Friday, January 10, 2014

January 12, Epiphany 1, Children of Light # 7: Baptismal Enlightenment

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

We cycle through these scripture lessons every three years, so this is the fifth time I have preached to you on these lessons for today. I don’t like to recycle old sermons, and so I keep myself fresh and I also build a sermon series by asking a recurring question of the lessons each week. Since Advent I have been asking each set of lessons how you are a Child of the Light.

Today the light is explicit in Isaiah, where God says to his chosen servant, “I have given you as a light to the nations." The light is implicit in Jesus’ baptism. The baptism of Jesus was his enlightenment. This may surprise you, because we think of enlightenment as something from other religions, like with the Buddha, or with the Hindu mystics or the Sikhs or the Sufis. But as early as the first century after Christ, when Greek philosophers were getting converted, baptism was explained as enlightenment, and even the current Roman Catholic catechism says that enlightenment is one of the four key meanings of baptism.

This may strike you as odd when baptism is most frequently a ritual for infants. But this past week I held my granddaughter when she was one-day old and just opening her eyes, and then I held her two days later and she was looking intently at everything, watching every change of light and motion and color. Her first few weeks will be literal, physical enlightenment. Your spiritual enlightenment is your being born again. Even when we baptize adults, they have to receive it like infants, newly born again.

Today the child of the light is Jesus, at his baptism, because he hears from heaven what a father tells his child. “You’re my son! You’re my beloved. I’m happy with you!” My therapist told me that I’ve been working on getting that from my dad for most of my life! Change the nouns as needed. Mother. Daughter. Jesus didn’t get it till he was thirty years old. This is the first time that his Father in heaven ever spoke to him. I don’t know that he expected it; or the dove. But I imagine it quickly made sense to him, and confirmed all kinds of intuitions and deductions he had.

What did Jesus know and when did he know it? Lately I’ve been asking that question also of our lessons every week. Many Christians work with an assumption that Jesus knew everything all the time, and that he automatically knew the full extent of his identity. Quite not so. He had to piece it together from what his parents told him and what he read in scripture, and then he had to blend it all together and mix a lot of metaphors in new and risky ways, with very daring new interpretations.

What kind of a Messiah shall I be? A warrior like David? An sage like Solomon? Like the Messiah of the prophet Micah, or of the prophet Zechariah, or of the early Isaiah or the later Isaiah? What does it mean to be the Son of God? Or rather, what shall I make it mean to be the Son of God?

He was a great mind, the Lord Jesus, a great human mind, a thinker, a student, creative, imaginative, a theologian, and an ethicist. We call the Apostle Paul as the Great Theologian, but Paul was to Jesus like Plato was to Socrates. Socrates wrote down not one thing, but his disciples did and applied and expanded what he had said. The Lord Jesus wrote no document himself, but he was the great creative mind that got this whole thing going.

I asked a colleague this week whether Jesus studied to write his sermons. How long did it take him to prepare his Sermon on the Mount? Do not let his Divinity detract from his Humanity. Don’t think he didn’t have to work diligently at developing his understanding of himself.

But at his baptism he was enlightened. It was a gift. It must have lightened the heaviness of possible uncertainty. Yes, Jesus, this is who you are. You are filled full of all the righteousness and the justice and the glory of God. And the dove confirms your intuitions. Jesus, the water, the dove. In the Torah that would be Noah, the water, and the dove. The dove with the olive branch, the dove of peace and reconciliation, the dove that means salvation is accomplished by the love of God.

It’s not what John the Baptist expected either. He had said in his preaching that he expected the Holy Spirit to come down as fire, and the Messiah would baptize them all with the fire wrath and judgment to purge away the sinful and their sin. But Jesus is here confirmed as the Messiah who proclaims the peace of the forgiveness of your sins, graciously, as a gift, without regard for your deserving it.

Here’s what I get out of this for you. Isaiah says that you are the light to the nations. You are the light of the world, as Jesus puts it a little later in Matthew. You as an individual who are part of the Christian community. For you to enlighten others, you yourself must be enlightened. Which you are, as baptized, and which you must be, as living into your baptism. And the great part of enlightenment, for Christians, is to know yourself. You are responsible to know yourself.

You are responsible to know your identity as God’s daughter or God’s son. You come to know that just as Jesus did, by diligently learning it from those who love you and imagining it from scripture and tradition, but also, when it’s just plain announced to you, you believe it.

You are responsible to know yourself as God’s beloved, and again, from both the community and scripture to deduce and imagine why that is so, and what that means.

You are responsible to know that God is well pleased with you, and why that is so. And also not why it is so.

I mean, good self-knowledge is to know what is lovable and well-pleasing in yourself. And that which is well-pleasing and lovable about yourself you should enjoy and cultivate, with self-respect. But you are also responsible to know what is weak and shoddy and selfish and sinful about yourself. You are responsible to be aware of your falsehoods and your compulsions and aggressions and how you cheat and when you discount other people and irritate and hurt them. I’m talking about confessing your sins, and I mean confessing them to yourself. Admitting them to yourself. Of course confessing them to God, and confessing them to other people whenever that is appropriate, but here I mean confessing them to yourself. To truly see yourself, which is enlightenment.

It’s difficult to do this. We learn to dissemble early on; we learn to hide, to distract, to divert, and to deceive, and we learn to do it to ourselves, from fear, from guilt, from shame, from abuse, from being wounded or corrupted or crippled in our self-awareness. Whatever. We have reason to believe we will not be well-pleasing, we will not be beloved, we will be disowned. We have reason to fear the purging and punishment of the fire God’s anger that John the Baptist was expecting.

But God’s Spirit is a dove. The flood is past, God is at peace with us, the judgment is over, even for all your future sins and your short-comings, God has seen them and judged them and forgiven them already, you are still well-pleasing and in spite of them, so that you can confess to yourself the truth about yourself without fear of being penalized for it.

The Messiah is a dove, a sacrificial animal, the sacrificial animal for the poor, and the Messiah sacrificed himself to pay the penalty for your poor soul and cancel all your guilt, so that you are free to investigate your own personal shortcomings and free to discover your own weaknesses and free to explore the ways that you are not a loving person and free to see yourself how others experience you when you are at your worst, and as free then also responsible. You are responsible to be enlightened about yourself, that you might share in giving light to the world.

That’s your testimony. That’s what you are witness of. Peter and the apostles were the witnesses of all that Jesus did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. Good for them. You are the witness of all that Jesus has done in your own life and among the people of your community. And I can tell you right now, the testimony that will give the most light to other people is not about this great miracle that God did for you or that achievement that God helped you with or that success that your spirituality gave to you, but rather the testimony of your reconciliation, of your realization of your forgiveness, of your fitful acceptance of God’s love. That’s the light that can help others get out of the prison of their fear and guilt.

You are responsible to be enlightened. But at the same time you cannot completely know yourself. As I have said before, you can be at rest in the mystery of your own life to you. You can be at peace not so much in knowing but in being known. As an infant is known by her mother. Or by her grandfather, as the case may be. You can be at rest in believing it when God says to your soul (and in Hebrew, the soul is feminine, even for men), “You are my daughter, my beloved, in you I am well-pleased.”

Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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