The Three B's
Psalm 29; Luke 3: 1522
Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about her Grandmother Lucy. Lucy was a very strange looking woman. She had lost both her legs to diabetes and had wooden stumps where limbs should be. Her weak eyes demanded that she wear dark glasses. Most of the time, she looked like a disabled bomber pilot. But to her granddaughters, she was wonderful. When ever Barbara would visit her grandmother, grace would abound. In the closet would be wrapped packages enough for a surprise each day of the visit. The meals were delicious always with a favorite dessert. Then there were the shopping trips to buy dresses and crinolines and new hair bows. But, the best part of these visits were the baths. Each night Grandma Lucy would draw a hot bath filled with suds, and with her big sponge she would polish Barbara's skin. Then, following the bath she would anoint her granddaughter's body with Jergen's lotion all the way down to the souls of her feet. The perfect ending would be the Evening in Paris dusting powder when Lucy would tickle Barbara's body with a pale blue powder puff. Barbara writes: "When Grandma Lucy was done, I knew that I was precious. I was absolutely convinced that I was loved and nothing has happened since to shake that conviction (The Preaching Life, p. 17).
My own story is not nearly as exotic, but to me it felt the same. As a small child my asthma attacks would usually hit in the middle of the night, and my gasping for breath would quickly escalate into panic. Quick trips to the emergency room followed, and then the long hours in the oxygen tent until my lungs could be stabilized. But always with me was my father—carrying me, holding me, staying with me. And I felt loved—in my smallness, in my sickness, in my weakness, in my imperfectness. I felt loved not because I was safe. I felt safe because I was loved—"precious" as Barbara Brown puts it—and nothing has happened since to shake my conviction. For both of us it was these early experiences of trust that helped us figure out the meaning of faith, which is after all, nothing more and nothing less than trust, trusting God, no matter what.
This morning our scripture passages give us two different pictures of God. One is a picture of might. The other is a picture of mercy. One presents a God of glory. The other presents a God of grace. One in bold palette presents a vivid Lord of Lightning. The other, in softer tones, gives us a lavish Lord of Love. Both of these pictures are true. In Psalm 29 we meet the Voice—the powerful Voice, the majestic Voice, the Voice that thunders, that breaks the cedars, that flashes forth-making oaks to whirl, stripping the forest bare. This God is not a God to mess with, not a God to mutter about, not a God to meddle with.
In our gospel lesson, when we meet John the Baptist, we see that he clearly worships this kind of mammoth, mighty, master God. He worries that the Messiah to come will sweep into the wilderness—like a refiner's fire—consuming human sin as if it were twigs in a tinder box.
But much to John's surprise, and perhaps disappointment, the God he expects is not the God who arrives. The Mighty Messiah turns out to be the Gentle Jesus. Rather than a military man lording it over his subjects—we meet, instead, a modest man, who wades into muddy water, choosing to be a companion with those he has come to serve. The two conflicting images of the Holy Spirit included in Luke's passage underline the difference between John's expectation and the reality of Jesus. For John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit is like a ferocious fire, representing the judgment of God. But, when the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus, it is like a dove, like the Noah's Ark dove that marked the end of God's judgment. The Fire God, the Ire God is replaced by the Dove God, the Love God.
In all of the gospel accounts describing the baptism of Jesus, one question remains unanswered. Why was Jesus baptized? Why did he need to be baptized? After all, according to John, baptism is for the purpose of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. What did Jesus need to repent of? And what did he need to be forgiven for? Actually, when you think abut it, this one who is to do the baptizing never baptizes a soul. Instead, Jesus submits to baptism himself, kneeling in the mud and the muck and the mire. For the same reason he is born in a manger, that he eats with prostitutes and tax collectors, that he cries and prays and sleeps in a garden, that he dies a painful, very human death. Quite simply Jesus comes to be like us, so we can grow to be like him. Jesus is baptized into our humanity, so that we can be baptized into his divinity.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, those who are baptized in the same font become siblings— they are considered the same flesh and blood—they are kin with one another. In this sense, Jesus became siblings with the crowd, all those with whom he was baptized in the River Jordan. When we are baptized into Christ in the waters of this font, we too become siblings, with Christ and with one another.
The personal name we receive is important. But much more important is the spiritual name we receive—Christian—bearer of Christ—brother and sister of Christ.
There is the story that a Presbyterian pastor tells about one of those embarrassing moments in ministry. He was in the middle of performing a wedding ceremony, just about to lead the couple through their vows, when, all of a sudden, he forgot the name of the groom. Trying to cover the awkward moment, the pastor asked the groom with great solemnity "With what name were you baptized?" The groom, a bit taken aback, paused. But then with great confidence, he responded, "I was baptized with the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!" This didn't help the pastor much, but at least this guy understood the meaning of baptism! (Marj Carpenter, The Presbyterian Outlook, January 5-11, 1998, p. 2)
What is most important about our text for today is how it ends. After this remarkable transformation—from thunder theology into tender theology, after the metamorphosis of this abstract, awesome God into a fragile, flesh and blood God—after the Heavenly One decides to become earthy—to become concrete in bushes that burn and babies that burp and birds that baptize—it is then that the Creator God responds in a very particular way. Quite simply, God is delighted!
If you have ever wondered if God is a mean God or a merciful God—if you have ever worried that God may blast us instead of bless us—if you ever have thought that God is a God of law more than a God of Love—well, the 22nd verse of the third chapter of Luke alleviates our confusion. The Voice of God speaks once again. But unlike the megaphone Voice of Psalm 29, this Voice is warm and welcoming. "You are my Son, the Beloved One; with you I am well pleased." To the man in the mud, this Son who has become a servant, God speaks. Even before Jesus has done anything noteworthy or worthwhile God praises him. God affirms that Jesus is precious, that he is unique, that he is loved—not for what he does but for who he is. In this baptism scene, God echoes the divine delight and pleasure that was expressed in the very beginning days of creation. After the creation of the sea and the dry land, God said, "It is good." After the creation of the light and the dark, the star and sun and moon, God said, "It is good." After the creation of the birds and the animals, the plants and the trees and the fish of the sea, God said, "it is very good." And after the creation of man and woman in God's image, God said, "it is good. It is very, very good." And after the baptism of Jesus, after this total immersion into the human condition, God says, "This is good. This is delightful. This is the Beloved, who beings me great pleasure. This is very, very good." So it is with each one of us when we are baptized. We too are blessed as the Beloved. We too bring pleasure to God.
The Greek word for baptism means: "To dip, to immerse, to submerge—and my favorite—to saturate." Baptism is, for all of us the bath of the Beloved, when God takes pleasure in saturating us—saturating us with water, saturating us with grace, saturating us with blessing. When I read about Jesus' baptism, what I understand is happening is very different than what traditional doctrines have explained. Rather than saving us from original sin, Jesus’ baptism mirrors for us our original blessing—encouraging us to become servants of love—offering blessing and not judgment to others. And despite the fact that we remain partial, sinful, fragile, imperfect people, our original blessing can empower us if we remember that we are baptized.
This afternoon we will celebrate an ordination, a setting apart for particular ministry through the laying on of hands. But this morning we celebrate the ordination of all of us, which is really what baptism is all about. Through this saturation of blessing and of belonging, we become the beloved—those set apart by God's love to become love in the world. Though it was little Laura and Benjamin who were drenched with grace this day, each one of us was reminded of our original blessing—reminded of the waters of baptism that have washed over our lives and each one of us was reminded of God's Voice in our lives. You are my child, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased. Remember your baptism, my friends. Remember that you are blessed. Remember that you belong. Remember that you are the beloved. And remember that it is a gracious God that has taken delight and pleasure in who you are and who you are becoming. This profound gift changes us. This profound Gift defines us. This profound gift is what we have to share with the world. How can we do anything else but be a blessing to others? How can we do anything else but find and name the beloved—to give to others a sense of belonging in God's family. This is the Gift of this day. This is the Good News of this day. This is the call of this day. And it is very, very good.
Susan R. Andrews