Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Baptism of Our Lord, Year A - January 9, 2011 (Psalm 29, Matthew 3:13-17)

Many years ago, in the summer between two semesters of college, I experienced an event in nature that had a profound effect on my faith. It has never occurred to me very often to share it because I was totally alone when the event happened, and so it became a very personal—almost private—epiphany. On second thought, however, it was an experience that, at the time, so intensely deepened my understanding of God’s grace that I think it might have helped put me on the path towards my vocation as pastor. In a way, that makes that epiphany less private, like it somehow now belongs to everyone who might come in contact with me, even if I never mention it explicitly.

The event of which I speak was nothing more than the peculiarly brilliant glow of a sunset against the snow-covered side of a large mountain in the Sierra Nevada range in California. It happened while I was on a 24-hour period of solitary retreat that was a part of a fourteen-day Outward Bound course in mountaineering. I was tired and alone in my thoughts at the end of a long day, sitting on my sleeping bag on a sun-hardened snow drift, when I looked up into the distance at the perfect instant to catch the rays of evening sun glancing off this large, white mountain. It is difficult to rate sunsets, but at the time, it was the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen, by far.

Yet it was more than a beautiful sunset. As I was moved by its brightness and intensity, it seemed to allow what poet Percy Shelley once called “the everlasting universe of things flow through [my] mind.” And, like all sunsets, it was fleeting. But in the minutes that it lasted, I was consumed by awe and thanksgiving: awe, not simply because of its radiance, but more because I felt something so beautiful in nature—and my appreciation of it—could never occur by accident; and thanksgiving, for the pleasure of seeing it (and that the view wasn’t obscured by thousands of blackbirds plummeting from the sky!) I felt, in a way, as if that sunset might have been a message sent from God directly to me, assuring me not only of his presence, but also of his constant care. I remember what affected me most about the experience was the realization that this vista, as spectacular as it was, was not a one-time occurrence. That kind of sunset happened every day, the world over. I was—and still am—sure that I experienced God’s glory and grace in that sunset, and I was thankful for the opportunity to appreciate it—if that makes any sense.

I’m sure many— if not all—of you have had similar experiences with the grandeur and power of nature. It may not be a sunset, but perhaps the sight of a waterfall, or the complexity of the atom, or the birth of a child, or a loved one making an unexpected recovery from illness. Occurrences with the natural, created world—both the mundane and the extraordinary—have always had a way of communicating something about God’s power and God’s wisdom. Often they catch us off guard, but sometimes we grow into these epiphanies more gradually. Whether or not we can explain the phenomena scientifically makes little difference. They are glimpses of what God is like and how God manifests God’s love to us.

Ancient Israel was no exception in experiencing this. They, too, lived in a natural world that was awesome and beautiful and difficult to explain. That, in fact, is what Psalm 29 is trying to communicate this morning. Psalm 29 is a unique psalm: no other portion of Holy Scripture so closely associates events in nature with the glory of God. In it, the psalmist has clearly experienced some natural event—in this case, it sounds like it might have been a thunderstorm—and he is moved to expound upon God’s power. The imagery is vivid: cedar trees are snapped, like those in hurricane-force winds; the desert shakes and the oak trees writhe and sway; rain and wind consume the landscape so much that the hills in the distance skip like young wild oxen.

The imagery is truly descriptive, but the particular wording of the psalm is more peculiar yet: each verse includes God’s name, sometimes twice. It is thought that this psalm might have actually been partly borrowed from Israel’s nature-worshiping neighbors. Israel, of course, adapted and re-worded it so that it was clear that the wind and the rain were not gods themselves, or tools of a vindictive pantheon of deities overhead, but, rather, manifestations of the one true God’s power. The first two lines of the psalm make clear where the people are to ascribe all this glory: to none other than the Lord, the God of Israel, whose name then rings out, quite repetitively, throughout the song.

And where are the people in the psalm? They are in the temple, praising God and crying “glory!” which would have essentially been the words on my lips as I sat on the side of that mountain years ago: “Glory!” But here Israel is together, hearing about or remembering this magnificent storm, making a public pronouncement about God’s power.

Yet for all our examples of epiphanies and for all of Israel’s poetry regarding God’s grandeur, all things pale in comparison to what happens when Jesus of Nazareth steps into the Jordan River to be baptized by John.

Imagine, for a second, bringing up Google Earth on your computer screen. There, before you, is a color satellite image of the whole earth, or maybe most of one hemisphere. The ridges of the mountain ranges are visible, as are some of the folds and creases of the ocean floor. As if offering God’s own perspective, the whole planet is in our domain…the thunderstorms, the sunsets, and everything else. Then, imagine going to the place where you type in an address or a location. What happens next? As soon as a specific location gets entered, the satellite’s eye immediately zooms in and focuses on that one particular spot. We hover, perhaps like a descending dove, just above one particular spot in God’s creation.

That is akin to what happens at Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus steps into that muddy river, and has his head breaks the surface as he comes back up, God’s glory and power and grace zoom in and become centered in one place like never before. At that point, God’s voice is heard overhead, and it is not announcing, as it was before, “This is my thunderstorm, the sign of my power,” nor does it proclaim, as I once heard, “This is my sunset, the Beautiful.” Rather, now God’s voice declares, “This is my Son, the beloved.” God is acting in a new way—a new message sent straight to us—and his glory and power and beauty and love will be visible and real to us in a way that is altogether unprecedented.

Jesus, God’s own Son, is now walking on the earth, and his baptism claims him from a private, personal existence and sets him forth as a public leader and servant. In his baptism, Jesus is lifted out of relative obscurity set forth as a God’s anointed, one who will at the same time encapsulate for Israel all the righteousness they could never muster and for God all the love for his creation. In his baptism, we not only learn to ascribe to Jesus the glory due God’s name, but God also ascribes to his Son the love and sacrifice he has for us.

For from the waters of the Jordan Jesus will rise and not go home. He will go out into the wilderness to be tempted. From there to the villages and town of Galilee of Judea, preaching God’s word and calling people to take part in God’s kingdom. From this point in the waters of Jordan, you can draw a line directly through all those things right to the judgment hall of Pontius Pilate and, from there, to the cross—and trust all along that God is still zoomed in on him.

It is a challenge to many a person’s faith—including my own—to remember that to this day there is no more positive and definitive demonstration of God’s reality, or of God’s power—and most certainly of God’s love—than in Jesus Christ, no matter how many other beautiful sunsets we’ve seen or how many loved ones we see miraculously healed. Jesus is still the focal point of God’s efforts, that Google Earth zoom effect that we can’t deny. In his small book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this:
“It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must be proved, but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ…The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important that the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day.” (Life Together, HarperSanFrancisco, 1954, p54)

Those have always been challenging words for me, because I have a terrible tendency to think that everything—even God’s love—is all about me. And really, it isn't.  It's more about Jesus.  And while my experiences with sunsets and even hills skipping like young wild oxen are good grounds for believing in God’s glory, God’s action in Jesus’ life is the “sole ground,” Bonhoeffer says, in our hope of eternal life.

Interestingly, it was solid ground that the dove was seeking when Noah thought the forty long days of flooding and waiting was over. Solid ground was needed for a new beginning, a new life. And when the dove returned, descending with the olive branch, the people of God knew that the wait was over.

A new dove descends at Jesus’ baptism, and, likewise, a wait is over. Solid ground has risen up, and we may build. Baptized, ourselves, flooded with forgiveness, we may begin anew and build our lives on the sole ground God so long intended to give us. Brothers and sisters, we may build again—not with a faith too personal and private, but with a courage to be public and prophetic for the whole creation.

In Jesus, we behold God’s beloved Son, and we may build our lives in him. Again, and again…and again. And all the people in the temple shout, “Glory!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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