Homily: Yr C Proper 1, Baptism of our Lord, Jan 10 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 43.1-7; Ps 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-22
Expectations and questioning. That’s how our gospel reading started today with the words, “the people were filled with expectations, and all were questioning.”
What were they expecting? What were their questions as they saw John baptizing in the wilderness? Why was this such a big deal?
It’s hard to get inside the heads of people who lived two thousand years before us. In order to do that, first we need to try to understand and then to actually insert ourselves into their worldview, their way of making sense of the world. A gift from Guylaine reminded me of this recently. For Christmas she gave me a book, a big, heavy book: Paul and the Faithfulness of God, by N.T. Wright. And in it, Wright makes the point that we can’t really understand what is going on in our scripture readings without getting to know the mindset or worldview of the Jewish people of the time. And the key to understanding their mindset is to recognize that they shared a story, “the long and often strange story of God’s faithfulness which, would [they were sure], finally work out in deliverance for Israel and justice and glory in the wider world.” Most Jews of Jesus’ day would have understood themselves as players in that story, as being right in the middle of that story.
It was the long, continuous story of how the one God who had created the heavens and the earth had as far back as Abraham, or perhaps even before that, chosen Israel to be his people, with a vocation to be a blessing to all nations. God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and brought them into the promised land. But the story isn’t a success story, in fact it’s just the opposite, a shocking and confused crashing down into disaster and darkness, a story of rebellion and infidelity, of “divine displeasure and national ruin.” Exile and oppression. A people despised and forlorn.
That’s where the Jews of Jesus’ day found themselves, occupied by Rome and threatened by Greek culture – but that’s not where the story ends. The people saw themselves as living in a story in search of an ending, living in the hope that Israel’s God would indeed be faithful, that one day he would act to redeem them just as the prophets had promised. They were looking for a new world, they saw themselves on the brink of a dramatic change, a turning of the ages, the day when the present age of darkness and oppression would be replaced by a new age of deliverance. “When will you tear open the heavens and come down?” was the cry articulated by the prophet Isaiah in anticipation of that day when God would finally act, when God would finally send his Messiah, the deliverer, the climactic figure predicted by the prophets through whom God’s promise of faithfulness would be fulfilled, through whom all the nations would finally see the glory of the Lord and live under his rule.
That’s why when John appeared in the wilderness there were crowds. That’s why the people were filled with expectation. Is this the time? Have we reached the turning point? Are you the Messiah?
And when John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, thousands and thousands of people come out to the wilderness and are baptized because this is their story, because they understand themselves as actors in this great drama and this is their part in preparing the way for the Messiah, in making way for the turning of the ages and bringing in the new world that had been promised.
And “the people were filled with expectation and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”
But John says no, and instead he speaks of another, another greater than he, the one who will be the pivotal figure, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
And then it happens. When all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came heaven, saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And with this the Jewish story reaches its turning point. God acts. The ages turn. And Jesus becomes the pivotal figure in the movement into the new world, a world which he will proclaim as the kingdom of God.
Expectation and questioning.
When you get to know their story, you can get why the people who were there at Jesus’ baptism were filled with expectation and questions. Hopes and dreams. Now, as Jesus’ mission plays out, as we tell the story of the new age, as we will over the coming months, we’ll see that not everyone’s expectations were met. Not all of the questions were answered in the way that people expected. People expected victory; they didn’t expect the cross.
That’s their story.
What’s our story?
As we consider today once more Jesus’ baptism, as we consider our own baptisms, as we anticipate more people baptized in the coming year, are we filled with expectation? What are our questions? Our story, if we have one, is going to be different. We don’t look forward to the arrival of a Messiah who will deliver us from oppression. We have no expectation of a turning of the ages, of being on the brink of a pivotal moment in time when the heavens will be torn open. We are not Israel, and the passage of time has negated any expectation of an imminent apocalypse in our time and place.
No, our story is different, our way of understanding the world is not the same. What is our story? Our story is that we are part of a movement. A movement that was inaugurated at the baptism of Jesus, a movement which proclaims the kingdom of God and perhaps most importantly, a movement which brings this new world into reality, bit by bit, here and now. When the voice of God declared “you are my Son,” it was not intended so much as a theological statement about the nature of Jesus, but rather it was a statement of vocation and purpose. This is what you will do. You are the one who will bring about the coming of my kingdom, on earth as in heaven.
And Jesus has enlisted us into his movement. We as the church, as the baptized, as the new people of God, we’ve been invited to be part of kingdom of God movement. In fact that’s what baptism is. Baptism was never intended to signify membership in an institution. Baptism is the moment when we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be part of the movement to bring about a new world, the one that Jesus calls the kingdom of God.
It’s a tall order, being part of the kingdom of God movement. The world is a big place, and there is a lot that’s gone wrong. There’s a lot of suffering, there is a lot of darkness. But we are called to bring light into that darkness, to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free. Person by person. Day by day.
We are not the whole movement, the movement is much bigger than us. It is a movement powered by God’s spirit, and we’re simply called to play our part. We are people and we are a community that has been called by God to a purpose. And knowing that, I’m filled with expectations and questions, the chief of which is “what are we to do?”
And here I draw inspiration from the prophet Isaiah, who many years ago foresaw the day when God would act to inaugurate his kingdom movement through Jesus. Isaiah was speaking to a desperate people, a people in exile, people who were hungry, people who thought nobody cared. Here are the words of God spoken through Isaiah to those people:
“But now, thus says the Lord. Do not fear for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; for I am the Lord your God, your saviour. Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.
Our vocation as members of Jesus’ kingdom movement is much like Isaiah’s: to speak, and to act out, these words to those who need to hear them.
This week we have been able to do this in a practical way. A family of six, Hassan, Safa, Hanadi, Sidra, Samer and Mohammed, will be called this week and told that they will be able to leave their refugee camp in Lebanon to be resettled in Ottawa by St. Albans Church. Like Isaiah, we have been given the privilege of speaking the words of God to those who need to hear them: “You are precious in God’s sight, and honoured and I love you.”
That’s what we get to do as God’s people. This is our story. When we read about Jesus’ baptism, when we consider our own baptism, it reminds us that we are part of a movement, a movement inaugurated by Jesus and empowered by the very spirit of God to proclaim and to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.