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Friday, January 11, 2013

LAYERS OF LOVE—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY---BAPTISM OF THE LORD, (JANUARY 13, 2013)—BY JIM OGDEN

 Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29:1-11, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 The last couple of weeks I have been “grabbed” by the first of the lectionary readings, both from the book of Isaiah.  This week it offers us an outpouring of love, love which, in this case, might be seen as the love of a parent for his or her children and the love of a creator for his or her creation.

 “I have called you by name,” the Lord says.  (Isaiah 43:1)  How powerful it is when someone knows, and uses, our name!  It is a sign of caring and love.  The love the Lord expresses in these verses is love which goes with us through troubling times.  “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you . . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you . . .”  (vss. 2 & 4)  The phrases and words cry out for attention and interpretation.

 The reading is, of course, about restoration, coming home from being dispersed and held captive.  “I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth.’”  (vss. 5-6)  The words reverberate in the heart of every parent whose children are scattered around the globe---as are ours.

At the end the passage returns to the naming, this time noting that the children are “called by my name.”  (vs. 7)  Children sometimes literally bear the name of a parent or grandparent.  Even when they don’t, they carry the imprint of parental DNA.  In this case, the Lord speaks of the ones “whom I formed and made,” “whom I created for my glory.”  (vs. 7)

Psalm 29 is the song of a choir of “heavenly beings” who are in awe of the “splendor” of the Lord.  (vss. 1-2)  Love is complex.  Is awe a dimension of love?  Have we ever witnessed nature in all its wonder, or a display of fireworks, and said, in a tone of awe, “I love it”?

Love means many things to many people.  It is easily distorted.  Some people, even the people of Israel, can come to believe that because they are loved they are better and more deserving than others.  Loving relationships can take on an exclusivity that draws lines that, intentionally or unintentionally, keep other people out.  These two readings hint at a love that is less than fully inclusive.  Love can be jealous.  Even the biblical God is at times depicted as being jealous.  Love can easily become a cover for using, or controlling, people.  Sometimes, though, we have to turn off all those concerns for a moment and just let the love pour out to others, and back in when it pours over us.  That was my first response to the reading from Isaiah.

Those who’ve been schooled in biblical understandings of love are aware that there are a variety of words for love in both Greek and Hebrews.  I want to highlight only one distinction right now.  Love in the Hebrews scriptures is often seen as an expression of God’s Covenant with God’s people---God’s agreement, God’s promise.  God loves us because that is what God promised and God lives up to agreements and commitments made.  It is the daily living out of such love that keeps relationships going.  Behind that “mundane” love, however, is an unconditional love which first chose to reach out, the love which enabled one to enter into relationship, a love rooted in the very nature of the lover.  Both kinds of love are essential if the effects of love are to be known in our world, but we must never lose sight of the excitement and wonder of that love which just seems to come out of nowhere---unsolicited, unconditional, beyond understanding.

When one is struck by that kind of love, one is never the same again.  One wants to sing.  One wants to share the empowerment that comes with that experience, reaching back to and embracing the love and reaching out to and including others in the embrace.

The readings from Acts and Luke have a different, although not unrelated tone.  Before looking at them, I don’t want to skip over the final verse of Psalm 29.  This powerful hymn of worship and awe ends with a prayer:  “May the Lord give strength to his people!  May the Lord bless his people with peace.”  (Psalm 29:11)  This love-relationship we are in with God is, at its best, a source of strength and peace, reaching both inward and outward.

In the lectionary readings for this Sunday, Acts and Luke both address baptism.  In the flow of the church year, some will celebrate the baptism of Jesus on this Sunday.  Rather than start there, however, I want to note that both passages speak of the nature of baptism.  More precisely, they speak of two kinds of baptism---physical ritual baptism and spiritually-experienced, emotionally-expressed baptism.

In Acts the apostles find that those beyond the usual boundaries (the Samaritans) have “accepted the word of God.”  (Acts 8:14)  Peter and John go down to check things out, to see if they have received that baptism of the Spirit.  (vss. 15-16)  Note the interesting comment, “ . . . they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”  (vs. 16)  “Isn’t that enough?” some would ask.

John the Baptizer, when many come to him to be baptized, also makes a distinction, although this time it appears that it is Jesus who will offer a baptism of the Spirit.  “John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'”

The distinction, in both cases, seems to move from a ritual and literal interpretation (washing with water, e.g.) to a deeper spiritual experience and reality.  Going through the motions, observing the rituals, while having its importance, will not necessarily be life-changing.  Both these New Testament readings speak of an experience that has the power to change lives.

Is it too much to leap from this back to the discussion of the layers of love?  Is it not love that is the underlying life-changing power behind all doctrine and ritual?  Is the distinction in these readings about baptism perhaps parallel to the two kinds of love mentioned earlier?  The love that is expressed in outward routines and activities is rooted in a deeper unconditional spiritual reality.

Finally, focusing in specifically upon the story of Jesus’ baptism, we find that it is another love story.  We could note the slight variations in the telling of the same story by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but all three end with Jesus being identified as God’s Son.  As this week’s reading from Luke puts it, “ . . . the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”  (Luke 3:22)  We could speculate on who heard and saw what.  Was this primarily an internal experience?  Does this mark a turning point in Jesus’ awareness of a special mission to which he is called?

Today, I want us to think simply about how much Jesus must have felt loved at this moment  I experienced baptism in that way.  I realize that not all do. Whether at baptism or at other times, I hope that we all have moments when we realize that we are deeply and unconditionally loved, so much so that we might say, “The very heavens are pleased with us.”  When our hearts at touched by that truth, life (and the world) will never be the same.

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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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