Identity!

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Identity!

Matthew 3: 13-17

January 8th 2017

 

Someone once said that “Sermons are like biscuits. They could all do with a little shortening.” So it is with introductions, they need to be short and briefly identify the speaker and the topic. Then the introducer beckons the speaker to the podium and sits down. I apologize in advance for the length of this sermon and my justification is that without the length introduction the latter will not make sense..

The task that faces Matthew as he begins his account and specifically in our test today is to answer the question of who this Jeshua of Nazareth is. This is when Jesus’ identity is made known publicly and explicitly. It is when others begin to recognize accurately who Jesus is.

As we said a couple of weeks ago now, Matthew seeks to place Jesus in the Hebrew History. We remember this Jesus is a Nazarene from the old northern kingdom and his ministry is within the Judah region. His lineage needs cleaning up. Matthew has his opening genealogy place Jesus squarely in the Moses tradition and the in the Davidic line. We also suggested that he was expansive in that he was not above reinterpreting the ancient texts to make his point. Keeping his intro short perhaps. But with today’s text Matthew is expanding even more as he begins to shape the identity of Jesus within the theological story of Judaism. His story of the Baptism of Jesus is rooted deeply in the tradition and even though the leaps are considerable the audience will hear the connections and get the message of just who this Jesus is. The first story undergirding the Baptism is from Exodus where we hear of the story of the children of Israel crossing what was called the Red Sea. I say called the Red Sea because the words Red Sea do not occur in the text. That was a King James mistranslation that has been carried on over the years. If the children had crossed the Red Sea they would have had to go in the opposite direction than towards the promised land. The Hebrew words actually used were Yam Suph. Yam meaning sea and surph meaning reeds. This was a place north of their starting point and on a direct root towards their destination The Red Sea noted was a mass of swampy land between Africa and the Arabian Peninsular.

 

Slave people, traveling with little more than clothes on their backs, would have been able to navigate this swampy land even if with some difficulty whereas an Egyptian army with horse drawn chariots and soldiers clad in armour with heavy weapons would sink into the mire this allowing the slave people to get beyond their reach. As the story is told and retold over 250 to 300 years orally it is no wonder that it would grow in grandiosity and even super-naturalness, becoming a favourite tale of the Hebrew people. The message was that God was present in the life of the people and delivered them from peril. And just to firm this claim of building national identity we are aware that this story is retold on three other ocassions. Joshua, Moses successor repeated the Moses water crossing miracle when he was said to have been able to cross over the flooded waters of the Jordan river on dry land with all the people who travelled from Egypt. Here again the message is that God has not abandoned them even though Moses is now dead. Red Sea story number two.

 

The next story is where Elijah who was called the father of the prophets, is said to have journeyed into the wilderness with Elisha, his chosen successor to have a rendezvous with God and on the way they had to cross the Jordan River. At the river’s edge and in the presence of “fifty men of the sons of the prophets” Elijah took his mantle rolled it up and struck the waters of the Jordan river with it. In this action Elijah is seen as the one who was endowed with Moses power. The waters of the river were parted and Elijah and Elisha crossed on dry land. Red Sea Three.

 

We then see a repeat by Elisha indicating the transition of power has been successful. God is clearly with Elisha. Red Sea Four.

 

What is clearly shaping up is the Baptism story in that theological context. The author of Matthew would have known about their parting of the waters traditions in the sacred stories and most of the audience of the gospel will have understood the background to Matthew’s story of Jesus baptism. The others less schooled would have understood the story a a remembered even in history. In his first adult story of Jesus Matthew brought this central figure to the edge of the waters of the Jordan River convinced that Jesus was the one to who Moses had pointed. He was also convinced that this Jesus was even greater than Moses and his story includes this thinking.

 

When Jesus steps into the waters of the Jordan River it is not the waters that are parted. That would be too mundane for Matthew’s Jesus as that had been done on three different occasions in the old stories. Four if one counts the parting of the Red Sea. For Matthew it is not the waters but rather the heavens that are parted. Here we have Matthew referring to the Genesis story of creation. The waters are separated and the firmament from the waters and God called the firmament heaven. For Matthew when Jesus was baptized God opened the firmament that separated the waters above from the waters below and thus the heavenly waters were parted. Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha parted the waters of the Jordan River whereas this new and greater Moses parts heavenly waters which then poured down on him as Holy Spirit. Here we have the Living Water which is the symbol of the Holy Spirit in Jewish thought identifying Jesus as the one who has been God-infused.. The message of the earlier birth story has now been completed when God enters him anew and publically at his baptism. Here we also have the one up man-ship of Matthew where Mark who began with the baptism experience of divine infusion is trumped by Matthew who claims that baptism simply conforms what his miraculous birth had already proclaimed. God is the source of this life. God is present in this life, God will be encountered through this life. He confirms this with his closing remark where after having incorporated all the Hebrew themes in his story he has the voice say, “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased”. In doing this he echo’s the prophet we call Isaiah 2 who when his mythical figure who will be known as “the Servant” or ‘the suffering servant’ emerges on the stage of history.

 

So, by including the story of Jesus baptism, Matthew is solidifying Jesus’ Mosaic identity. This new Moses can also split waters, but the waters he splits are the heavenly waters beyond the firmament. The voice of God has validated Jesus just as the voices of the sons of the prophets had validated Elisha, the Messiah is now ready to begin his career.

Having argued that Matthew is following a very strict agenda in his building of Jesus Identity we cannot be surprised that what comes next is the forty days in the wilderness. We note here that it is forty days and not forty years as in the tradition but more importantly is that there is a need for the chosen people to discover what that meant. For Jesus it meant that he must walk through the world–including during a trip home to Nazareth on the streets of his own neighbourhood–knowing that who he is linked to want he is called to do but unable to cry out his identity, unable to share this understanding.  Throughout all that time, he is a stranger to those who purport to love him.  In what must be a cruel irony, only the demons he encounters recognize him for who he truly is.

Here we have a common literary motif: the character who supposedly knows his identity but cannot declare it, who must walk through the world hidden in plain sight.  It is a painful thing, difficult to read or watch.  Strider is secretly Aragorn, the heir to the throne of men in Lord of the Rings.  He lives in shadows, conflicted about the discovery of his true name.  Clark Kent is really Superman.  His alternating urges to reveal himself and to remain in disguise so conflict that he removes and replaces his eyeglasses as a nervous tic.

The question posed is, “What would it be like to walk through the world in this way, hidden in plain sight, unrecognized even by those who love us?”  But then it occurs to us that we already know the answer.  Writers return again and again to this notion not because it is tantalizing fiction, but because it is agonizing reality.  We, each of us, travel the streets of our hometowns, the hallways of our workplaces, even the rooms of our very homes, with our true identities unknown to any but ourselves. Think about it!

Think how often both the accolades and the criticisms we receive seem to be spoken about someone else, about some stranger who only vaguely reminds us of ourselves.  Consider when your most beloved gazes upon your face, and you know full well that he or she is really looking at an opaque mask. Body language theory says a very important part but still not all. A good marriage is said to be one where these masks come off.

Remember those times when you believe if the world just knew the real you it would love you and rejoice in you, along with those times when you feel quite sure if the world knew the real you it would recoil in fear and disgust. Think of the times you want to cry out your identity, to rip Clark Kent’s glasses from your nose, to emerge from the shadows and claim your true name.

And one has to admit it is easy to admit the irony that the only ones who truly seem to know you–the real you–are your own demons: your own self-doubts, your anxieties, your weaknesses toward vice.  The demons know your identity, even when no one else does.

However, today, above all other days, we are reminded that there is more than this, a greater awareness.  On this day of the Baptism of our Lord, we are called to remember into whom we are baptized.  At his own baptism, God spoke to Jesus, and half a Gospel later God spoke to the disciples, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We progressives would say that the story makes sense not in its literal sense but rather in that deep within when we engage fully with our God, however we speak of it, we remember our connection with the whole human race, with the earth on which we live and in the vast cosmos that is our existence.

Here we have the identity of Jesus.  And in baptism, in this sacrament that rehearses the action to which Jesus consented at the hands of John the Baptist, Jesus’ identity becomes our own true selves.  We emerge from the water reborn into him so to speak.  The challenge is for us to remember that baptism is not primarily about the opportunity to unpack granddad’s traditional christening gown or take family photos or eat good cake.  Baptism is the sacramental moment in which we declare–in which it is declared that we no longer need Clark Kent’s glasses.  We no longer need to mute our tongues from declaring who we are.  We no longer need to duck into the shadows for fear of exposure to the world.  Because who we are–who you and I only and truly are–are the sons and daughters of God. Or in our language we are followers of the Jesus Way. That is our identity. That is what makes us unique, not in the sense that we are any different from anyone else but in the sense of that is what identifies us. That identity is etched upon us more deeply than any mask.  Its beauty smoothes all ugliness.  Its truth silences the mocking laughter of the demons.

It turns out that even we did not truly know ourselves.  What we secretly thought we were, in both our best and our worst moments, was wrong.  We are neither the expert nor the fraud, the angel nor the monster, the beauty nor the beast.  The truth of us is far simpler and far more glorious.  We are the baptized, bearing the seal of the Holy Spirit on our brows just as the dove alighted on Jesus.  We can walk the streets of our neighbourhoods, the hallways of our workplaces, the rooms of our homes–indeed, we can look in the mirror–and say, “Look at me, the real me.  Yes I am a child of God like all of you. Yes I am beloved like all of you and like you God is well pleased with me. Amen.

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