Monday, January 6, 2014

The Baptism of the LORD. A Homily for January 12, 2014, from Matthew 3:13-17.

January 12, 2014
3rd Sunday After Christmas Year A.
Matthew 3:13-17
(edited and revised from a previous 
Homily posted 1.3.11)

This Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of the LORD, which brings to an end the season of Christmas. As such, the liturgical calendar asks us to remember what actually amounts to a second epiphany, or an additional revealing of Jesus’ identity when at his baptism the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove and the Father speaks in his behalf. 

This is quite a scene. 

We have talked here before about John the Baptizer, the desert wild-man who obviously appeared to his first viewers as a prophet, a prophet who preached sin-repentance at the Jordan river and who dunked any and all who sincerely wished to be part of the new thing GOD was doing. Well, one day, Jesus shows up with the crowds in order to be baptized just like the rest of the sinners, which throws-off the Baptizer off his game,
 "I don't need to baptize you; you need to baptize me!"  
But Jesus is insistent: 
"Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."
Something is at stake here, but clearly John is unaware of its import. Is this Jesus really the one who will baptize with fire? Why then must the promised one be humbled, therefore, in a baptism of repentance?  (And be sure of this, to be dunked in water by another, if it is truly baptism, is only accomplished by an act of humility.)

The commentators seem to agree here. Jesus is acting in obedience to the will of his heavenly Father, and by this sincere gesture Jesus is identifying with John's message and with those who have repented and have been similarly dunked. That is why his obedience brings the heavenly recognition of the dove and the voice, and the real beginning of his prophetic ministry. But what does it bring to us? What does this starkly obedient spirit found within Jesus, this stark humility, offer us in the way we live as his followers and disciples? 


First, we are reminded that the path of obedience leads us through the waters of baptism, and that this initial act identifies us as part of those people committed to the Jesus-way. Said another way, the New Testament knows nothing of a non-baptized disciple, the second thief on the cross notwithstanding. For, had the thief on the cross had the opportunity for baptism this no doubt would have been part of his path as well.

To obey the Lord, then, is to be a disciple, and to be a disciple is to follow the Lord in baptism. Clearly, something happens to us in the moment of believer's baptism. Something opens before us. GOD's grace floods our being; GOD's purposed-love blankets us. What was said to the Master:
"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased"
is also spoken to us as well, spoken to our spirits. We are beloved; we are related to GOD; we are pleasing to the Father. Of course, we do not believe this, which is why it takes us a lifetime to discover this truth, and which is really the heart of discipleship.

Second, we must understand that baptism, as the first act of obedience, is merely that, the first act of a life characterized by obedience. There is no getting around this, the offer of grace is not cheap, for there is a deep cost to the Jesus-way. Remember Jesus teaching to his own hearers? 
"Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13, 14)
This text haunts me. For the most part my road has been wide and I live among the people -- those with plenty and those who wield self-will and power -- who walk the wide-way. What would the obedient narrow road mean for me? How can I find it? 

In answer I would say that what must characterize the disciple's walk for the rich and the powerful is first the actual struggle to find this narrow way. If there is no recognition of the reality of this struggle then there is no disciple walk. Of course, we can legitimately ask just where is this struggle and where does one find it, but for the church in the West there is no discipleship without this struggle, this desire to unearth the narrow way. 

But, moving forward, we could ask: Do we find the struggle of the narrow way in giving away our wealth? Is it found in the sacrificial offering of time to others and not to self-entertainment? Is it discovered in the preferential treatment of the poor and the widow and orphan? 

St. James is instructive here: 
But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:25-27
Perhaps this could be our guide. Simply, this struggle is the struggle of movement, movement from the tranquility that comes with power to the turbulence that comes from seeing the conflict of the powerlessness. It is the movement from the security of the affluence to the peril of the poor. To see this by experience is to find the narrow-way, and once there, the disciple knows what to do.

Third, the true pattern for discipleship is the obedience of Jesus himself. He is the standard and he is the goal. When compared to his humility and his obedience, we all are surely found wanting. 

What I have in mind here is his supreme obedience in the migration of the incarnation. For it is within this love-progression of the GOD's purpose -- the LORD taking on flesh -- that we find true obedience founded on love (Heb. 5:8). 

Listen to these brief texts for clues as to Jesus approach to the narrow way:
John 4:34: Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 
John 5:30: I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me. 
And, St. Paul writes:
Philippians 2:5-8: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 

Which finally brings us to the mission of Jesus, who is the Christ. This is especially brought clear from today's reading from the Hebrew Bible and from Isaiah:
1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.  (Isaiah 42:1-4; 6-7)

The prophet announces the promise that justice and deliverance will be on its way, coming from his servant. The prophet also tells us that GOD'S Spirit will rest upon this servant and through him covenant and light and freedom will be offered to the nations.

Jesus, taking on himself this motif of the suffering servant uses this text (and others) as his metaphor for ministry and life. These texts guided his words and his works. The question is, will we now join him? Will we too offer ourselves as servant (but not savior) to a world at war with itself? Will we offer ourselves up on the altar of obedience and humility (e.g. Ro.12:1,2), or will we hold to our possessions, our pride of place and position? This truly is our death-struggle.