you’d say, “Well then, why worry about not sinning if it doesn’t take God’s love away, God’s presence away?” Well, it goes deeper into an understanding of sin and the effects of sin in our life.
To say that God does not in any way, shape or form limit his love for us when we choose to do something wrong — still in the doing of something wrong, there is damage done to people and to self. That’s not God’s punishment. That’s just the result of what you’re doing. You drink water, and you’re hydrated. You stop drinking water, and you die. If you don’t drink water, is the punishment from God that you’ll die? No, just that’s the result of it. So it doesn’t change the fact that there’s something really dangerous about our sins. They are not in any way, shape or form limiting God’s love for us, but they are causing unnecessary, unwanted pain and suffering. And so what we have to do is learn how to accept that part of the world that we live in that, when we choose things that are negative and destructive, we do experience the destructiveness, but here’s the thing that I think is so interesting. So often when you see someone in pain because of the choices they’ve made, they have a feeling that God abandoned them. He abandoned them, and somehow they’re left with this curse from God. I think it’s really interesting. We often tell people, when things are going really well, “Oh, you’re so blessed by God. What a wonderful — you must be so pleasing to him.” What does that imply when things are going bad? Well, he’s not pleased with you, and you’re cursed. Why do we connect that dimension to our actions and somehow say, “God, why are you doing this to me?” Why can’t we see as clearly as this theology of redemption is trying to show us that no, he’s always there, always pulling for us, always wanting us not to abuse self or others? He wants us to learn, and so he allows the negative results. Otherwise it would be sort of like a body that doesn’t feel pain. People have that, and it’s a horrible thing, because you never know when you’ve injured yourself, and you can’t do anything about it. There’s great motivation if we realize the things that we’re doing are creating pain, but it’s so unfair to say that’s God’s response. It’s not God’s response.
What I love about the Old Testament is the image of God that we’ve lost in the New Testament, if you only read the New Testament, and that is that God in the Old Testament is usually described as somebody who is rather demanding and legalistic and always crushing people that didn’t do what they wanted. It’s like God is the source of all punishment, all pain rather, and it’s all in the form of punishment. And so we somehow take that to look at God in the Old Testament as not good and Jesus as good, and that’s completely oversimplified. What I love about the God of the Old Testament, since we’ve been preaching on it for now 50 years in the first reading of every Sunday, is how human he is, how filled with ordinary emotions, human emotions he is. He’s sad. He’s angry. He’s jealous. He’s depressed. Somehow when I was growing up and learning about God, God didn’t have anything like that, because that would seem too human. It would sound like he was imperfect, but a God who loves, authentically loves, how can he not have an emotion about the person he loves when they don’t do what he’s simply asking them to do for their own benefit and for the benefit of everyone around them? He is sad. He feels sadness when we sin. It’s so different from a judgmental, angry, punishing God, and how does that change things? How does it make things different? I don't know exactly how I can say this, but it does mean that, if you don’t have that image of a God who’s always there in all the negative things you do, you can’t ever believe that he’s always present, always in you, always pulling for you. His indwelling presence, this image of the dove entering into Jesus, his Spirit, that’s what’s key. That’s what’s important.
Father, your redemption is the gift that frees us and restores us to a childlike belief and faith in your love and your presence, your desire to give us everything that we need. Bless us with this gift as we face so many of the shortcomings that we experience in our life, the times that we fail, the times that we lose self-respect. It’s never your will. Your will is simply that we continue to grow and to change and to become fully your child in whom, we pray, we are always someone that pleases you greatly, and we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.