Saturday, January 12, 2013

January 13, The Baptism of Jesus, "With You I Am Well-Pleased"

 Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

"You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased." I think it was a very big deal for Jesus to hear these words from heaven, words of recognition and confirmation and approval. I’m sure he needed to hear it. I mean he had developed some beliefs about himself, and had worked out some ideas about his identity, and his calling—who he was, and what he should do with the second half of his life, and his ideas and beliefs about himself were so strange, too strange to have shared with anyone else, strange and daring, and compelling, and challenging, and scary, and now suddenly he gets recognized and confirmed. It was a very big deal for him.

I took some time this week to review the whole Gospel of Luke. I noticed that Luke shows Jesus developing—developing his message, evolving his presentation, exploring his identity, learning as he goes, exploring what it means to be the "Son of God," for the title means several things in the Bible, both literal and metaphorical, and he had to work it out and even advance it.

He will have begun that in his earlier life, those silent years before he came out. Thirty years, by our best guess, into which our only glimpse is when he we was twelve and he came to the temple and loved it, and he surprised the rabbis there by his precocious knowledge of scripture. Then eighteen years of anonymity. He had a lot of sorting out to do. His mother told him what the angel had said to her, and about the stable and the manger and the shepherds, and his father told him about his dreams, and the magi, and why they had lived in Egypt for a while, and the terrible knowledge that those innocent children of Bethlehem were slaughtered because of him.

He took some years to think about these things. He had to read and study and pray. He had to meditate upon the Torah and the prophecies. This Messiah thing. What has God promised to Israel? What does God want for the world? What can I do about it? Who do I think I am? What am I nuts? Why me? Why now? His precocious interest in scripture was self-interest. What is the purpose of my life? Who am I really? What is God to me?

What did he know and when did he know it? Did he think of himself in terms of our orthodox doctrine as the Second Person of the Trinity? I don’t think so, not yet before his death and resurrection. We can believe that he was, but that he didn’t know he was, because our orthodox doctrine teaches us that in his Incarnation he emptied himself of the rights and benefits of his divinity. So that having accepted the limits of the human condition, including the organic boundaries of the human brain upon his memory and knowledge, he would not have known this about himself. He did not have some special mental telepathy to communicate with God. Like everybody else, he had to study the scriptures and pray, even to sort out being the Messiah.

Was he active in the life of Nazareth? Was he an activist? Did he organize the carpenters into a labor union to stand up for their rights against the Romans? Or did he watch and wait? Was he friendly, cheerful, likable, dependable, but also a little reserved? Did he party? Did he already hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes? Is this why his brothers doubted him? How about that he did not take a wife? Was he good looking? A perfect face, a great body, a hunk, an Adonis? Orthodox doctrine says that his perfection was not in being like some Greek god in human form, nor even in never getting a parking ticket or a library fine, but his perfection was in his obedience to God. Which was not automatic; he had to sort it through and work it out.

That obedience, as any Jew will tell you, means lots of time just studying Torah. That study is itself obedience. And also learning by heart the prayers and the prophecies, like in Isaiah, about God’s plans for Israel, not yet fulfilled, the coming back of God, the return of the spirit of God.

These scriptures lived in him, and he figured he could be the Messiah to make it happen, but it took lots of study and reflection to resolve not to take the obvious course of military leadership that everyone was hoping for. He had to let himself wonder, and imagine how he might work it out, he had to imagine the likely opposition and get used to that idea, and even imagine how it might end very badly. He had to figure this out himself, nobody else could do it for him. He had to believe it was the Spirit of God who was whispering these things to him, and not some demon. Some nights he could not sleep, and he wished he did not have to think these things, that it was not so, that he could have a wife like everybody else, and kids like his brothers had.

He had this cousin John who was quite strange, and open about his strangeness, who started preaching and baptizing down by the River Jordan. Okay, it must be true. And if it’s true, it’s time. So of course he gets baptized. He needs to be part of this. He needs to belong to the people whom John had prepared for the coming back of God. He feels he must be last in line, and then he takes his turn, and then, I think, he gets surprised. Wonderfully surprised. By the dove and the voice. Not what he had expected. Not what baptism ever was about. For God to come down on it.

The dove. Like the dove of Noah’s Ark? The dove which had flown back and forth over the face of the flood, just as, at creation, the Spirit of God had hovered over the face of the Deep? Did Jesus wonder at this dove, and then imagine its meaning from out of his deep knowledge of scripture? Did he intuit that God had just started coming back to Israel, and coming back on him?

The voice, how great for him to hear that voice and be confirmed in all his years of study and imagination. To be recognized. To be approved. A great relief, I think, and a consolation, after all those years. And then the challenge. And the joy. Okay, let’s go. Let’s roll. He could hardly wait.

How much of what holds for Jesus holds for us? Well, you are a child of God, but none of you is a Son of God in the special ways that Jesus is. Yet one of the main points of the Christian faith is that you can claim an intimacy with the God of the universe like that of a favorite child with her daddy.

You may consider yourself the beloved of God. Not just loved, as God loves the world and everything in it, but the beloved, God’s sweetheart, you are the object of God’s affection, which is why you have a soul, for you to receive the affections of God into your life. So the purpose of your Christian life, your learning and your prayer, is to explore in your life your belovedness to God. Which does not depend on your earning it. It’s not your goal, it’s your beginning, it’s a gift to you at your beginning, and to be a Christian is to sort it out and grow into it, develop it, advance it—your belovedness to God.

And with you God is well-pleased. Before you have done anything. You do not have to justify yourself to God. Of course you can’t, but you think you must because it’s something you do all the time in your daily life. You’ve got to look good. You’ve got to look better. You’ve got to keep the approvals working. You’ve got to cover your bases and cover your you-know-what, or you may lose your place. I think there’s more guilt spread around by our New York City culture than by any religion ever made. The Park Slope way of life requires so much justification. If we fallen creatures expect this of each other, how much more must a righteous God?

But "with you I am well-pleased." Here is the entrance of God into your life. Not, "you’re fine, you’re good, you’re great." It’s not about you, it’s about God, and about God’s attitude toward you, the unshakeable affection which God has for you, which is the core of your identity, and the beginning of your life of service in the world. When you serve God in the world, for justice and for peace and for mercy and healing, you will be resisted and opposed, but not by God. Your attempts at the right thing will be half-way, and you could always do better, but this you cannot shake, "with you I am well-pleased." Unconditionally? God’s love for you is unconditional, God’s love is absolutely free, God identifies what love is just by being God. God is love.

Who are you? What is the purpose of your life? What is your own personal contribution to the healing of the world, and how can you find happiness in your life? You cannot help but ask these questions all your life, just because you are a spiritual creature. You are on a constant quest to explore this in your life. Your answers will develop through your life.

But your starting point is this, unshakeably: "Who are you?" There’s lots I don’t know about myself, but I am God’s beloved, and with me God is well-pleased. So let’s go. Let’s roll.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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