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Listening for Words of Love

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

 THE DESERT AT NIGHT

At night, the desert is a cold lonely place. The sky seems to draw every degree of heat from the rocks, the ground and the plants, leaving the human body without warmth and comfortless. With the setting of the sun the animals begin their nightly scavenge for food. Feelings of fear and helplessness start to race though your heart as you wonder if this is the night you may become the prey of some hungry beast. The darkness isolates people from one another. Even in the company of others, a person can feel alone with their thoughts and their prayers and their God. It can be a time of introspection and self-examination. A time to say what do you expect of me, God? What is your will and plan for my life? What would you have me do? May thy will be done?

I wonder if any of those questions raced through Jesus mind the night before his baptism. Did he know the night before his baptism that he was going to walk into the water? How much did he know and understood of his own mission and purpose in life? What did he really know about who he was and what God had planned for him?

 HOW MUCH DID HE KNOW

Traditionally, preachers have presented a Jesus who knew everything before it happened. He was like the character in the TV show that read the headlines days or weeks before the events occurred. He would then try to prevent the disaster or tragedy. Some scholars have presented a similar 'Jesus'-a Messiah who seemingly knew the cities and towns to which he had to travel. The people he had to meet and the subjects on which he should teach. This 'Jesus' did not have many serendipitous events, nothing occurred by happen chance but only according to the divine, and sovereign will of God and that perfectly planned will was evident to Jesus at every moment of his life. In the early church, certain heretical groups had the boy Jesus making doves out of clay and then transforming them into real birds by throwing them into the air.

More recently, there has been a reaction against this type of mythical Jesus by making him much more human. The movie The Last Temptation of Christ presented us with a Savior whose inner powers were more limited. He struggled with self-doubt and even succumb to temptation. 

Neither extreme presents a portrait of Jesus that represents the man that I see in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus was both God and man. The Nicene Creed states that "he was Very God of Very God" and that "this God become truly human". How the divine and human nature played out in the life of Jesus is truly one of the most perplexing questions of theology. 

In my own search for understanding, I have found two Scriptures very helpful. The first comes from Paul's letter to the Philippians. Paul is not writing to clarify a theological point but to preserve the peace and unity with the church. The church in Philippi is struggling. There is conflict and tension, as each person believes they know what is right and is insisting on their own way. Paul is writing with a pragmatic intent but he uses theological concepts to settle the dispute. He tries to show them that instead of demanding their own rights, they should follow the example of their Lord :

2:6 Who, being in very nature God
           did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
2:7 but made himself nothing,
           taking the very nature of a servant,
           being made in human likeness
In some Biblical versions the phrase made himself nothing is translated, he emptied himself. He set aside his divine powers, privileges, and rights to become one of us. He embraced the limitations of human existence and accepted the boundaries of mortal flesh.

The other verse comes from the book of Hebrews. We do not know who wrote this letter or why, but the author says

4:14 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are
The author is encouraging believers to put to rest their embarrassment and shame as they approach God. They do not need to be guilty over their struggle with temptation because Jesus himself encountered the same struggle. He experienced the tension between faith and uncertainty. Jesus set aside any claim to his divinity so that he could feel the same fears we feel; know the same struggle between faith and doubt; grope to understand of the perplexities and mysteries that baffle our  feeble thinking. Yet, he was able to do it all without sinning. 

How much did Jesus know before his baptism? We will never know but I am certain that his human nature struggled with doubt, indecision and uncertain. He did not have all the answers. On the night before his baptism,  he did not know what would be his next step. All he knew was that his cousin was calling him to the waters of repentance.

And herein is the first lesson that I glean from the Baptism of Jesus

 GOD ACCEPTS US  EVEN WITH UNCERTAINTIES

Luke has a particular way of retelling the story. He leaves out many of the details that the other gospel writers include. His account even implies that John may have already been arrested and imprisoned thereby requiring that a disciple of John baptized Jesus. However, we should give Luke the liberty of creativity. His intent is not in telling how the events transpired before and during the actual baptism but what happened afterwards. After the baptism, Jesus was in prayer. Luke does not mention if anyone else was with him. He does not mention if any other person heard the voice or saw the Spirit decend. Luke wants us to know that Jesus and only Jesus heard a voice saying to him,

2:22b you are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.
The Father announced to the Son, that even in human form, with all your physical weaknesses, intellectual limitations, spiritual boundaries, and fleshly susceptibilities, "I love you. I accept you. You are mine." God reminded Christ of his love. In our baptism, God reminds us that we are no longer strangers, excluded from his love, but we have received a seal of approval. We have been adopted as his children.

We spend a good part of our lives trying to gain approval from others. Toddlers learn very early that things go better when they stay on the good side of mommy and daddy. In school child learn that tests are not nearly as hard when the teacher is happy and likes them. As adults, we seek ways of gaining a raise or promotion by staying on the good side of our boss. 

Our ultimate search approval is the human quest for divine approval. Sometimes it seems so elusive as we struggle with uncertainty and doubt. We never seem to measure up. We never seem to do enough. We always seem to fall short. Yet, before Jesus did anything. Before he healed anyone. Before he gave his first teaching. Before he drove out his first demon, even before he walked to the Cross, God said to him,

You are my Son, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased
In baptism, God puts his unconditional, unmerited sign of love upon us even before we do anything, and even with all are human frailty he announces his divine approval.

 GOD CALLS US INTO MINISTRY EVEN IN OUR UNPREPAREDNESS

Our Scripture lesson also reminds us that our baptism God calls us to ministry even in our unpreparedness. Luke makes special effort to connect the two. In the following verse, he mentions that Jesus was 30 years old when he stepped out of the water of the Jordan River. After he stepped out of those waters,  the Spirit descended upon on him with a call to serve and he began his ministry. He did attend any school. He did earn a degree. He simple trusted the leading of the Spirit. 

When Jesus began his ministry he also did not have a three year plan or a detailed flow chart. He may have known his final destiny, but between the waters of the Jordan and the summit of Golgotha, he traveled down many uncharted roads. He was not given a AAA trip tick with the well in Samaria, the pool of Bethesda and the lake shore of Capernaum marked as stopovers. If Jesus was fully human, it meant that each day brought the unexpected and the unplanned. Each knew circumstance required him to respond in faith. They required him to live "in response to God, being challenged by God, growing in relationship to God, listening to God, believing God."1

We will never know this side of eternity whether the meeting with the woman at the well was due to a delay in his plans or a detour or some other event. On the day they met, Jesus treated her with divine love and her life was transformed. One day along the road to Nain, Jesus met a woman who was burying her son. Was this a planned rendezvous? We cannot answer that question, but we do know how his heart was moved with compassion and love for a widow that had just lost her only son. So he reached out his hand and give life to the woman's son.

In baptism, God has already called us into ministry. That call does not wait for us to be prepared or even feel prepared. He calls us to walk through life each day and respond in faithful obedience to the situations and circumstances.

WITH EARS TO HEAR
According to legend, a young man arrived to at an office to apply for a job as a telegraph operator. He had spent months learning to decipher the dots and the dahs of Morse code. When he entered the office, he noticed that several other young men were had already arrived and were waiting for their interview. Disappointed that so many other men were ahead of him, the young man nearly left but decided at least to fill out an application. On the receptionist counter’s, a sign instructed applicants to fill out a form and wait until they were summoned to enter the inner office. While he was filling out the form, he could hear in the background the clacking of the telegraph. Before he even completed the form, the young man stood up, crossed the room, opened the door of the inner office and walked right in.

The other applicants were stunned and angry. They could not believe the audacity of the other man. They complained among themselves that they had been waiting for quite awhile for their summons. He had no right to enter the inner office before them. Their tempers were abated when they realized that he would be reprimanded for his presumption behavior.

Within a few minutes, the interviewer emerged from the office with the young man and announced, “Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming but the job has been filled by this young man." 

The other applicants were very upset and complained that they did not think it fair that he was offered the job before they were allowed to interview, especially since the new employee was the last to arrive. The employer explained, "All the time you've been sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out a message in Morse code that read: `If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours.'” The employer continued, “None of you heard it or understood it. This young man did. So the job is his."2

That young man had the ears to hear his summons to enter the inner office and apply for the job. After Jesus emerged from the water, he had the ears to hear his Father’s voice saying to him: "You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
Do we have the same ears to hear those words of love that God offers to us in the waters of baptism.


1 Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light, (Downers Grove; IVP, 1982), p 102.
2 Gary Preston, Character Forged from Conflict, quoted by Brett Blair, Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com.

 


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