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With You I Am Well Pleased

Sermon - 1/10/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 3:15-22

We are in the season of Epiphany.  The word epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaino, which means to appear or to give light.  Thus an “epiphany” can be any appearance or enlightenment.  When someone says, “Aha, now I see the light,” that is an “epiphany.”  On the Christian calendar, Epiphany is the season that acknowledges Christ as the revelation or the appearance of God in the world and is symbolized by the star that guided the magi to the Christ child.

The Epiphany season extends from January 6th to the season of Lent. It is a season that invites us to reflect on how Jesus appears in our lives and how the light of God shines in our world today. One of the epiphany stories traditionally used on the first Sunday of the Epiphany season is the story of the baptism of Jesus.  In the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we are introduced to John the Baptist and his message.  Then Luke tells us,

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’
 

Normally voices from heaven are taken as Epiphany experiences.  I know that whenever I hear a voice from above I stop and listen, don’t you? 

Four rabbis were engaged in an on-going, theological debate and the rule was, majority wins.  But it was always 3 against 1, the same 3 against the same 1.  Poor Rabbi Jacob was always on the losing side.  He was certain that he understood the Torah and that he understood God, but he could never win an argument. 

So one day when he was absolutely certain he was right, once again it was 3 to 1, he looked up to the heavens and prayed fervently, “Oh God, give me a sign and show these stubborn, ignorant colleagues of mine that I am right.”  Sure enough, a dark cloud formed over them.  Jacob said to the others, “See?”  They said, “So? We have bad weather all of the time, what does that say?” 

Jacob prayed again, “God, I need a bigger sign!”  Thunder rolled, lighting came down and struck a tree right next to the four men.  Half of the tree fell on one side of them and the other half fell on the other side.  Jacob said, “See?!”  They said, “So?  Lighting strikes the earth thousands of times everyday, what does that prove?” 

Jacob prayed harder, “Lord, I need even a bigger sign!.”  The whole world went black, a voice thundered from the heavens, “Jacob is right.”  Immediately the cloud lifted and the sun shone again.  Jacob looked at the others and said, “See, I told you!”  They replied, “So?  Now the vote is 3 to 2.”

The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus in bodily form and a voice comes from the heaven, you’d think that would be enough.  That people everywhere would fall down and worship Jesus, would see that here is the Messiah, crown him, take him to Jerusalem and put him on the throne.  Why doesn’t it happen?

The Gospel of Mark gives us a clue.  In chapter one of Mark we are told that Jesus saw the dove and heard the voice.  The implication is that it is a very personal, intimate experience between Jesus and God, between Father and Son, between parent and child.  When Matthew tells the story, we think about 20 years later than Mark, it is a little different.  Instead of saying “You are my son,” the voice from heaven says in chapter three of Matthew, “This is my son.”  A subtle but important change which suggests that the voice is intended for others, not just for Jesus.  But still, as in Mark, only Jesus sees the descending dove.

When Luke tells the story, probably writing about the same time as Matthew, Luke doesn’t change the quotation from Mark’s gospel as does Matthew. Luke leaves it exactly the same but leaves out any reference to who saw the descending dove.

Then Luke adds this significant detail the story.  He begins the baptism account by adding this very inclusive phrase in verse 21: “when all the people were baptized…”  Instead of specifying who saw or heard what, Luke opens the possibility to a much larger, communal experience. 

In John’s gospel, likely the last of the four gospels to be written, John goes even further.  In the fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is the one who sees the spirit descend upon Jesus and hears the voice of God.  John then, as the spokesperson for God, says to the others in chapter one, “Here is the one for whom we have been waiting, here is the Son of God.”  Thus you see over time as the story is told and re-told, a very personal, private encounter becomes a public event for all to share and to participate in.

A second thing happens in this re-telling of the story, and that is the significance of John the Baptist as the one who baptizes Jesus decreases and his significance as one who points to Jesus as the Christ increases.  In Mark’s gospel Jesus comes to John to be baptized and John baptizes him, no questions asked, no forms to fill out, just come be baptized. In Matthew’s gospel, John protests.  “I am not worth to baptize you.”  Jesus says, “Just do it, John.”  And he does it. 

Now note carefully what happens in Luke.  Luke tells us that John is arrested before he tells us of the baptism.  Is Luke suggesting that John didn’t baptize Jesus because he was in jail?  No, I don’t think that is it at all, rather it is a literary device to remove John from the scene symbolically as a way of saying to us that it is not really important who baptized Jesus.  And then John’s gospel goes the furthest by leaving out any reference to the baptism altogether and John simply tells us about the Spirit descending on him like a dove.

Over time as the story is re-told there is a shift in emphasis.  What is going on here?  Are the gospel writers playing lose with the past?  That’s not it.  Rather, they are very concerned with the truth.  What is the truth they seek to convey?  That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. 

And each conveys it in his on way.  Jesus is not another prophet, he’s not a wise rabbi, he’s not a disciple of John the Baptist, he is the One God has chosen to redeem the world.

Now here is the key for us: the blessing that Jesus receives, the voice that he hears--and this is a point that gets lost on us--the blessing he receives from God, “You are my Son, with you I am well pleased,” is a blessing bestowed upon us in our baptism.

How can I say that?  The movement suggests it, this movement from a private event to a very public one.  The reason Jesus’ baptism becomes more public is because it has significance for more than just Jesus.  Paul proclaims to the Romans, we are buried with Jesus by baptism so that “we will be united with him in a resurrection.”  His blessing is our blessing.

There is an ancient word for such a blessing.  It is called “sacrament”.  Marcus Borg defines sacrament simply as “something visible and physical whereby the Spirit becomes present to us.  A sacrament is a means of grace, a vehicle or vessel for the Spirit.”  [i]

That is precisely what baptism does.  Alexander Campbell, one of our founders, called baptism the “embodiment of the Gospel… in a single act.”  It is the very tangible, outward sign of God’s grace and our acceptance of it.  It is God’s way of saying to us, you are part of the family, you are my child, with you I am pleased. That is a message we all need to hear.

Heinz Kohut, a psychoanalyst, discovered in the 60s that the deepest level of existential, emotional, spiritual suffering comes as a result of inner vulnerabilities created in infancy when the most basic needs of affirmation are not met.  That discovery has been reaffirmed in study after study since then.  Kohut established that every infant needs three critical types of blessing to develop a positive self-image. 

First is the blessing of mirroring.  Mirroring is when you pick up a baby and the baby goes, “goo-goo”.  What do you do?  You go, “goo-goo”!  That’s right, you know how to do it to!  You affirm the child and so they learn and are encouraged by that to seek appreciation and affirmation.  When the baby goes, “ga-ga”, you say “Did you hear that, the baby said “Da-Da”, she knows my name!  That is all affirming.

Secondly, is the soothing response, walking with the child, rocking the baby to sleep, responding to the child’s need for comfort and reassurance.  From that the infant learns that they can count on others at critical times to meet their needs, that we are relational beings dependent on one another. 

The third blessing is that of acceptance, that says I am part of this family, I belong here, I am wanted. 

A few years back I heard a report on NPR radio of a study of childcare centers that said that most of the childcare centers in this country do a good job of meeting the basic, physical needs of infants.  But only a few do a good job of meeting those kind of emotional needs that I have just described, providing that kind of positive response to the infant.  The implications of that are rather frightening.  From the moment of our conception we are dependent on the blessings of others, the key to raising healthy, human beings is to bless them, over and over again with praise and adoration and love and pleasure.

Withhold those blessings and scars will be deep and long-lasting.  Our emotional, our spiritual, even our physical health is dependent on the blessings we receive from others.  The fewer we receive as a child, the more we need as an adult.  That is one of the reasons it is so important to bless one another with genuine words of warm welcome when we come into the midst here of the sanctuary of God.

Hear then the good news.  God is not out to judge us, to condemn us, to send us to hell.  God is out to forgive us, to bless us, to raise us to heaven. 

If God is going to raise us as Mary and Joseph did Jesus, will it not be with praise and blessing and goodness and joy and love?  When you are baptized, in the name of Jesus, God says to you, “You are my child, with you I am pleased.” 

I know some of you are thinking, “Who me?” God might love me, but God can’t be pleased with me.  So let’s set the record straight here once and for all.  Maybe God wasn’t pleased when you hit Johnny in the nose in fourth grade because he called you a pig-head.  Yea, he had it coming but God probably did not smile upon you then.  Maybe God wasn’t pleased when you stole that magazine that you were too young to read and were not supposed to have.  Maybe God wasn’t pleased when you partied a little bit too much as a youth or young adult and hung around with the wrong crowd and got involved in the wrong stuff.

Maybe God wasn’t pleased when you were feeling sorry for yourself and your marriage wasn’t quite what you hoped and you sought out someone you shouldn’t have for companionship.  Maybe God is not pleased with every choice you make, with every decision.  But that is part of being human. 

So all those things you would like to take away, all those things you would like to forget all those poor decisions, all those wrong turns, all those mistakes, that’s not you.  That’s the exterior, that’s the superficial.  You can take that away, take it all away.  Strip it all away and you will find a person created in the image of God, and that is the one I am talking about.  Down to the inner core, the essence of who you are, that’s the one to whom God says, “You are my child, with you I am pleased.” 

I want to do something to help everyone experience the blessing of baptism again if you have been baptized or to get a taste of it if you have not.  This is completely optional.  Some folk really like these kind of mental exercises and others find them trite so it is entirely up to you if you want to participate.  Your salvation does not depend on participating!

For those who are willing, take a moment to imagine with me a place where you enjoy being alone.  Close your eyes if you like and picture it in your mind.  It can be somewhere in the wilderness far from civilization or in the quiet of your own home.  Wherever, put yourself in that place and take a deep breath as you just enjoy the pleasure of being there.  Quietly, as you take in your next breath, say, “I am”, hold it for a moment, and as you exhale say, “a child of God.”  Go ahead, you can say it in a whisper or say it in conversational tone, the person next to you won’t mind, or if they do, tough.

With the next breath, repeat after me, “I am” and hold it, then exhale, “created in God’s image.”

Again, inhale, “I am” … exhale, and a little louder if you please, “the apple of God’s eye.”  Did you smile when you said that, even laugh?  That’s good to do.

Again, “I am,”  … say like you mean it  “loved by God.”  Because you are.  Feel God love you as you take that breath.

This next one may be hard for some, but all the more important that you say it and feel it.  Breathe in, “I am,” … breathe out, “forgiven by God.”  We all need to hear that and feel that forgiveness at some time in our lives.

One more.  Call to mind all the good things of life you have received or enjoy.  Feel the goodness of being alive, of being here in this moment.  Breathe in, “I am,” … and out, “blessed by God.”  In, “I am,” and out, “blessed by God.”  Again, “I am… blessed by God.”

Open your eyes, if you had them closed, hear, know and feel this baptism blessing:  with you, child of God, with you, God is well pleased. 

Amen.


 

[i] Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 14.

 

 


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