The Adventurous Lectionary – January 13, 2019– The Baptism of Jesus
Luke 3:15-17, 21-26
In the liturgical calendar, the Baptism of Jesus reminds us to remember our baptisms. Water gives life both physically and spiritually and while baptism is a visible sign of God’s grace, it also points beyond itself to the universality of divine love. God’s word to God’s beloved Jesus is addressed to every child. There is no “double predestination,” no one is forgotten in the circles of divine love. Providence extends to all, within and beyond the Christian family. Accordingly, the grace of baptism also calls us to see God’s grace as extending beyond those who are baptized. Baptism does not enroll us in a select camp of saved persons. If baptism becomes the ticket to God’s favor, then it contradicts the grace it affirms. While God’s grace invites us to respond, grace is always unmerited and unconditional.
The little babies I’ve baptized over the years cannot earn God’s favor. They receive it simply as God’s beloved. Later they may affirm this grace in confirmation, but grace is always prior to any achievement, including our ability to believe. Moreover, those who, like me are part of the believer’s baptism tradition, made a decision to accept Jesus and then be baptized are also receiving grace. Our response is conditioned by a love supreme that can never be earned. Our “yes” opens us to greater divine energy and possibility, but not greater love. Jesus is God’s beloved not just as a result of his piety and unique relationship with God; he is God’s beloved to show us that we are also loved by God, regardless of our past mistakes or future challenges.
The words of Isaiah 43:1-7 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.” These words are especially powerful in the context of political leaders whose words play on our fear and anger, the reptilian brain, rather than our higher, more rational, brain functions. Yes, we can feel fearful and angry at threats from our nation’s enemies, but these feelings do not excuse us from ethics or hospitality. In fact, our fears challenge us to more caring and rational in our decision-making. Isaiah’s words also address us at the edges of life: they speak to the pastor ministering to a dying congregant and the congregant who knows their days are numbered. There may not be a cure but there can be a healing.
It has been said that good theology must pass the test of being spoken in front of a grieving parent or a traumatized child. 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 and the victims of undeserved illness, misfortune, terrorism, or governmental violence. Others are defined as outside of God’s care by theologians and preachers because of their beliefs, religious tradition, life circumstances, and sexual identity. God’s love knows no borders or boundaries, but embraces each of us, calling us to trust God in the deep waters of life.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 listening to John the Baptism and also 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. Being “beloved” drives Jesus into the ambiguous world of human choice and 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 – Jesus was not a robot or automaton – but responsive 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.
The Celtic Christians speak of “thin places” where divinity and humanity are transparent to one another. There may also be “thin persons,” persons in whom God’s light shines brightly, revealing Godself in saving ways. God has volition and God can choose a certain person to be the bearer of healing, chosen to bless the earth. But the one chosen must also choose to respond, embracing her or his destiny as God’s Chosen Spirit Person. I believe that this intimate call and response describes what happened to Jesus on the Jordan River.
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, all of us are beloved and chosen, and nothing can separate us from the gentle providence of God’s love.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and writer. He is the author of over 45 books, including “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” “The Mystic in You: Finding a God-filled World,” “Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel,” and the recently-released “Process Theology and Celtic Wisdom.”