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Wednesday, January 09, 2008
We might begin our reflection on Matthew's story of the baptism of Jesus by first reading the Hebrew Scripture reading for the day from Isaiah 42:1-9, a poetic suggestion of what is to come in Jesus Christ. The prophet reminds us that God is faithful to God's promises, and that how we live and order our world matters to God. It matters so much to God that God will send One who will "fix" the mess we've made, transforming it into a time of beauty and grace, healing and justice. This transforming Servant, the chosen one whom God upholds and in whom God's soul delights, has the very Spirit of God within him. The same themes consistently appear in Isaiah and Matthew: righteousness experienced as compassionate justice and care for the poor and marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope – better, the promise – of new things that will dazzle us and rattle the foundations of our safe little worlds. When read, and heard, together, the texts from Isaiah and Matthew dramatically illustrate God's own faithfulness and care. In our Gospel reading, Matthew 3:13-17, we hear Jesus speak at last. We even get to eavesdrop on the conversation of these two men, and John at least is already used to speaking to the crowd, speaking "big." The words he exchanges with Jesus sound quiet, perhaps worried, perhaps awed. In any case, they're not untroubled. So this baptismal scene, rather than pretty or nice, is full of power and questions, and perhaps even struggle. One might say, "trouble and beauty." Coming onto the scene and asking for baptism, Jesus is announcing himself as the one promised by God through the prophet long ago. He "announces himself as the fulfiller of the grace which gives sinners who have no standing before God a place to stand in a new relationship to God. He himself is that place" (F. Dean Lueking, Lectionary Commentary). How do you think that might have affected the expectations of the crowd, who were presumably familiar with, and shared, the promises in Isaiah? When Jesus speaks of "righteousness," a word that appears often in Matthew, he relates it to salvation, which is another word for healing the damage that has been done to our relationship with God. Lueking again: "His baptism is the decisive opening event that further unfolds that for which he came, to lay his healing hands upon a broken, alienated world to make it right with God again." But this healing comes not with gentle words and soothing balm; it involves a cracked sky and the voice of God. Commentators observe that the scene offers a response to the ancient cries of the prophets as they observed the broken, alienated world in need of God's hand: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down," Isaiah prayed and "Ezekiel's vision of the heavens opened to reveal the God who never abandons his people is fulfilled. John called the multitudes to the Judean desert to warn of the cracking open and breaking up of the old order. Now that time has come" (Lueking). Cracked skies do not sound lovely or reassuring! We would do well to remember that immediately after this passage, Jesus heads to the desert himself and experiences the great temptations to his faithfulness to his call and his sense of who he is. "Remembering" our baptism, isn't just a sentimental journey or an effort to recapture lost enthusiasm (ours or that of our parents and godparents) but closer to seeking equilibrium on a storm-tossed sea, getting our bearings, remembering who (and whose) we are. The Harper's Bible Dictionary gives us helpful background information to the story, including a geography lesson about the "dry" season when Jesus and the repentant people of Judea could be dipped, "when the Jordan and its streams would have been filled with the winter rains and the sun had warmed the shallow waters to a comfortable temperature" (The Cultural World of Jesus). Have you ever been in a river, or even in a tank, when someone is baptized? Getting soaked is a good reminder of one's baptism, if it brings home the power of what was once done to us long ago. Pilch also wrestles with that question of Jesus and John, and the embarrassment for early Christians that their leader was baptized by another. This awkward situation, he says, is explained by that cracked sky and voice of God, which says that "Jesus is baptized because God wills it. God is pleased by Jesus' obedience, which in turn suggests that Jesus deserves obedience from his followers." Thomas Long gives even better answers to the question about Jesus and "righteousness": he outlines "human" righteousness, "the possibility that people can live in right relationship with God and others…by being joined to Christ," who has come to "save the world, to make righteousness a reality for humanity through joining himself to sinners, and his baptism signifies this identification with all humanity" (Matthew, WBC). It's as if Jesus knows he can't address our human condition unless he gets down into the mud, or into the tank, with us. But Long also describes "the righteousness of God…the way God works in the world to set things right." In other words, to respond to that ancient cry of the prophets. While most commentators address things like Jesus' identity as the beloved Son of God (and Matthew's persistent claim for that), or the presence and relationship of all three persons in the Trinity at this scene (even without an explicit Trinitarian theology being presented), the most interesting and stirring interpretation comes from Richard Swanson in Provoking the Gospel of Matthew. He gives new meaning to the words, "troubled waters." His commentary is full of words like "killed…erupts…explodes…accuses." And he speaks of John's fire, and snakes and judgment, but mostly "fire, and fire, and fire, unquenchable fire." And the winnowing hook, too, to let us know that "This will be a Jesus who will make sharp divisions. This will be a Jesus who erupts just as John erupts. The face of the earth will change." Swanson doesn't really connect this scene to our own baptisms, and after reading his reflection, it's hard to see the connection. Instead, he draws a picture of faithful Jews being drawn out into the wilderness, "to volunteer for service, to be washed, purified to participate in the long-awaited new thing that God was doing in the world." Rather than comforting or sweet, there is a "disturbing force" in "John's eruption. The face of the earth was changing. Jews came out to enlist." Swanson's powerful reflection draws us back to fire and water, the many uses of burning (including "Herod's murderous attempt to defend Empire by burning hope out of the Jewish people"), and the power of being washed and readied for service. It's another way to remember our baptism, perhaps a different lens through which we might look at it in our memory. Still, in the midst of fire and water and snakes, there is that word: beloved. When the skies open, the words we hear are "beloved," and "listen," hardly words of judgment or words that should inspire fear. What does this tell us about the "Spirit of God," the Spirit that accompanies us on our way? How do you experience God's loving faithfulness and care in your own life and in the life of our congregation, today? How often do you think about your baptism? When you do, can you imagine yourself as beloved? Can you imagine each person, child or adult, in your congregation, as a beloved child of God, and would pausing to remember that affect how the person is treated? How does this sense of who and whose we are come alive in baptism? Have you ever felt that baptisms have become for many – perhaps even for you – an empty ritual, an occasion for gifts and parties, a misunderstood theological statement? Have you ever thought of baptism as conferring servanthood, of all things? Would we throw a party for such a gift? How does lifting up servanthood clash with our modern system of values around position, class, and prestige and celebrity? What would happen if we pronounced each newly baptized Christian not only beloved, but a beloved servant of God? What does "righteousness" mean to you? Does it have an ironically unpleasant connotation, as in "self-righteous" religiosity? How have you experienced the Spirit of God within you, at what times and in what circumstances? What difference did it make in your life, and the life of your congregation? How does God’s Spirit work in us today, move through us today, speak to us still today, calling us in this time and place to do new things? What former things have passed away, or need to pass away, and what new words of hope need to be spoken? What is the transformation that needs to happen, or is happening beneath our gaze, even now?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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