The Baptism of Our Lord
January 12, 2014
Few things in this world have more power to shape our being than our parents simply being who they are. This might be a good thing for us… or it could be a bad thing… kind of depends on our parents.
As a school teacher, I see all the time that parents don’t even have to try, yet they still wield this power. As children we behold our parents and all they say and do, day after day, year after year and their example becomes the reality from which our hearts and minds and habits and actions take shape. Because our lives as children revolve around them, they shape our world in so many ways. It doesn’t always work out that way, but usually it does.
In a strange, yet very wonderful way, this same powerful parent-child dynamic is the theme and hope that lies behind the new season of the church year we are entering today.
Today we begin the season of Epiphany. The Greek word Epiphany means “to show, make known, or reveal.” It is a reference to the way in which Jesus is revealed to us through his public ministry… and the way God makes himself known to us through Jesus. Actually, epiphany is an important theme through all of scripture.
God makes himself known to us… in order to shape our hearts and minds and actions… indeed, our whole world. Though it’s the same principle, this isn’t as easy as when we were small children and our parents shaped our world. To see and understand who God is, what God is about, and what God is doing and to let that shape us… that’s a lot harder.
We see that clearly when we look at scripture. There, we see nothing is more consistent than the repeated failure of people to “see”God, and to understand his way of working in the world.
In the Gospels, no one can grasp who Jesus is or what he has to say about the kingdom of God. The scribes and Pharisees cannot understand it. Those who come to Jesus for help and healing don’t get it. John the Baptist thinks he’s got it, but later, when he is in prison, he realizes that he misunderstood it. Jesus’ own disciples cannot understand it. They lived with Jesus for three years and they get it wrong again and again and again… even right at the very end.
Everyone gets it wrong. This is because God’s way and God’s will are just so unexpected. They go against our basic human nature. When we look for God, we are generally looking in the wrong place and in the wrong way.
We need to stop assuming that understanding Jesus or the Kingdom of God is easy. We need to accept the fact that we stand beside all these people – the scribes, the Pharisees, John, the disciples– and, like them, we struggle to understand. We need (always) to look to Jesus with hungry and open hearts and minds; so that we might see with new eyes and be changed by what we see.
We all need God’s epiphany and the new life it brings. It is a deeply personal thing… just as the way our parents shape our world is a deeply personal thing. It’s not enough for us that the church has creeds and doctrines that declare who Christ is and what he has done. We need to have our own hearts and minds shaped and changed by God’s spirit and word.
God seeks to do that by making himself known to us. That’s what’s happening in today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. God lets us know who he is in order to change who we are.
Right in the middle –verse 5 – we are given some important background for getting to know God.
“Thus says God, the Lord,who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it.”
These words remind us that he isn’t a petty god who rules over one small part of nature or who favors one people over others… rather he is the one who is the source of all that is and the author of all life.
2500 years ago that was certainly an amazing concept… God who rules over the totality of all creation. But it is much more mind-blowing today as we have a much greater understanding of the vastness of the universe and the incredible complexity and wonder of life. Such a being is so far beyond our intellectual reach.
At any rate, we are to keep this cosmic creator image in mind as God tells us that he is also intensely personal, present and involved in this world… and by his actions, we are to know him.
Verse 6 speaks of God’s calling forth a servant to carry out his will and work in the world. The servant is not identified. Some have thought it refers to Moses, others to a king of the 6th century BC. Others believe the servant refers to the people of Israel. In the Christian tradition, Jesus is widely understood to be the servant. However, it could also be understood as the church.
But what’s ultimately most important here… and the writer of Isaiah knows this… is not the identity of the servant, but knowledge of the way and work for which God uses his servant. That’s what we need to know. That’s what tells us who God is. That’s what has the power to embed itself in our hearts and minds and change all that we are.
“I have called you in righteousness,” says God. These words remind us that God’s purpose and actions are driven by love. God’s will is to see our lives become good and whole.
“I have taken you by the hand,” God says, “and kept you.” These words remind us how intensely God is involved and invested in the world. He is not a distant, disinterested or unapproachable God. He is like a loving parent who walks alongside us, takes us by the hand and keeps us under his watchful care.
“I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” God proclaims. God’s presence with us is a powerful promise that will never be broken and a gift intended to transform our lives…change darkness into light, despair into hope, sorrow into joy.
The verse goes on “…to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” The way and work of God in our world is this: He comes to his people who suffer and he gives light… he gives sight… he liberates. That is how we are to know him. And that knowledge of our creator is meant to shape who we are.
Take a look in your bulletin at verse 8. “I am Yahweh. That is my name.” That’s what’s actually written there. In an expression of intimacy, God, the creator of the universe, shares with us his name. The translation in our bulletin reads: “I am the Lord….” It makes it sound more formal, substituting a title for a name. That was the traditional practice of the Hebrews who felt it was disrespectful to say the name of God, so they would always say “Adonai” (which means “Lord”) wherever Yahweh was written.
But today’s lesson three times gives God’s name, Yahweh. God shares this name with us to show his love for us. It is a part of his saying to us, “I want you to know me.” Jesus, in his ministry called on us to address God as “Abba,” which is like saying “Daddy.” We are to know how deeply God loves us and how completely he claims us.
Finally, a particularly compelling and important piece of information about God’s way in this world comes in verse 9: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”
God is active in this world and in our lives in order to bring forth new things. If we want to “see” God in our world, we need to know this. It is God’s way to lead us into growth and change. It is God’s intention to bring new things into our lives… things that strengthen us, heal us… change us.
Students… you need to know this about God. If you are looking to see God in your life, take a bold step… look for and embrace newness and change in your life. There you will find God present and active, bringing new life and creating new possibilities.
When I talk with students who are getting ready to leave this place, one of the common themes I hear is the sad resignation that they’re going to return to their old life. It’s not something they’re excited about, just something they’re resigned to. They just can’t see how they can do it differently. The old life is familiar, comfortable.
Changing their world, becoming a new person, claiming new life… these things just seem too hard. They seem impossible.
And that’s why God… that’s why Jesus… tells you and shows you who God is. So that you can let go of backward-looking fear. So that you can take God’s hand and set your sights on new life. Let him walk with you and do what he does… bring forth new things.
God will never leave us as we walk through the pain of change. That’s his promise. He will see us through… all the way… until our darkness becomes light and our blindness becomes sight.