Revisiting Jesus' Baptism


    I preached about the baptism of Jesus last Sunday. As one person was leaving the sanctuary, she shook my hand and said, “I’ve always wondered why Jesus was baptized in the first place. Jesus didn’t have any sins to repent for and he didn’t need to have any sins forgiven.”
    It’s a very good — and popular — question. Almost every commentary written about the gospels has to address this matter, since Christianity traditionally holds that Jesus was sin-less.
    For one thing, scholars across the board agree that this event actually took place. The fact that all four gospels tell the same story lend credence to the idea that Jesus really was baptized by John. It appears to be a very important story to the followers of Jesus.
    So why was Jesus baptized?
    I’ll be honest; I think this is a misleading question. It assumes that Jesus knew he was sinless, or conscious of his status, when he was baptized. I think this story is best read as Jesus’ own call story. This is the event in Jesus’ life which jolted him into awareness of who he was, and what he was called to do.
    You may have noticed that the gospels are extremely light on details of Jesus’ life before his baptism. All we have are birth stories from Matthew and Luke, and a story about Jesus in the temple as a 12-year old (Luke 2:41-52), and those stories are all of dubious historicity.
    The truth is that nothing is really known about Jesus before he was baptized. He came down to the Jordan River that day to see and hear John the Baptist. He was moved by John’s proclamation, decided that he wanted to be part of John’s movement, and went down into the water with everybody else to be baptized.
    But when he came up out of the water, something happened. He saw into heaven, he saw the Spirit of God descending and entering him, and he heard God’s voice saying to him, “You are my Son, my beloved; in you, I am well pleased.”   
    What happened in the Jordan River was the defining event of Jesus’ life, up to this point. This is his coming out party, his debut, his “burning bush” moment. From this time forward, Jesus begins to live into the reality of who he is. He begins to understand more and more about his calling and his task; he starts to speak and act with authority.
    I think he didn’t fully understand his identity before the baptism; he didn’t know who he was or what he was supposed to be doing. I don’t believe this is a heretical idea; the orthodox belief is that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. To be fully human means to have knowledge which is limited to one’s own experience. Until Jesus experienced God’s call, he couldn’t have known precisely who he was.
    The more important question that this story raises is whether or not each one of us has heard God’s call upon our lives. God didn’t call only Jesus; no, the New Testament is full of stories of men and women who recognize — or not — God’s call and then act — or not — upon it.
    I believe that God has called every one of us — man, woman, and child — to a life full of meaning, fulfillment, and grace. Each life has its own unique bent; some, like myself, are called to ordained ministry, others are sent into the corporate work place, while others are called to the teaching, healthcare, or law enforcement professions, just to give a few examples.
    Yes, your life has its own special divine calling. You are the only one who can follow it. You are the one chosen by God to fulfill God's own particular mission.
     It's a high calling. But you are equipped for it. And so am I.

Harvey, Noah, and God's Saving Work


If you took a close look at my stole last Sunday, you might have noticed that it was a detailed illustration of the story of Noah’s ark. It’s a beautiful piece of art, but I don’t wear it often because it doesn’t fit any church season very easily.

However, you can guess why I chose to wear it last week. And I’m going to wear it again this coming Sunday.

I keep finding myself reading and re-reading the story of the flood in Genesis these last few days. I’m searching for some kind of interpretive clue for making sense of the tragedy unfolding in Houston these days. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find comfort in the Noah story.

For one, according to Genesis, God causes the flood — no, to put it bluntly, God uses the flood for genocidal purposes. He wanted to purge the earth of human beings and start all over. So he picked Noah, who seemed like a good guy at the time, and gave him alone the lifeline he and his family would need to survive the flood.

I don’t believe that this is really the true explanation for the flood, let me be very clear. I do believe that there was a big flood in the ancient past; other ancient civilizations and cultures also have stories of a major, earth-altering flood. But the Noah story sounds like a very early, weak attempt to make sense of its widespread destruction, which is something we humans are always trying to do.

When tragedy occurs and disaster strikes, we work hard to make sense of it. We find it very difficult to accept the idea that storms happen because of a complex of factors related to atmosphere and barometric pressure and winds. We shrink from the thought that sometimes random things happen, or that accidents occur.

Sometimes the human authors of the Hebrew Scriptures struggled with this very tendency. They found it easier to ascribe a cause to the flood; since the only thing that could possibly cause a worldwide flood was God, then obviously, God must have caused the flood. And why? Well, isn’t it obvious that people can be evil?

It might have made for a plausible scenario for early civilizations, but the story sounds absolutely horrifying to 21st century people. This doesn’t sound like the God we know, nor like the God we come to know in the rest of the Bible.

When I consider the “meaning” of Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent flooding, I don’t ask, “Whose fault is it?” I’m not angry with God for “letting it happen,” nor do I think God caused it to happen.

Rather, when I look at what is happening in Houston, I see God at work in the aftermath of the storm through all the ordinary people who have put their own lives on hold to be in service.
Haven’t we all seen God at work in extraordinary ways? We have seen scores of inspiring photographs and videos of people helping people. We have watched journalists reaching out to assist elderly Alzheimer’s patients, uniformed officers carrying women and children, and teenagers piloting boats and canoes down flooded streets to save families. Every time we see someone else being saved, we are watching God’s salvation work happening.

This Sunday, we have the opportunity of participating in this salvation work. As a church, we are joining together to put together a number of flood buckets, which will be immensely helpful over the coming weeks as the flood cleanup begins. The church will provide the five-gallon buckets, but we need you all to bring the supplies. Here’s a list of what is needed, and you’re invited to bring them this Sunday morning. Bring them to your pews with you, because the service will be interactive and participatory. We’ll be putting together flood buckets AS an act of worship, and taking Holy Communion, too. See you Sunday morning!