Reflection: The Baptism of the Lord
In the first reading from Isaiah we have a precursor to the Gospel. The reading quotes God as saying, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.” It goes on to speak about many facets of the ministry of Jesus. I do not know if the Israelites thought the servant God was sending would be the son of God or not.
Then in the second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear an expansion of God’s plan and the message of Jesus. It is only in the time of Jesus that the apostles and disciples learn that God’s message and redemption is for many people, that all oppressed people are members of the same community and God shows no partiality. The story of an inclusive community was also illustrated last week with the visit of the Magi who were easterners and not a part of the Jewish or Roman community. Today the disciples and apostles are reminded that God’s love and message is for everyone.
And when we get to the Gospel, Jesus is being baptized by John in the River Jordan. And a voice came from the heavens saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” This quote sounds very much like the one in the reading from Isaiah. And again we have an expansion of the message. Jesus does not claim a place of privilege and the role of minister. Instead, he asks John to perform the baptism and tells him, “Allow it for now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” It is one of many instances where Jesus reminds us that his ways are not always the ways of the world and existing organized religions. This is just the first of many times when Jesus tells us that there can be more than one right answer. All of us who have been members of any organized religion know how often we can be instructed to believe there is only one right answer. But Jesus tells us otherwise. And God affirms it in the message where he expresses great pleasure in who Jesus is and what he is doing.
The hierarchy of Jesus’ own faith did not like many of the changes that Jesus preached and modeled in his ministry that included Samaritans, sinners, tax collectors and lepers, just to name a few. But from the beginning of his sacramental ministry, Jesus showed us a new way. Jesus showed a way that accepted more people, provided more compassion for people in their struggles and offered a kingdom without worldly power and might. The good news of Jesus’ presence required each follower to give up some notions of what the savior would be and do, and accept this somewhat surprising fulfillment of God’s promise of a savior. Single issue believers, the powerful and righteous, and the rigid rule followers may have been disappointed. Sometimes changing expectations and understandings of both people and institutions is far from easy. Jesus knew that and we know that today. So this message of Jesus requires each of us today to sometimes give up a notion we might have of how God operates and what God will do or ask of us.
The sacraments that evolved from the ministry of Jesus offered a new way to be an inclusive and compassionate community of faith. Baptism offers a loving welcome into the community, Reconciliation offers healing and forgiveness for failings, Communion offers us nourishment, Confirmation offers us strength and responsibility, Marriage offers intimacy and love with the support of the community, Ordination offers service to the church and Last Rites offer comfort and support.
We are challenged each day to be a presence in the world, a presence like Jesus who cared for and about the expanded community of faith. And in today’s world where believers hold an incredible range of beliefs around religion, it is no easy task. And part of our call today is to reach out beyond those who agree with us, who think like us and worship like us. Like all of creation, where diversity is of God’s making, we are charged with living in the midst of diversity and learning to respect it. It is not a passive call and not one that allows for the mistreatment and abuse of creation, but a call that challenges us to find God in all of creation and to listen carefully to God’s plan instead of just our own, which we often imagine is divinely inspired.
In a polarized world where religion and government often do not work for peace, act for justice for all and respect the God-given dignity due every part of creation, I sometimes imagine the voice of God speaking today with great disappointment and some frustration at the current interpretation of God’s message. God’s response to the world today might be a mixture of pleasure and displeasure. I was struck by this thought yesterday when, in the midst of a dreary, windy, rainy day, there was a brief break in the clouds and a rainbow appeared in the sky. It was so beautiful and spoke of light and beauty and promise in the midst of dark clouds in an ominous sky. It was a wonderful reminder of God’s power and promise for all time and for all who seek God.