Lectionary Reflections on The Baptism of Jesus
The First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 13, 2013
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-27; Luke 3:15-17, 21-26
On Being Chosen. Good theological preaching is an art and not a science. While we need to take seriously the sentiments of the Hippocratic Oath, “first do no harm,” in our homiletical adventures, insightful preachers recognize that there are as many sermons as there are people in the congregation. What edifies one person may bring unnecessary pain to another. We cannot control the impact of our sermons on others, but we need to be mindful of the many twists and turns of scripture and our interpretations of the biblical message.
(For my complementary commentary for January 13, see http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary)
I happen to love the words of Isaiah 43:1-7. They proclaim the omnipresent care of a personal god, who has formed our lives from the very beginning. God redeems and calls us. We are God’s beloved and God promises that “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you…when you walk through fire you shall not be burned.” God vows that “you are precious in my sight, honored” and says “I love you.” Despite the challenges of life, we don’t need to be afraid “for God is with you.”
It has been said that good theology must pass the test of being spoken in front of a grieving parent or a child with an incurable illness or third degree burns. The words from Isaiah suggest that God is here in our grief and pain; they also imply that these blessings only fall on “everyone who is called by my name.” The issue is the meaning of “everyone” and the scope of God’s power to protect. Many people’s lives do not seem to fall into the category of “everyone” – they feel themselves outside of God’s care. Others are defined as outside of God’s care by theologians and preachers because of their beliefs, religious tradition, life circumstances, and sexual identity.
This week’s lectionary begs the questions: Does “everyone” refer only to particular people or to all humankind? If God is with us in the waters and the fires, what is the nature of God’s presence in such critical moments? In what ways was Jesus chosen as unique and different from ourselves?
The first question pertains to the extent of God’s love and agency in relationship to humankind. No pastor can escape dialogue with pluralism today. If he or she doesn’t bring it up, the congregants will. They are already thinking about “otherness” at school, the workplace, or in their own families. At the far extreme is radical Calvinism, which claims God chooses the saved and damned, elect and reprobate before the dawn of creation. Our destiny is set, period, and there is nothing we can do about it. There are no “accidents of birth.” Our final destiny and our ability to believe in God’s path are determined in advance. At the other extreme is predestined universalism. All are saved regardless of behavior or belief. In between is the Wesleyan wisdom that God calls everyone and humans have the ability to respond positively or negatively.
As I ponder the scope of salvation, I must take into consideration the impact of environment, family of origin, cultural context, and a variety of other variables including DNA and mental well-being. Faith is a communal as well as personal matter. The interdependence of life and its impact on our spirituality is often neglected by religious commentators, who either see salvation entirely as a matter of will, ours or God’s. I believe that God calls everyone but the response to the call is personal and situational. Still, God continues to call patiently, relentlessly, and eternally. No one is lost, even at death, although the pathway toward wholeness may be circuitous.
In light of the many individual and corporate tragedies of life, where is God when we pass through the waters and fires. The “slaughter of the innocents,” recorded in Matthew 2:16-18, resonates in light of Sandy Hook, Columbine, and the impact of natural disasters. Where was God in the carnage? If being “chosen” does not mean immunity from violence, accident, cancer, or depression, then what does it mean? Preachers and commentators spoke of the Sandy Hook children being “taken” by God, but if this means “allowed to be killed,” what kind of God can this mean? How can we glorify such divine decision-making?
As I ponder this passage, I am sure that God could not have deflected the bullets and may not even have been able to turn Adam Lanza aside from his acts of violence. I believe God was present in the lives of all those involved, seeking wholeness in the midst of psychological, relational, and communal chaos. Could God have inspired acts of bravery? Could some have been listening to God and others unable to hear? (This is not a judgment, but a reality of the moment.) These answers are beyond us, but I choose to affirm God’s “still, small voice” even in such moments of pain and tragedy. God cannot “do” everything; our agency and freedom is real; the impact of society and psychological factors is real; and God works within these to bring about the best possible circumstances. Surely God grieves with a world which has fallen short of God’s vision of Shalom.
Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism describes the Spirit descending on Jesus in the physical form of a dove and the pronouncement of God’s affirmation of Jesus as Beloved Child. As I ponder these words, it appears that Jesus is both one of the crowd and set apart in a unique way. Still, this blessing is not the final story or the end of Jesus’ personal and spiritual growth; he must go on retreat in the wilderness to face the temptations of his vocation. Luke’s Jesus is one of us: fully human, seeking a tangible sign of his vocation. No doubt Jesus had prepared long and hard spiritually for a day such as this. Perhaps, he and John the Baptist studied and prayed together and reflected as spiritual friends on God’s movements in their lives. I can imagine that at a particular moment, Jesus fully opened himself to God’s vision for his life. Jesus’ opening, however, was not predestined or predetermined but a response to God’s movements of illumination and grace in his life. Shaped by divine providence from childhood to adulthood, Jesus responded freely to the graces he had received. Fully alive, Jesus was fully open to embodying God’s vision in his own unique way, sharing God’s vision, energy, and power for the wholeness and salvation of humankind.
God is constantly choosing – each one of us! Divine choice emerges in light of our freedom and social context. God cannot eliminate these factors, but works tirelessly and lovingly to awaken us to the love that gives us life and light. Though apparently limited by our choices, God’s choices cannot ultimately be defeated. God’s path may be circuitous in light of the many forces that shape the world, but God never gives up one any “beloved child.” In the real world of celebration and tragedy, nothing can separate us from the gentle providence of God’s love.