Sunday, January 12, 2020

Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

“Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”

This wonderful quote comes from the late Gracie Allen, part of the comedy duo Burns and Allen, along with her husband George Burns. When Gracie died in 1964, the quote “Never put a period where God has placed a comma” was found in her papers, as a message for George. George, it turns out, would live another 32 years and take her advice to heart, reinventing himself and entertaining people to nearly up to his 100th!

Years later, when the United Church of Christ went looking for a motto, they took inspiration from Gracie Allen’s words. The motto said “God is Still Speaking” and adopted the comma as the unofficial symbol for the denomination. Even today you will see United Church of Christ congregations with a giant comma on their church sign, or as a graphic on their website. And while it is hard to measure the effectiveness of a motto or an ad campaign, the words “God is Still Speaking” certainly became part of the identity of the church.

And the idea itself didn’t appear out of nowhere. One of the “founders” of the United Church of Christ (and an indirect founder of our own denomination) was the Rev. John Robinson. He ministered to the Pilgrims before they left for America, and blessed them on their way saying “There is yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word.” In other words, God is still speaking, and therefore we use a comma rather than a period.*

I share all this because of the voice of heaven found in the passage Bob read, the moment that Jesus emerges from the water, and a dove descends, and we hear the words “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” It is the conclusion of the baptism of Jesus narrative, and it follows that moment of dissonance that we’ll ponder in a moment or two. For now, we need to remain with these words from heaven, and the whole topic of divine silence.

It is a favourite motif among preachers that these words mark a significant shift, God breaking the silence that had lasted 400 years. And the logic seems simple enough: the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi, the last prophet before “the long silence” that is only broken in the New Testament. There is even a name for the period, most often described as “intertestamental,” the 400-year timeline represented by the last page of one testament and the first page of the next.

Sadly for preachers, it’s not that simple. While our Bibles may go charging from Malachi to Matthew, Roman Catholic Bibles include the Apocrypha, with books like Judith, Tobit, and the Book of Wisdom. And then there is the Pseudepigrapha, which Carmen will be happy to tell you about over coffee, and then there are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Carmen will be really happy to talk to you about over coffee.** It seems God had lots to say during this so-called 400 years of silence, God simply said it in other (non-canonical) ways.

And the events don’t bear this out this silence idea either. Back in December our Jewish friends celebrated Hanukkah, the festival of lights that began in the intertestamental period. When the Maccabees retook control of the Temple (164 BC) they reconstituted it for worship and relit the lampstand, even though they only had enough oil for one evening. Miraculously, the lamp burned for eight nights, time enough to find more oil (and inspire the festival of lights, already being celebrated at the time of Jesus). Indeed, the only reason Jesus is able to be presented in the Temple at all, is through God’s activity during the Maccabean revolt.***

So God was still speaking. God was speaking through priests as they reconsecrated the Temple in 164, God was speaking through the translators who gave us the Greek Old Testament, and God was speaking through the community at Qumran (again, ask Carmen over coffee—it’s gonna be a long coffee hour). God was still speaking through Anna and Simeon as they blessed the infant Jesus, and God was still speaking through John the Baptist—calling people into the wilderness to accept a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

And then God spoke again, saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” But before I say more, I promised you some dissonance—maybe embarrassment is a better word—as Jesus is baptized by John. We are supposed to raise our eyebrows over this turn of events, something John points to when he says “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me.” It does seem quite reversed, God’s incarnation seeking baptism by John. But Jesus has the answer for this, saying, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” So John consented.

“All righteousness” simply means in a manner that would please God,” or in a way that reflects the ministry that will follow. In the way of Christ, the least become the greatest, enemies become friends, and the face of Christ appears in others, particularly those in need of redemption. Jesus gets in line with all those seeking a baptism of repentance, not because he is sinful, but because he wants to walk beside them each day. This is the son in whom God is well-pleased, the one who is willing to stand with the sinful and the broken, receiving the baptism they receive, and returning only love.

And this takes us back to the comma where we began. But before we consider the ways in which God is still speaking, I want to share a story from school. When we arrived in Chicago for our preaching programme, we were told to pick a college to affiliate with, owing to the fact that the United Church of Canada is not represented among the Chicago seminaries. We (me and Jimmy) picked the United Church of Christ college, and when we were asked why, we pointed to their progressive approach to things, including LGBT matters, such as same-sex marriage. Our United Church of Christ hosts had a bit of a giggle, and said “well, that’s true of course, but we’re congregationalists.”

And when they said congregationalist, they meant it in the most positive light. We tend to use it as an insult, like saying “that church is too congregationalist—they ignore the wider church.” But in fact, congregationalism is a tradition and a worldview, one that says you are responsible for the worshipping life of this congregation, you get to pick your own minister (thanks for picking me!) and you get to decide how you will express your outreach to the community.

It means that when we say “God is still speaking,” we say it in the local sense. This is not a matter for church courts or denominational statements, this is a question of how we listen for God—here and now—and how we share what we hear. And as denominations fragment and decline, it becomes more important than ever to do our local listening and speaking—recognizing that congregations are the primary expression of God’s love and mercy.

Knowing that God is still speaking, what is God saying? Let me be bold and suggest a few things. First, God is speaking through global citizens, those who speak for the health of our planet and the world God made. Also, God is speaking through those who speak out, naming the mayhem caused by dangerously inept leaders, and decisions that cause harm to the innocent.

Next, God is speaking through those who truly have a heart for this community: activists and volunteers, members of the arts community, and small-business owners who first took a chance on the new Weston. Some day, when the last payday lender closes, we won’t thank governments (who have never properly taken up the issue) but rather the entrepreneurs who were willing to fill the same spaces with proper businesses.

Next, God is speaking through those who are searching for meaning. Many of our neighbours struggle to pay rent or maintain a mortgage, raise kids in a challenging time, or simply ward off the despair that comes everyday in the newspaper. But underneath that they ponder meaning, and look for hope. And our task is to listen as God tries to speak through them, and point to the compassion of Jesus and the gift of fellowship.

Finally, God is speaking through us. God speaks when we say a kind word, when we argue for love or mercy, when we stand with the oppressed. God is still speaking, and describing Jesus, with whom God is well-pleased. Amen.

*Rev. Larry Reimer, May 7, 2006.


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