SJF • 1 Epiphany 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized, and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove; and a voice came from heaven....+
Suddenly, it got awfully quiet. Moments before there had been splashes of water, the loud voice of John the Baptist, the clamor of the crowd. People waiting in line had asked those ahead of them how cold the water was, and some complained, even those used to walking barefoot, about how the rocks hurt their feet. Others were too full of emotion to speak, too aware of their past failings, too full of hope for a new beginning to pay much mind to the chatter around them. Then, after the baptisms, when the crowd had settled on the shore, some talked quietly among themselves about what it was like. Just as people who have just seen a movie talk with each other about their favorite parts, the people on Jordan’s bank talked about how it felt when John had held them firmly by the shoulder, then pushed them under the cold, clear water. They recalled how all the normal sounds had disappeared to be replaced by a humming burbling pressure as they held their breath and waited for John to let them back up. They could hardly make out his words through that humming pressure: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!” They came up sputtering, blinking, and feeling and knowing that something great had happened to them: they felt new-born, re-born. “That’s what it was like,” they said to each other as they sat on the shore, drying in the warm sunlight, resting a little before the long walk back home.
Then something unexpected happened. A deep voice spoke, just loud enough that everyone could hear it, like distant thunder: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then, silence. Everyone looked around. Who said that? Where did it come from? A little way down the stream a man was sitting by a rock, praying. “What is that on his shoulder?” someone said. “A dove?” “And why is John the Baptist looking at him so intently, so excitedly?” There was a good reason. For in John’s heart a question and a hope began to form: “Is he the one?”
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Is he the one? We might well ask, Who is this “one” about whom John wondered and hoped? For what — or for whom — had he been waiting and watching? It had been a long wait, you see, longer far than John’s own life. Hundreds of years before John was born a promise had been given to the people of Israel. A deliverer would come, one chosen by God, an anointed one, a Christ (for “Christ” is simply the Greek word for “one who is anointed,” which in Hebrew is Moshiach — Messiah.) This chosen one, this anointed one, this Messiah, this Christ, would not only deliver Israel, but establish justice on the earth.
But who was he? Was this prophecy about some individual person, or symbolic of Israel as a whole, personified? Was it Cyrus the Persian king, who would indeed be called God’s chosen and anointed one, to return the people from exile in Babylon? Return them Cyrus did — that prophetic detail came true — but still injustice held sway on the earth... He was not “the one.” Time passed; other prophets spoke, other kings ruled; wars were fought and won and lost. And still, justice was not established on the earth, and Israel was delivered from bondage only to be conquered yet again a few years later by another earthly power.
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But lately in the days of John the Baptist, in the days of the latest occupation, by Rome, a new hope had arisen in Israel, Could John the Baptist himself be the one? Well, John answered them directly: No. He was merely the forerunner, the advance man for the one who was to come. He, too, had been given a personal assurance: “The one upon whom you see the Spirit descending..., is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”John 1:33
John understood he had been given a prophet’s task, the task I’ve spoken of before: Prophets point — and not to themselves! Prophets bubble with holy enthusiasm that cries out, “Look! Behold!” Prophets aren’t interested in starting a cult; true prophets point people to God.
I reminded you a moment ago about what people do when they’ve enjoyed seeing a film together. No doubt you know this from your own experience. What’s the first thing you do when you’ve experienced something wonderful? Whether it’s a book that you think is the best thing you’ve ever read; or a movie that delighted you; or a fascinating exhibit at the museum. What do you do? You tell people about it, of course. And the way you tell them is filled with special kind of enthusiasm. You can’t wait till they’ve seen it, or read it, or been there. And as I mentioned, we all know that special extra delight, the added pleasure in discovering that someone else has already read the book, or seen the movie. That’s when the real fun starts. “What part did you like best? Wasn’t that a great scene? I’m going again next week! Want to go together?”
Prophets and enthusiasts both point at something else, not at themselves. They don’t say, “Follow me!” but “Come with me!” And if for some reason they can’t go along, like John when he was in prison, they say, “Go, follow him. He is the one. I told you I wasn’t the one; I was only preparing the way.”
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God, in this as in all else, is different. God also points things out, directs our attention, shows us the way; but God does it differently. God does say, “Follow me!” Not only that, but God says “Don’t follow anyone else!”
Compare for a moment: listen to John the Baptist’s humility: “One who is more powerful than I... I am not worthy to untie his sandal...” Then hear the emphasis in God’s description of his coming chosen one, the Messiah. Notice how much God uses the first person singular! “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him... I am the Lord, that is my name...” We might say that God is “the first person singular” — for when Moses asked for God’s name, he was told, “I AM.”
Names are the point for naming is perhaps the most important way to point something out, of giving it an identity, and directing our attention to it. When God spoke at Christ’sbaptism, the great “I AM” gave Jesus a name too, “My Son, the beloved.” Names identify both the person, and the person’s relationship to others. We have a “given” name, given to each of us after we are born, and a family name as well, the name we arere born with, the name that was there before we were born. One name belongs to us, the other name says we belong to something else: a family. At his baptism, Jesus (the name he was given when he was born) received a new name, a name that describes his relationship to God: Jesus belongs to God: he is God’s beloved Son. He is Christ — God’s anointed one.
The same is true for us in our baptism. We receive our baptismal name, our “first name” as we say; we receive our family name, officially as it is pronounced over us; but we are also given a name, a hallmark, like the thumbprint a potter presses into the bottom of the pottery he makes, to mark it out as his very own creation. We too are anointed, “Christened” as we say, and given a mark and a name that transcends both our individuality and our family, a mark that doesn’t say so much who we are but whose we are. We are “marked as Christ’s own for ever” and we are given the new name “Christian.” We belong no longer to ourselves alone, but to Christ, who is Lord of all. We are his, because we bear a new name, Christian.
As we come up from those cold Jordan waters, blinking and sputtering, perhaps (I can tell you from experience) gasping and crying and perhaps wriggling around, we are given a new name, we are marked with an owner’s mark, in the shape of a cross — right here. Baptized into Christ’s death, we share in his resurrection.
And we have a job to do. The Baptismal Covenant is our Christian job description — and we’ll have our annual review in just a few moments. Among the accountabilities in that job description is the task to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers,” which is what we do here each Sunday. But we are also assigned the task “to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” It shouldn’t be hard to do the latter when we’ve done the former. Isn’t life everlasting better than the best novel you ever read, the most exciting movie you ever saw? Isn’t the Lord’s table the greatest feast? Isn’t the Word of God proclaimed the most important thing you could ever hear? Can you leave this time of worship with a glow of enthusiasm; filled with excitement? Can you tell your friends about it? You are the evangelists and prophets, sent to proclaim the word: you are the messengers of Christ at work in the world.
And when you spread the word of what you have seen and heard, of what God’s saving grace has meant for you, of how you have heard his word, known his forgiveness in your heart and been fed at his table, when you have shared this good news, of God’s presence in and with the church on earth, you can always end by saying, “I’m going back next week! Do you want to go together?”+