January 24, 2016

Jesus' Ministry Begins

Jesus' public ministry begins at his baptism with the words many of us know by heart:  "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased".
The angels whisper in Mary and Josephs ears. Jesus is born. Poor people (shepherds) and rich people (wise men) visit. Herod reminds Jesus and his parents of just what kind of a world that he has been born into. Before we know it, Jesus is 12 and disobeying his parents doing his own thing.  And now Jesus is 29 or 30 and of all the ministries or churches or religious and political groups he could have aligned himself with he chooses John the Baptist; (maybe it's a family thing). John is out in the desert, eating bugs, not wearing a lot, preaching judgment and doomsday stuff, and in general making a reputation for himself that soon lands him in the slammer. (There must have been no copies of "How to win Friends and Influence People" around for Jesus to read)
The gospel stories are all a little different (maybe each telling a different aspect of the bigger picture). But the main points are the same. Whether it was just to Jesus or to all who had ears and hearts to listen, God spoke that baptism day and called Jesus his beloved special child and commissioned his life and ministry. But As Barbra Brown Taylor has put it - Jesus went into the Jordan "a carpenter and came out a Messiah".
The "big" theological or biblical question around this event has always been "Why did a sinless Jesus need a baptism for the forgiveness of sins"? And probably from the weirdest preacher around to boot? If you know the answer to that question, I envy you. I take that back. I do not really envy you. I worry a little about how you see the bible and faith. For "great is the mystery of our faith"? And for my money "pat" answers are rarely honest and full ones.
The incarnation is full of beauty and love and meaning and for me - lots of reality. But gosh, about as hard to understand with complexities and paradoxes galore.  Being divine and human at the same time is test for this old gray matter and I do not think it has a lot to do with age. Many will, I fear, answer the question, by creating a less than human vision of Jesus. What we talked about last week Docetism - kind of a heavenly know it all super but not real human Jesus. The God of the "old days", of biblical times speaking from great loud speakers in the sky and Jesus giving the sinners a miracle show by showing up and getting all the glory.
It is interesting that after such a display a little later in the gospels. John's questioning whether Jesus is the really the "One"? Really blessed and commissioned by God after all? John either changed his mind or wasn't that sure. Perhaps Jesus wasn't angry enough or maybe not successful enough or schooled in the wielding of power. Was Jesus getting the job done?  Is he really the Messiah changing things or are we to wait for another? A more powerful one. One more to our liking and the way "we" view the world and how power should be exercised in order to be successful?
John was theologically conservative but as anti establishments as you can be. He wasn’t the modern day Christian conservative. The sort of wealth and health Christian.  The mega church guy where you can use God to help you get along and get ahead in society and become a personal success story. He wanted to separate himself from all that was going on in the world that was too secular – to sinful.  God was holy and apart and everyone who did not agree was going to “you know where” and he was confident that the real messiah would feel the same way.
John is having second thoughts and so he sends some of his followers to Jesus to question him “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?  As it turned out Jesus was not what John, or perhaps what anyone expected. Jesus was getting notoriety and getting more popular but John was not so sure he was winning the day; taking over things; changing the world fast enough to suit him. You know the scenario: the Messiah arrives and everything is set right. The world gets put in proper order. Justice prevails. The bad guys get their just deserts and the oppressed go free. No more poverty. N more injustice. No more racism. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to change all that?
And for good measure with windowing hooks - whirlwinds and up evils and startling reversals of history and society.  And we know in part how John feels. When we can not seem to prevent the slaughtering of innocent civilians in the world. When racial bias seems so ingrown in the system. When even a black president takes slings and arrows for not doing enough. When income inequality grows. In our personal lives when sickness or emotional and mental health invades our personal lives and leaves us down –instead of saved and well – like Jesus promised. Wasn’t Jesus suppose to make all the crooked things straight in life?
Jesus answer to Johns disciples question about whether he was the one was not: "Yes of course” Yes everything is now perfect.  ”I am the messiah /look at me". It was simply: “go tell John what you see and hear – the lame walk –the blind receive sight, lepers are cleansed, deaf hear, those who are dead raised and the poor have good news brought to them. Jesus did not say “this is my doing” .he just said if you open your eyes and your ears in this world and you pay attention to what is important – to the important places where God is at work –you will find this….and if you take no offense at me you will become part of it.

John preached a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. It was radical for the day because normally you had to go to the temple and be purified by the priests for forgiveness (Feasting on the Word); not in some muddy old river on the side of the road.  So Jesus joined John and the rest of us down by the river. And then he showed us what was behind it was not so much God's wrath but his great love! And how great he knew and felt God's love in his heart. And if the rest of us had half a brain and half a heart, we could see our own belovedness too. Repentance to Jesus was more than remorse (and certainly remorse can be a good beginning). But a change of heart -  a new heart and a new direction in life - a turning around - a coming out of or beyond the self that you used to think you were - into a brand new self - a self that placed your feet maybe in the same spot but not on the same old earth but in God's glorious new kingdom.
Where else would you find the son of man but in the mud on the banks of the river Jordan with all the mud covered people? The same question was raised at Christmas. What's God doing here? why a baby? - why so much poverty? - why on the stable floor of all places? The answer is the same:  that’s how God loves.  This is what love is all about. God blesses these kinds of choices and gives us enough love to change things for better; and in the process of these hard unlikely choices….we get changed too……that lives given in love and sacrifice are not lost but found…redeemed ...saved.
Such was the life of Dr Martin Luther King. There was not distinction between the way he loved and the end point of that love. And although you found him in the halls of power that is not where he started; but rather in the muddy streets of bus boycott in Montgomery; and among the mud of garbage workers protest in Memphis; and in spirit, in the mud on the mall of the poor people's walk on Washington and resurrection city that is the power of love made manifest. That is how God loved through him. And that is how we must love to overcome in this church and in our lives to give renewed power and meaning not only to Jesus' baptism but to our own baptisms.
Dr King said this in his Nobel acceptance speech: "I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality."
We baptize only once in the Presbyterian Church. God can't love you anymore than he already does. God only has to claim you once and for all as his beloved. That's more than enough. For Christ. For you. And for our life together at Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Baptism happens once. Putting our baptism and belovedness into practice everyday. What will they report that they have seen and heard? Amen

(Sermon 1/17/16 - Luke 2:1-11)


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