Nurtured and Enlivened

Posted: January 8, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 3:13-17

Nurtured and Enlivened

Here we are again at the first Sunday after Epiphany and at the edge of the river Jordan with Jesus and John, During the past week of so some of us have undertaken the post-Christmas ritual of disassembling the Christmas tree and the putting away the cards and decorations for another year. The fairy lights and decorated wreaths have been packed away and Jesus wants to be baptized, but John is reluctant to agree: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?”  But Jesus insists, receives John’s baptism of repentance, and experiences a moment of divine revelation as he comes up out of the water.

The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek, “epiphaneia,” meaning “appearing” or “revealing.”  During this brief liturgical season between Christmas and Lent, we’re invited to leave miraculous births and angel choirs behind, and seek the love, majesty, and power of God in seemingly mundane things.  Rivers.  Voices.  Doves.  Clouds.  Holy hands covering ours, lowering us into the water of repentance and new life.  In the Gospel stories we read during this season, God parts the curtain for brief, shimmering moments, allowing us to look beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces of our lives, and catch glimpses of the extraordinary.  Which is perhaps another way of describing the sacrament of baptism, one of the thin places where the “extraordinary” of God’s grace blesses the ordinary water we stand in.

About now the home cupboards and the hideaways under beds have once again received their annual ‘gifts’ and will not be invaded for another 11 months, or at least till a birthday or an anniversary gives reason for their extraction. It’s back to reality time! Time to get back into the public demands of commuting and work and all that. So, in the spirit of this so-called ‘return to reality’ we might ask a couple of questions. How do we prepare to step out into the public spotlight? And how do we act once we are out in the public view?

Parties, media releases and performances are the usual ways folk are introduced into public view. But something doesn’t seem adequate about this approach. Rex Hunt raises this question and called to mind an article he read in a 1970s copy of On the Move – a magazine produced by the then Joint Board of Christian Education – and written by former Victorian, Doug Mackenzie.

The query was; how can we in the church expand our rituals, our celebrations, to include those important special stages of life – such as applying for a first job, or leaving home to go to university, or heading off overseas for 12 months? Another way is to ask what does the season of epiphany have to say to this getting back to reality or this nurturing and enlivening of entry engagement in the world beyond the celebrations? Or what rituals can we, the church, encourage, invent, celebrate, as those among us step out into the public spotlight in these ‘first time’ public events?

We are left with the conclusion that we really haven’t seen the necessity of doing that yet.
Perhaps it is caught up in the ‘too hard’ basket. Or got lost in the so-called ‘sacred/secular’ debate. On the other hand the church has been reasonably successful in acknowledging how one is introduced into public ministry. In mine and others cases, for instance, the ritual was ordination. The baptism of Jesus, as told by the storyteller Matthew, is the church’s traditional ritual story of the ‘coming out’ of Jesus into the public spotlight, or as we might say stepping into reality. And while Jesus may have been reticent to claim titles for himself, others, such as Matthew, were quick to do so. For Matthew, this ‘coming out’ or ‘stepping into’ is of the one who will “establish justice upon the earth”.. through tenderness and vulnerability rather than force.

New Testament scholars now tell us the baptism of Jesus has distinctive characteristics in Matthew’s story. For instance, only Matthew:  includes a conversation between John the baptizer and Jesus. Only Matthew recounts John’s resistance to the baptism request;
Only Matthew stresses the public character of the baptism – the ‘voice’ addresses everyone. And we know that the baptism of Jesus was a very controversial subject. John was not the first to baptize people. Jews baptised ‘outsiders’ into their faith, but did not baptize other Jews. Jesus was a Jew.

William Barclay picks up this point in his commentary on Matthew: “No Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism…” (Barclay 1956:52-53).

We also remember here that Jesus’ baptism is mentioned only in the Synoptic Gospels, and not as ‘historical reports’ but as Christian accounts of an existing practice within the Christian community. A community that was clearly uneasy with the idea of John the Dipper baptizing Jesus, and we note here that the John baptism was not a Christian baptism! It is also important to note that grounding the Sacrament of Baptism in the New Testament as some are wont to do, is a tricky business.  There is no consistent New Testament view of Baptism so that understanding should be abandoned.  Even when we examine the genuine Pauline letters it is impossible to determine the origin of Christian baptism These were all important issues for members of the early Jesus Movement communities. Especially the debate around the different style and theology of Jesus and his cousin John, the baptizer!

John Dominic Crossan also puts this in context for us: He says; “The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful” (Crossan 1991:232). Here we have a difference between Conservatives and progressives. We have been taught by conservatives and traditionalists that Jesus was born and led a ‘sinless’ life. Like us, but not one of us. So was Jesus just participating in a public relations exercise by setting a good public example?

Others have suggested that maybe Jesus did not see himself as beyond the need for repentance. He was content to be identified along with the tax collectors, the lowly, the outsider. Maybe he felt an acute need to share the baptism of repentance.

Bruce Prewer, retired Uniting Church minister, says: “Jesus was baptised along beside the common human herd, because he was one of us and saw himself as one of us.  He did not play the role of being a human being; he was one.  His dipping in the river was neither setting a good example nor a public relations exercise for the best of reasons…  If this leaves us in a doctrinal tangle about the so-called sinlessness of Jesus, too bad.  I would far prefer a tangle, a dilemma, a paradox, than compromise [his] essential humanity…”  (BPrewer Web site, 2005).

Much doctrinal ‘bothering’ has gone on over the years around this issue.  In Matthew’s era and in our era there have been differences of opinion. And no doubt all of you will have your own opinion on this issue as well. We can be pretty sure when Matthew told this story, he told it very sensitively and aware of the raging debates of his time. But we can also be inclined to take the view that the reason he told this story was not doctrinal, but to lure his hearers away from all those ‘tangles’ to the life of the man Jesus whos’ vision would enlarge their experiences of God.

Today, we are invited to recall the public ‘coming out’ of Jesus, or as I prefer, ‘the stepping into reality that was: Jesus’ baptism. And by association we are also being invited to recall our own baptism. For the refreshing waters of baptism enlivens, and nurtures us each new day. But more than that, it reminds us that we live in God and that Creativity God lives and comes to wonderful expression, in us. And surely that’s worth ‘coming out of sacred exclusion’ or stepping into reality and celebrating our enlivening.

Someone once wrote that on the day they were baptized, they had no felt sense that they were giving themselves over to something larger, older, wiser, and more capacious than their own one-on-one with Christianity.  Baptism, she thought, was all about her effort, her obedience, her responsibility.  So much depended on her!  There were so many ways she could mess up and she had no idea that her “personal decision to love God,” important though it is, pales in significance to God’s cosmic decision to love her — and the whole of humanity and creation along with her.  She didn’t know that God was ushering her into a Story — a huge, sprawling Story that began eons before she showed up in church with tiny fistfuls of belief.

In other words, she didn’t know the paradoxical power of coming out of or stepping into.  Of giving herself over to something deeper and more trustworthy than the shifting sands of her own opinions, creeds, and doctrines: an ancient cloud of witnesses.  A worldwide community of the faithful.  A liturgy that endures.  A created universe that whispers, laughs, and shouts God’s name from every nook and corner.

John Dominic Crossan reminds us again that, Jesus’s baptism story was an “acute embarrassment” for the early Church, precisely because of this coming out of the sacred or stepping into reality.  Why would God’s Messiah place himself under the tutelage of a rabble-rouser like John the Baptist?  Why would God’s incarnate Son receive a baptism of repentance?  Repentance for what?  Wasn’t he perfect? Why on earth would he wade into the murky waters of the Jordan, aligning himself with the great unwashed who teemed into the wilderness, reeking of sin?  Worse, why did God the Father choose that sordid moment to part the clouds and call his Son beloved?  A moment well before all the miracles, the healings, the exorcisms, the resurrections?  A moment long before Jesus accomplished a thing worth praising?

Why, indeed?  And yet this is the baffling, humbling, awe-inspiring story we’ve inherited as Christ’s followers. Unbelievable though it may seem, Jesus’s first public act was an act of stepping into his humanity in the fullest, most embodied way.  “Let it be so,” he told John, echoing the radical consent of his mother, Mary, who raised him in the faith.   Let it be so at the hands of another, he decided, as he submitted to John the Baptizer, because what Jesus did and still does with the power of his story is to freely surrender it, share it, give it away.  Let it be so here, he said, in the Jordan River rich with sacred history.  The Jordan where once upon a time his forbears, the ancient Israelites, entered the land of Canaan.  The Jordan where the prophet Elijah ended his prophetic ministry, and his successor Elisha inaugurated his.  The Jordan which flowed under the same “opened” sky God first opened “in the beginning,” at the very dawn of Creation.

In other words, in this one moment, in this one act, Jesus stepped into the whole Story of God’s work on earth, and allowed that story to resonate, deepen, and find completion.

So.  What part of this story is hardest for us to take in?  That God appears by means so unimpressive, so familiar, we often miss him?  That Jesus enters joyfully into the full messiness of the human family?  That our baptisms bind us to all of humanity — not in theory, but in the flesh — such that you and I are kin, responsible for each other in ways we fail too often to honour?  That as Christians we are called into radical solidarity, not radical separateness?  We have nothing to say that demands others listen, nothing to say that needs to be heard, nothing to demand for a better world. Rather, the message we live is that we are always and already God’s Beloved — not because we’ve done anything to earn it, but because God’s very nature, inclination, and desire is to love?

To embrace the biblical baptism story is to embrace the core truth that we are united, interdependent, connected, and one.  Our baptism is the challenge to sit with the staggering reality that we are deeply, deeply loved.  Can we bear to embrace these mind-bending truths without flinching away in self-consciousness, cynicism, suspicion, or shame?

We might well be coming to terms with the truths of our baptism; and we might keep doing so for as long as we live.  But we don’t need to have angst about belief as we used to; We believe and disbelieve a hundred times a day, and yet the efficacy of our baptism holds.  That is the point — we are held.  Not by our own profession of faith, but by the nurturing and enlivening power of the sacred that holds history, time, earth and sun and wind and sky, and holds you and me.  The sacred who parts the clouds, blesses the water, and calls us a beloved child.

Baptism — we might understand now — is all about coming out of the closeted safety of the old story and stepping into reality, and it is all about surrender to a vulnerability, all about finding the holy in the course of our ordinary, mundane lives within the family of God.  Which means we must choose Epiphany.  Choose it, and then practice it.  The challenge is always before all of us: look again.  Look harder.  See freshly.  Stand in the place that looks utterly ordinary, and regardless of how scared or jaded we might feel, cling to the possibility of a surprise that is God. Listen to the ordinary, and know that it is infused with divine mystery.  Epiphany is deep water — we can’t just dip our toes in it.  We must take a deep breath and plunge.  Why? Because baptism promises new life, but it always drowns before it resurrects.

And if all this is about the love of the one, we name God, what about Jesus? What reason for Christian hope, then?  What shall we hang onto in this uncertain season of light and shadow? Well! For me Jesus is still the centre of my faith and I cannot do without him. For me he is hope itself. He’s the one who shows that the barriers can be opened, and he’s the one who shows us the God we long for.  He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that will tell us who we are and in whose likeness whose we are. Here it is; Emmanuel! God with us!

And the nurturing nature of this God within claims that we are all God’s chosen and God’s children cannot do without God.  God’s own.  Even in the deepest, darkest water, we are always and ever the Beloved. Amen.

Notes:
Barclay, W. The Gospel According to Matthew. Scotland. St Andrew’s Press, 1956.

(Hunt & Jenks. Wisdom & Imagination, Melbourne. Morning Star Publishing, 2014) ALSO Hunt, R. A. E. When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2016.

Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.

Debie Thomas: debie.thomas1@gmail.com

rexae74@gmail.com

 

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