Sunday, January 9, 2011
Feel the Water; Hear the Voice
(A sermon based on Psalm 29 & Matthew 3:13-17 for the Baptism of Our Lord)
God says the same thing to you and of you that the voice of God said to and of Jesus on the day that Jesus was baptized: “This is my beloved child.”
And you need to hear it.
Some of you just need to be reminded of it because you’ve been too busy to think about it but some of you need desperately to hear it and to believe it because you have listened to and believed other voices that have said other things to you and about you for far too long. You have listened to and believed voices that have told you that you are no good or that you are stupid or that you are worthless or that you are unnecessary or that you are unwanted or that you are a burden—and you have been unable to see and to understand that such statements say far more about the person who is saying them than they say about you.
I don’t know that Jesus heard the same kinds of negative voices that some of us hear but when we consider the unusual circumstances of his birth and the unique nature of his life, it is certainly possible he dealt with whispers behind his back if not with shouts to his face—and the latter certainly did come to him later in his life. If he did hear such voices as he was moving toward adulthood, I’m sure he had the strength of character to take them for what they were and to rest in his knowledge of his Father’s love for him.
It is vital, though, that God announced right out loud so that at least Jesus—and maybe John and the others who were there—could hear, at the baptism that was the inauguration of his ministry, that Jesus was his beloved Son.
The scene strikes us as, and is traditionally pictured as, a serene one; we imagine Jesus entering the Jordan River and being baptized following which the heavens are opened and the Spirit of God comes upon him like a dove—which certainly sounds like a gentle way for the Spirit to come—and then the voice of God speaks its reassuring and empowering words.
And that may be at least part of the right way to read the scene.
On the other hand, can the heavens being opened ever be a gentle, serene event? As Jesus is baptized, the way between heaven and earth is opened up and the Spirit of God descends on Jesus and the voice of God speaks. Does the voice whisper or does it thunder? Our Psalm reading reminds us that the voice of God is heard in the amazing power of nature; who has not gone through a thunderstorm or other extreme weather event and heard the voice of Almighty God, the God of creation, thundering in the storm? Regardless of the actual tone and volume of the voice that spoke when Jesus was baptized, let us remember that it was the voice of God—the same voice that spoke into being everything that is—that spoke.
We imagine a gentle voice speaking over gentle waters at Jesus’ baptism. Maybe that’s part of the reason that we’ve done everything we can to tame the baptismal waters; in some Christian traditions just a little water is used in baptism while in ours we put nice clean water in a nice clean tub—and we even warm it up.
Perhaps in taming the waters of baptism we’re also attempting to tame the voice of God.
Granted, water can have a calming, soothing effect; in that sense, the baptismal waters, which envelope us in God’s love and grace and community, provide calm and refuge in the midst of the storm. Similarly, the voice of God can have a calming, soothing effect; in that sense, the voice of God, which assures us of God’s affirmation and acceptance, provides calm and refuge in the midst of the chaos.
Both the baptismal waters and the voice of God, though, can and do have an unsettling effect. After all, it is Almighty God with whom we are dealing and who is dealing with us; the waters that soothe and calm can also flood and devastate and the voice that affirms and accepts can also challenge and test. The baptismal waters and the voice of God both settle wild things down and set wild things in motion.
That is because to be the beloved child of God does not mean that we will have easy or safe lives; indeed, exactly the opposite is likely to be the case—the beloved children of God will have challenging and risky lives, not despite our being the children of God but because we are the children of God.
Jesus in his baptism identified himself with those who are in need of God’s grace and such identification, to which we are also called, is very risky business, as would be most dramatically proven in the course of Jesus’ life. The Spirit of the same God who affirmed Jesus as God’s Son in Jesus’ baptism immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil (4:1). The waters of baptism and the voice of the Lord accept and affirm us in the love and grace of God, but in that same grace and love they call us to put our lives at risk—to give of ourselves in whatever ways we can and in whatever ways we must—for the sake of the kingdom and for the sake of others.
[As I said something like the following, I walked around the sanctuary with a bowl of water, touching people with some of the water.]
So this morning, as we ponder the baptism of Jesus, I want you to remember your own baptism. Remember the water that enveloped you; remember the voice that affirmed you. And let the waters sweep you and let the voice drive you out into the world where your life will be given for God’s sake and for people’s sake—and for your sake.
(The image is Baptism of the Lord by Laura James and was found here.]