Sunday, January 07, 2007

Baptism of Jesus

Isaiah 43
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

How are you today?
How are you feeling?

I challenge you to take these two questions into the world and I guarantee that most often you will get the following responses: “fine, thank you” and “good.” I call it the Pavlovian emotional response in polite society: like Dr. Pavlov's dog, trained to drool when the dinner bell rang, we have been trained to give the non-response response. Fine, thanks.

To go further, when someone actually answers the question, telling you about some ache or pain, orgiving you a detailed breakdown of their current malaise, it is as if the social contract has been broken. We feel betrayed: “I didn't ask 'how are you?' but 'how are you?'” Even the advanced emotional question I asked at the top will most often provides the emotion non-response response. They may not get the grammar right, but you will likely discover they are “good” and little more.

Back in ministers' school we were taught to ask open-ended questions such as “how are you feeling today” rather than the closed “so, you're feeling okay, eh?” (Canadian theological college) Even trained to ask those state-of-the-art open-ended questions I still find myself confronted with far too many “fines” and “goods.” I can remember many a hospital visit when the person before me is clearly in a disastrous state, looking like Evel Knieval after a run at the Grand Canyon, and all I get is “I'm fine dear, how are you? You look tired, you must be working hard.”

In an attempt to get the bottom of this very human phenomenon, I turned to

The expression of emotion is, likewise, a complicated affair. For example, the expression of emotion may lead to negative consequences if the recipient of the emotion is uncomfortable with the emotion. In the case of anger, it can lead to the resolution of a conflict or it can substantially increase the anger of both parties. Again, there does not appear to be a simple rule of thumb.*

Maybe we are wise to offer and receive such pleasantries. Maybe it's a case of “you can't handle the truth.” (thanks, Jack) Maybe the social contract that feels broken every time someone actually gives an emotional response is there protect us from each other and the uncertainties of a real emotion. Or maybe we're just lazy. Whatever the reason, it would be unreasonable to expect essay-length answers to the “how are you” question any time soon.


For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you.

God doesn't have any trouble getting emotional. Second Isaiah is one of those places where God is downright effusive, expressing joy, declaring love, and making promises for the future. Surprisingly, it wasn't always this way. Something changed, and it is the change in God that worth exploring.

Before what is called “Second Isaiah,” from Genesis through to Isaiah 39, God was a fighter, not a lover. According to Jack Miles, Gods emotional range before Second Isaiah included “wrathful, vengeful and remorseful” and little else. He writes:

It was not for love that he made man. It was not for love that he made his covenant with Abraham. It was not for love that he brought the Israelites out of Egypt or drove out the Canaanites before them. The “steadfast love” of the Mosaic covenant was rather a fierce mutual loyalty binding liege and vassal than any gentler emotion.

I guess if I sat down with a wedding couple who pledged “fierce mutual loyalty” I might wonder if there is a problem. The God that Jack Miles is highlighting has a rather limited emotional range, best summed up in his conclusion that “God's character is, page after page, book after book, one of impervious impassivity, frequently interrupted by rage.”

Reading Isaiah 39, and turning the page, we are confronted by something quite new:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double.

[The Lord] will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you.

Suddenly we meet “the God who loves.” The exiles are returning to a land that offers hope and little else. Destroyed and barren, the bittersweet moment of return is punctuated by this extraordinary shift in the life of God. Gone is the “fierce mutual loyalty” from a more tribal age, gone is impervious impassivity of yesteryear: this is a God of comfort and nurture and love. We are redeemed and held and honoured. “Do not fear” says the God who has inspired little else, “for I am with you and I love you.”


It takes time to get used to such a change. We tend to view the world around us as rather static and unlikely to change. We are wary of people to constantly act one way and then suddenly pledge to act in another way. I realize that I am drifting into lightning bolt territory here, but you have to imagine a little skepticism on the part of the Israelites. God sends them into exile at the hand of a Babylonian king and a generation later its all “love this” and “comfort that” and “hurry home.”

Even now, as we call to mind the times we felt punished or ignored by God, or heard condemning words from those who claim to speak for God, it is hard to fathom all the mushy love stuff. For many, this is simply not their experience. For them, the experience may be akin to the parent who claims to act from a place of love with a loud voice and an angry tone.

How do we bridge the credibility gap here, and how do the words find meaning in our experience? Enter the second part of our story:

21Now 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.”

Some say God had stopped speaking. Some claim that his voice had not been heard since the time of Job. God asked Job “if someone who can only argue with the Almighty should speak.” Maybe he was asking it of all of us. These are among his last words that day and down to the moment Jesus is baptized.


I believe that it wasn't enough for God to tell us that we are loved. God had to show us. I believe that what happened that day, when God's Spirit fell upon Jesus and met the God already present in him, was the beginning of a willingness to show us the love God professed. God entered human experience precisely to put words into action, to make manifest the love described in Second Isaiah, to teach the world how to love and how to follow in God's way.

We welcome that God who loves. We welcome his son. We struggle to find the words to express our love, and the sense of God's glory we feel. May God help us, and may we never cease to speak the truth of God's love. Amen.



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