January 10, 2016 – Beloved

Baptism of the Lord   January 10, 2016   Psalm 29, Genesis 1:1-2, Acts 2:37-42, Luke 3:1-18, 21-22   Beloved

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Our daughter Rohi has some odd expressions she likes to say – and one of the oddest is the way she likes to tell me, “Oh daddy, you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” While my mother was still alive, Rohi liked to call her up and say, “Granny, your beloved son would like to talk with you.” And my mother, God bless her, would say “you are indeed my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased…”

Which is kind of pleasing to hear. Yet also pretty weird. These words are wildly excessive. I really don’t see myself as much like Jesus – who is, of course, uniquely the Son of God… The one with whom God is always well pleased.

And just as I still struggle to understand all the parts of my life story – I also struggle to connect all the parts of this story of the baptism of our Lord.

All the gospels tell the story of John the Baptist and Jesus, but (in my opinion) none quite as well, or in as much loving detail as St Luke – who introduces us, first, to the parents of John and Jesus – then to infants John and Jesus in their mother’s wombs (telling us, by the way, Elizabeth and Mary, John and Jesus are all related) – then letting us listen to beautiful prophetic poetry from Mary, mother of Jesus, and Zechariah, father of John, foretelling what the adult lives of their sons will be about… And all this just in chapter one of Luke’s gospel. St Luke, who is an excellent journalist, also tells us who is in power at the time in government and in the religious community, as he prepares us to see Jesus as true king of the universe… in sharp contrast with all who hold power in the Empires of the day… then and now.

Now about thirty years have passed since the births of John and Jesus. Now here’s John, reintroduced as son of Zechariah (remember the elderly priest we met in chapter one who couldn’t quite believe the angel Gabriel’s words.) John is doing now just as the angel and his father predicted – preparing the way for the Messiah in fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah. (Prepare the way of the Lord… And all people will see the salvation of our God… )

John preaches forgiveness of sins through baptism unto repentance, meaning turning, changing direction… A type of preaching familiar to the Jewish people, much as revival preaching was familiar to the early Methodists. John Wesley famously often used John the Baptist’s stock phrase “flee the wrath to come…” to coax the complacent to come to Jesus… (Though I think Wesley usually stopped short of calling his parishioners a ‘brood of vipers…’) And revival preaching is still a popular mode of preaching in many parts of the church today. Some people enjoy revivals. Some are reached with the gospel through strongly worded sermons that cut to the heart and challenge us to discipleship…

I didn’t grow up in church, and revival preaching is usually not the kind of preaching I’m most attracted to. It’s not that I don’t believe we all need repentance and forgiveness of sins. But often what I’ve heard on radio (or tv, though we no longer watch the tube) seems a bit artificial… I know I am a sinner. I know I need to keep repenting of sins… But as soon as I hear the refrain that I can order a copy of the full sermon for an offering of 19.95 or more… That’s when I usually turn the radio off…

But I can imagine myself wanting to hear John the Baptist, because, like the classical prophets of Israel (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, etc…) John not only indicts us for the sins we’re actually most guilty of – especially idolatry and favoring the rich over the poor – John also gives us biblically grounded specific counsel about what repentance looks like – much more so than most revival preachers I’ve heard of. John is not just preaching abstract repentance. John is preaching changed lives that must be the evidence of repentance. Which is a sermon we still need to hear… And many of us respond to even a strong tough love message, when we know it is authentic…

And as the people are moved by John’s preaching they ask, “what then should we do?” (Notice people actually ask this question three times in one sermon – which sounds like a preacher’s dream.) And John answers: “those with two coats must share with those with none, and those with plenty of food, must do likewise.”

And when tax collectors ask “what should we do?” John tells them ‘collect only what’s due.’ Tax collectors were subcontractors for the Empire. Rome let them enrich themselves through extortion, instead of paying a fair wage. Soldiers, also working for Rome, often supplemented their pay through shakedowns or collecting “protection” money. So John says ‘be content, live on your wages.’

And yes, John the Baptist is the warm-up band for Jesus, not the main event, so we may properly ask if John’s preaching is really the gospel. But Luke calls John’s message “good news” – the literal meaning of the word gospel. And Jesus himself chooses to be baptized by John… Showing solidarity and continuity with the prophets who came before him (of whom he calls John the greatest)…

And in our reading from the book of Acts we see people on the day of Pentecost asking the same “What should we do?” question asked of John. And the apostle Peter confirms John’s message, as he says “repent and be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit… And by the end of this passage in Acts believers have rearranged their lives to revolve now around Jesus, practicing daily prayer and study and fellowship – and reading on, we see believers sharing, just as John said to do – those with more than enough sharing all they have with those with not enough..A beautiful foretaste of the kingdom of God….

But still we have this troublesome mix of imagery – along with the beautiful – still also rather grim images – the ax being at the foot of the tree, and woe to those who don’t bear good fruit, and look out, you brood of vipers! Such a mix of heavy metaphors, admittedly all designed to provoke repentance, yet sending ripples of anxiety through the narrative of John’s baptismal ministry…

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Till suddenly – here is Jesus – the one John’s been talking about – who will baptize you with fire and Holy Spirit… And here is Jesus himself now, baptized by John, along with sinners…

And when Jesus has been baptized, we see him still by the water, praying… and…

Heaven opens, and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove alighting upon him….

And he hears the voice from heaven, saying –

“You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

And notice, it is only in this time of prayer – (after submitting to baptism by one not worthy to untie his sandals…) that the Son of God hears the voice of God the Father, saying “You are my Son, the Beloved… with you I am well pleased…”

It’s still remarkable for me that Jesus prays. He is God – why should he need to pray? But he does. Often. Maybe because he’s also truly human. For whatever mix of reasons, Jesus prays.

In a clergy group meeting last week we were talking about prayer. Several members of our group mentioned prayer being described as two-thirds listening to God, and (only) one-third talking to God…(A challenging concept for talkers like me…)

And as I’ve tried to be a better listener in my prayer time… I’ve been thinking about the funeral I did last week (for a neighbor)… Where I was struck by the opening words in our Methodist funeral liturgy – where we say:

“Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life.

Christ will come again in glory….

As in baptism (we) put on Christ, So in Christ may (we) be clothed with glory…”

And here’s the part that struck me most. Our funeral liturgy next says:

Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children.

What we shall be has not yet been revealed, but we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him… For we shall see him as he is.

Those who have this hope purify themselves – as Christ is pure…”

And I’m thinking – Wow. Are we really already children of God? Here and now?

Could our daughter Rohi be right? Am even I really God’s beloved son? Now?

My daughter and mother have said so – but – they are not exactly impartial. And I also hear another voice – that could be Jesus – saying ‘So alright, then beloved child of God. How about lets’ get back to work on the ‘With you I am well pleased…part of the phrase… That part still needs attention…’

And yes, we still have the ongoing spiritual work of purification… especially through prayer… prayerful listening to God…

And probably it’s no accident St Luke tells the story the way he does… Starting in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel… Continuing in Acts, Luke’s volume two, where followers of Jesus continue doing all Jesus began to do and teach…

Baptizing with water – with the Holy Spirit entering again (and yet again)… into the life of the beloved community of children of God… Fire from heaven falling afresh on us, descending, burning away the chaff of our sins and fears… purifying us for Jesus’ sake… til we too are bearing the good fruit of the Spirit… bringing forth love, joy, peace, patience… kindness, generosity… faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… All the fruit of the Spirit…

As we remember our baptism and follow Jesus… Remembering who we are, whose we are, and who we are becoming through baptism… traveling on with the Holy Spirit, by God’s grace…

Beloved children of God, with whom God is well-pleased. Already, here and now. Because when God looks at us, and remembers our baptism…

Now God sees Jesus, alive in us… Listening to Him.

That is pleasing to God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.