Now that I posted my little sermon from this past week, I am reminded that I preached a few weeks ago at “real” church (two churches, in fact!) Barry had surgery on a Tuesday and was thinking that he would be ready to be driven to his usual two-point charge and be able to preach while sitting. By Thursday he was beginning to realize that that plan was rather optimistic and he would not be able to do that. I stepped in for him. Following is the text I used to preach at Knox Presbyterian in Briercrest and at St. Mark’s Presbyterian in Moose Jaw.
When Barry first started thinking that he wouldn’t be able to come this morning and I (mostly) jokingly said I could preach, I had no thoughts about Jesus’ baptism. I mean, I had obviously read the story and hear other people preach about it, but I had not spent any significant time thinking about what it might mean for me. And that is the first step in being able to preach about anything, I think.
So, setting the joking aside, I read the passage and started to think, and asked the Spirit whether there was something there for me, and if for me then for you all as well. The next day, I was reading Richard Rohr’s meditation and came across something that gave me pause. He said, “Jesus invariably emphasized inner motivation and intention. . .Jesus made religion about interior change and purity of heart more than visible behaviours or rituals or anything that would have social payoff or punishment.”
First of all, this caught my attention because of this focus on the interior – intention and motivation – is surprisingly new to me. I grew up going to church and have identified with Christians as my ‘tribe’ my whole life. I’m not sure if it was the messages people intended to send, or me as the receiver, but I definitely understood that the most important aspect of my relationship with God was how I behaved on the outside. That’s how everyone knows you’re part of the group – you act like them. So, now that I am learning about the importance of the interior, when I read something from a theologian like Rohr saying that God is interested in what’s inside more than what’s outside, I write it down to help my own understanding and growth. But I know that whatever I’ve experiences is not likely to be unique, so if it’s helpful for me, it may be helpful for others. I wrote it down and thought about how it might be pertinent to the baptism of Jesus. I think it’s important. So, let’s hold onto this emphasis Jesus has on our interior life.
The second thing I noticed in what Rohr said is that Jesus valued the interior over rituals. But baptism is a ritual and this week is the celebration of Jesus’ own baptism. If rituals in themselves don’t have power, and the outward (action/behaviour) smacked of the bondage of an old covenant, why was Jesus baptized? Why did he do it?
As we consider this question, I’d like to begin with another piece of theology that was skewed for me. I grew up with the words, “Jesus was fully God and fully human.” But the interpretations of Jesus’ stories weighted the God part quite a bit more heavily. I believed that Jesus foresaw the future, was not surprised by anything, was absolutely certain at all times that he was God’s Son in a way no other human was, never got angry or frustrated, was never confused, never really needed anything from the people around him because he always knew he was complete in God. The problem with this is that then I can’t identify with Jesus’ human life; I can’t really understand what Jesus’ life was about. I have come to believe (along with many others, that Jesus’ main purpose in becoming human wasn’t to complete a transaction by paying a price, but came to be an example, came to show the rest of humanity what it is to be in relationship with God; that’s it’s possible, and that it’s wonderful. If that’s why he came, I have to be able to see myself in his life – I have to see that he didn’t know the future, that he wasn’t always completely sure of where the Father was taking him. I have to see that he was frustrated and confused. I have to see that he needed people and sometimes needed reassurance. I experience all of those things, and Jesus said he has experienced what it is to be human, so that just makes sense. Let’s hold onto Jesus’ complete humanity.
Now we’re holding two things: Jesus’ emphasis on interior intention and motivation over exterior behaviour, and Jesus’ complete humanity. If we think of these two things as torches, what do they illuminate if we bring them with us to consider Jesus’ baptism?
First of all, I think we can safely assume that Jesus brought his whole interior self to this exterior-looking event. I think Jesus approached this ritual with his heart-eyes wide open, looking to find the Father in it. He came, who knows? maybe not sure why he was being called to do it, maybe not knowing what it would accomplish. But, knowing him as we do, we know he came to it with inner intentions of obedience, love, and an openness to his Father there. And with his heart open, the Father met him in a profound way. Not only with a physical and audible presence, but with a message to console, confirm, and encourage Jesus.
Jesus walked into an external act with his internal life attuned and open to the Father, and the Father met him there. This interior attitude is essential to who Jesus is and demonstrates for us, is a model for us, of living in vibrant, real relationship with God.
Which leads to the second thing: Jesus was fully human, so we can look at his life for patterns for living in relationship with the Divine. God met Jesus and spoke to him. I know there are many people who believe that the New Testament – and especially Jesus – was a special time and person and that God just doesn’t interact with humans like then. but when I look at this story, and look ahead to Jesus’ departure and his assurance to his disciples that One would come who could be with them even more intimately, I come to the conclusion that God continues to speak and interact with humans in a real-time, dynamic way. What am I saying? I’m saying that when your intention is to be real with God, when your intention is to hear from God, to be in relationship with God (as Jesus demonstrated), God will meet you there! It won’t be like at Jesus’ baptism, not because he’s so much holier than you, but because you’re not Jesus getting baptized. You’re you, coming to church; you’re you taking communion; you’re you going to work, making supper, talking to friends.
I told you earlier that I read the passages of Scripture for today and had no thought about Jesus’ baptism – and then I read something in Richard Rohr’s devotional that got me thinking. THAT was the Spirit speaking to me! I said something in jest, and while reading was asking the Spirit if there was something I should actually do. My heart was speaking obedience and love and openness. That devotional wasn’t the one for the day I looked at it, it was one I had read before, even interacted with in my journal. I came to it because I was looking for something else. When I read that bit about Jesus not being about ritual, it leapt out at me because I had just been reading and thinking about the ritual of baptism. The Spirit was there, reading over my shoulder, and when I got to that bit, leaned over and said, “Notice that! Consider that!” God meets me in the rituals of my everyday life, just like God met Jesus. And God meets you. If you come to me after the service and tell me that God doesn’t meet you like that, or talk to you, I will tell you that God is there, the Spirit is there, speaking words of wisdom and comfort; you just don’t recognize her voice yet. I would ask you to tell me some stories of your life, and I could show you God meeting you. I know some of you are thinking that I must be something special or super holy. No! I am not! Years ago my heart’s cry, the longing of my soul was, above all to know God and recognize the Spirit’s voice. Through experiences, teaching, and mentoring, I have learned to recognize the Spirit’s voice and working – some of the time. I have also seen how the Spirit was speaking to me and working with and for me even when I wasn’t aware of it. And you can too! Answer Jesus’ call to set your interior desires to God, and God will not fail to meet you.
The Spirit speaks to people today – not just holy people, not just professional ministering people – ALL people! If me, then you also. Which was Jesus’ life: “If me, then you also. His baptism shows the way.
Photo: St. Maarten – Heather Holtslander