Like a dove, God’s Spirit descends among us;
Settling us in a sacred space, a safe place, a sanctuary; and consecrating us for service in love.
Awake, children of God! Feel God’s loving embrace;
and in response, glorify and praise God’s name.
Let us worship together!
The words of judgment are over; God is now ready to do a new and totally different thing. The day of salvation is at hand.
- Fred Craddock
Last week we celebrated Epiphany: the showing forth or manifestation of Jesus as God’s Christ. It is appropriate that we celebrate the epiphany of the Christ alongside his birth, because, as I mentioned last week, it is not enough to see the man Jesus and give him the name and nature of our choosing. In so doing we mold him in our own image and likeness. Quite the contrary, the spiritual life requires that we see the Christ revealed in his true nature - that we see him through the eyes of faith as God’s Chosen - and be molded into his likeness.
The story of the Magi is followed in the gospels by the baptism of Jesus that we celebrate today. Please allow me to share with you Lukes brief yet powerful rendering of this scene, the baptism of Jesus by John in the river Jordan, found in Luke 3.16-22 (The Voice):
I baptize you with water, but One is coming—One far more powerful than I, One whose sandals I am not worthy to untie—who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is coming like a farmer at harvesttime, tools in hand to separate the wheat from the chaff. He will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, and He will gather the genuine wheat into His barn. He preached with many other provocative figures of speech and so conveyed God’s message to the people—the time had come to rethink everything. But John’s public preaching ended when he confronted Herod, the ruler of Galilee, for his many corrupt deeds, including taking Herodias, the ruler’s sister-in-law, as his own wife. Herod responded by throwing John into prison. But before John’s imprisonment, when he was still preaching and ritually cleansing through baptism the people in the Jordan River, Jesus also came to him to be baptized. As Jesus prayed, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit came upon Him in a physical manifestation that resembled a dove. A voice echoed out from heaven. You are My Son, the Son I love, and in You I take great pleasure.
At first glance there is nothing exciting about this story; nothing that captures the imagination and inspires drama. Jesus’ baptism appears as one of the many preparatory events for his active ministry, events that tie him to ancient prophecy and, especially, to their messianic expectations. We are all familiar with the scene: John appears in the Galilean wilderness dressed in coarse robes of camel’s hair, and dieting on locusts and wild honey. And by the banks of the Jordan he forcefully proclaims the advent of God’s reign and proposes a baptism of repentance; a baptism that is to be a preparation for a mysterious someone who is to follow him and baptize with fire. Rustic folk come out from neighboring villages to be baptized by John, and scattered here and there in their midst one might spot, perhaps, one or two synagogue officials quietly keeping an eye on this new movement. Finally Jesus arrives asking to receive John’s baptism of repentance and, after some hesitation, John obliges the request.
There is nothing unusual about this scene; nothing particularly dramatic… until its conclusion. Then something truly exciting occurs. Indeed, something awe-inspiring occurs, for just as he is coming up from the water Jesus has a vision of a dove descending from the heavens. Before Jesus can recover from this surprising development, a divine voice proclaims to all within earshot, “You are My Son, the Son I love, and in You I take great pleasure.”
The story ends here in an abrupt silence, for Luke moves immediately to the next narrative in the life of Jesus, the list of his ancestors. Despite the awe-inspiring development at the baptism scene’s conclusion, that is, Luke offers no reaction to the vision or the divine voice from Jesus, from John, or from the people who are gathered there. Nor does Luke provide editorial comment or commentary on the scene. It ends in an abrupt silence; yet, if we listen closely - if we pay close attention to the voice that follows the dove from the heavens - we may find that there is meaning and to spare in the conclusion of this story.
“You are My Son, the Son I love, and in You I take great pleasure.” There is a strong resemblance between this statement and a passage from Isaiah 42. Through the words of the prophet Isaiah, a divine voice there proclaims, “Here is my chosen; here is my servant whom I care for and in whom I am well pleased.” Clearly the message in Luke’s story echoes this divine pronouncement and links the two passages. In Isaiah, God’s chosen is announced to the people in exile – a people who had known little save judgment and hardship, and who had been scattered around the known world – to such people as this, Isaiah announces God’s servant who will bring about something new in their lives.
Here lies the heart of Isaiah 42 and by extension Luke’s baptism story; God is about to do something new. Indeed, here lies the heart of Isaiah’s global message; the divine pronouncement of something new that will occur in the midst of the people. This message is succinctly stated in 43:19, “I am about to do a new thing,” God proclaims, “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Can you see it? God asks in so many words. Can you recognize and embrace the new thing that I will do?
Given this background, it seems that Luke’s divine voice need not stop with the announcement of God’s chosen. In fact, for those with ears to hear it continues; Here is my chosen in whom, through whom I will do something new. Can you see it? Can you see it resting on his shoulder like a dove? Can you see it in his eyes; hear it in his voice? I am about to do something new!
We are compelled to ask, however, what is this new thing that God wants to accomplish in our midst? Lacking an immediate response from Luke, perhaps Isaiah can help us answer this significant question. In his day Isaiah delivered a message of comfort and hope to a people in exile. To these people he offered a message of comfort and hope. There have been enough words of judgment Isaiah insists, it’s now time to comfort the people Israel.
Isaiah offered a message of comfort and hope; the comfort afforded by God’s presence and care, and the hope of deliverance. Yet Isaiah’s is a realistic hope, because God’s servant will make his way to deliverance and redemption not as a conquering hero marching triumphantly to claim his spoils, but rather as one who persists through weakness and suffering. Not by avoiding brokenness and pain will God’s servant bring deliverance; not by turning his face and fleeing, but by turning to face the darkness …with God by his side. A suffering servant who will bend but not break; such is the one through whom God will do something new.
Yet, even as the exiles heard this voice of comfort; even as they embraced something of the hope it offered, they were left with a question, Who is God’s chosen? Isaiah’s message is ambiguous at this point. At times he speaks of an individual who will rise up in the midst of Israel and stand on its behalf; a chosen servant who will bring justice and deliverance not only to Israel, but through Israel to all the nations. At other times, however, Isaiah seems to speak of Israel itself as God’s chosen. It was for Israel to learn slowly that both were true, that God’s chosen servant would be lifted up in their midst; but that they too – the many - were to be molded in the image of God’s chosen. They too were to sing the servant’s song. They would become the hands and feet, the eyes, the voice that would bring about deliverance, justice, and peace to the nations.
Now, perhaps, we can interpret the divine voice in Luke’s story. I am about to do something new through my chosen servant, God says, through this one who will sing the servant’s song. Like Israel in Isaiah’s day, Luke and the first generation of Christians slowly began to learn something of that new song, that new thing that God would accomplish in their lives and in their world. They learned ever so slowly that the servant’s song must sometimes be sung in a minor key; they learned, that is, that redemption is brought about not by avoiding suffering, but through suffering itself; not by turning to flee its reality, but by turning to face its darkness, and with God by their side to see their way through the darkness to a new light of deliverance. They also learned slowly, ever so slowly, that they - the many - were to be molded in the image of God’s chosen, that they were to sing the servant’s song, that they were to be the hands and the feet, the eyes and the voice, the will and the heart through which God would bring about redemption and light in their world.
In a real sense, the conclusion of Luke’s baptism story provides a glimpse of everything that will happen in the rest of the gospel… for those with the ears to hear. Through the divine voice, God announces that he is about to do something brand spanking new through Jesus. And the divine voice echoes still in our midst if we will but open our ears. God still proclaims, I am about to do something new in your midst. Can you see it? Can you embrace it?
What might that new thing be in our day? I can well imagine that for some it might be a first taste of God’s loving embrace. There may be many who have been held captive by estrangement, addiction, or guilt, and because of these fetters have been unable to taste God’s loving embrace. For such as these, God’s new thing may very well be a first embrace of love, compassion, and grace. For others it may well be the recognition that they – the many - are to be molded in the image of God’s chosen, and to become the hands and the feet, the voice, the eyes and the heart through which God’s chosen will effect release and reconciliation in our world.
Whatever the new thing that God wants to do in your life, in our lives, in our community, and in our larger world, it’s springing forth even as we speak. For we too have been called to sing the servant’s song, and to embrace God’s new thing in our day. Now it springs forth; can we see it? Now it is appearing; will we embrace it? Now – in every now - God is doing something new; will we allow it to come about through us?