Affirmed by Love

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 –  Baptism of Jesus Sunday

In April of 2007 an article appeared in the Washington Post, which earned its author, Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize. The story went like this. “By most measures,” Weingarten wrote, “he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money and began to play. It was about 8 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 45 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 people passed by.

Now, the scene that Weingarten has painted thus far is one that might be seen in any urban train station. But the twist in the story is this. The man playing that morning wasn’t just some random street performer nor was he a homeless person trying to survive. The majority of the people walking past that morning didn’t know it, but the fiddler was actually Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written, on one of the most valuable violins ever made.

So, what happened? Well, several people stopped and paid quite a bit of attention; one child managed to delay his mother for only 3 seconds; Joshua Bell was recognized by a woman who couldn’t believe her good fortune and waited around until Bell’s magnificent performance was over to introduce herself. And for his virtuoso performance Joshua Bell earned a grand total of $52.17 that day. But the thing that strikes me about this experiment in human behavior, is how many people just passed on by, never even noticing some of the greatest music they would even have the chance to hear. [i]

And I get the impression that something similar has happens when we think about baptism; especially the baptism of Jesus. The details, as they are shared by the gospel-story-teller Luke, are pretty incredible, but sometimes I think we miss the depth of their meaning for our lives and our faith. So, with this in mind, let’s look a little deeper into this important text. Let’s stop in the metaphorical metro station for a moment and absorb the beautiful music that is Jesus’ baptism.

After living in total obscurity his entire life, in his late twenties or early thirties Jesus left his family in Nazareth and burst onto the public scene by joining the movement of his eccentric cousin John. Some scholars have suggested that John was part of the Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Essenes were separatists, part of a movement who lived in the wilderness, away from everyone else, to keep themselves pure. And it was the pursuit of this purity that lead them to opposed the religious authorities of the day and the temple in Jerusalem. So, it’s important to understand that John the Baptist was most definitely an outsider.[ii]  And by joining John’s fringe movement, what Marcus Borg called a movement of “protest and renewal,” Jesus found himself also outside the mainstream of the Jewish Temple structure.[iii]

And this is the first of two points of connection that we have with this text; Jesus’s baptism by John identified him with what Luke describes as “all the people.” You see, the Temple system worked really well for the wealthy and the connected. Jesus however saw his ministry as being with and for all the people; especially the poor, the vulnerable, the outsider. So, Jesus was baptized not because he wanted his sins to be washed away, but so he could be with all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan River. And this is key for us today. By wading into the water with them Jesus took his place beside us and among us. With his baptism, Jesus openly and decisively declared that he stands shoulder to shoulder with me in my fears and anxieties.

That’s the first movement of this beautiful Aria we’re listening to today, and the second is this: Jesus’s baptismal compassion for and solidarity with all of humanity was vividly and Divinely confirmed. Luke writes, “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’”

And, my friends, our Still Speaking God continues to say the same thing to us. Think about that for a minute. Think about the life-changing power contained within these words. God’s loving affirmation to Jesus, to us, has the potential to transform the way we think about and live-out our baptism. “You are my child,” God says, “whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Perhaps we if we view our baptism as an affirmation of love, then we will begin to view our relationships with others through that same lens. Perhaps if we not only hear but indwell God’s affirmation we will begin to say and demonstrate these same words in our lives. Victor Hugo once said, “What a grand thing it is to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!”

My friends, Baptism finally doesn’t end at the font, it’s only a beginning; a beginning of our covenant with God and each other. A covenant that meant to be lived out within the church community and beyond; it’s meant to be shared with people who think and act and believe as we do, and with those who do not; and finally, baptism, this affirmation of God’s love, is a precursor to peace.

One final thought this morning. The second author in the book of Isaiah writes that God says to each of us, “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; the rivers shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

As we consider the waters of baptism today, as we endure the fires of life, as we feel the wind of the Spirit, and as we pause, if just for a moment, to listen to the beautiful music of our baptisms, we can be assured that God is near. Just as God was near Jesus as he stood there in the River Jordan, with so much ministry and mission, healing and teaching still ahead of him. And as Jesus moved ahead through it all, step by step, he knew that he was God’s Beloved Child.

My friends, as you go from this place today, and continue to be God’s child, loved and loving, cared for and compassionate to others; God’s words to Jesus echo across time and space, falling upon our ears today: “You are my child,” God says, “My child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness”![iv]

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

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[i] Dawn Hutchings Recognizing the Sacred in and Beyond the Stories We Tell: The Baptism of Jesus (www.progressivechristianity.org) 2016

[ii] The Baptism of Jesus: A Vision and a Voice (www.journeywithjesus.net) 2007

[iii] Cf. Marcus Borg in several books and articles.

[iv] Katheryn Matthews Remembering God’s Promises (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

The Light

Isaiah 60:1-6 – Epiphany of the Lord

When my three oldest children were much younger, we took them to the Cave of the Mounds in the Southwestern part of the state. And while it was fascinating to look at all the cave structures, the stalactites and stalagmites, and the rivers of sediment that had collected from centuries of dripping water; the really memorable part for me, was when the tour guide turned off the lights. You see, when you turn off the lights in a cave, you experience absolute darkness; the total and complete absence of light. And I remember that it was a bit unnerving. Not that I’m scared of the dark, but because I had three kids in raincoats squeezing the life out of me until the light came back on.

Absolute Darkness. That’s where the discovery of Light must begin; in complete and utter darkness. So, if the complete absence of light is the first step, what’s the second? Shadows.

The Greek philosopher Plato, in The Republic, offers us a glimpse into the shadow world by taking us on a mental journey deep into the earth; into a cave. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave written in 517 BCE and it’s probably his best-known story. Remember now, Platonic philosophy is chiefly concerned with how people acquire knowledge about beauty, justice, and morality, something Plato called “the good.” So, bearing this in mind, let’ look at the story.

The allegory comes to us as a dialogue, a conversation between Socrates and his student. Socrates tells his student to imagine people living in a great underground cave, which is only open to the outside at the end of a steep and difficult ascent. Most of the people in the cave are prisoners chained facing the back wall of the cave so that they can neither move nor turn their heads. A great fire burns behind them, and all the prisoners can see are the shadows playing on the wall in front of them: They have been chained in that position all their lives. There are others in the cave, carrying objects, but all the prisoners can see of them is their shadows. Socrates then describes the difficulties a prisoner might have adapting to being freed. When he sees that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows, he is confused. Instructors can tell him that what he saw before was an illusion, but at first, he’ll assume his shadow life was reality.[I]

But does all this have to do with Isaiah and the Light of Epiphany?

Well, today, in our context, I believe we can look at the Allegory of the Cave and the absolute darkness of my experience in the Cave of the Mounds with fresh eyes. Perhaps we can combine these two stories and create a metaphor for we might come to understand the nature of God.

What do I mean? Well, as humanity evolved and began to become self-aware, and as we started move beyond just surviving another day, we started asking ourselves the big questions. Big questions like: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Why do bad things happen? Where do we go when we die? Metaphorically, this was the move from absolute darkness to watching shadows dance on a wall. And this is where incarnation comes into play. I mean, God couldn’t let us keep believing that the shadows were reality. So, God, in human form, came to lead us symbolically into the light of day; to glimpse or grasp, if just a little bit, the nature of the Divine. And the life and teachings, the healing and miracles, the compassion and the grace that Jesus displayed over and over again in the gospels, this is Light that we are invited to enter and to share.

Maybe think of it like this. We often say that Jesus is the Light of the World, right?  Do you remember the blessing and commission on Christmas Eve? I said, “Let us go forth bearing the Light of Christ in our hearts and let is shine in the world.” I used that commission because Scripture challenges each of us not only to see the Light, but to be light.  My friends, we are invited to be a light in the darkness and shadows of this world. That’s the meaning behind Epiphany, and perhaps Isaiah’s words. Maybe they provide us with an opportunity to explore this invitation. An exploration that’s affirmed by Isaiah’s first words in this passage: “Arise. Shine. Your light has come!”

But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. There’s a second, implied imperative here. Let’s look at the next lines of this text again. “Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.”

My friends, as we move from the darkness that covers the earth and emerge from the shadowy gloom that covers the nations; as we move into the Light of Christ, I’m interested in this concept of “nations.” Perhaps Isaiah’s “nations” serve as a second invitation to us from this ancient text. It’s a calling that transcends time. It’s inviting us to look beyond ourselves, our borders, our faith tradition, and reach out to all people with the Light of Christ?

And this is important. It’s important because this is how we are called to “live-out” our bit of light in a pluralistic world. You see, it’s through sharing the Light of Christ with all nations and all people that we can, someday, obtain Peace. Peace is the frist objective here. Not the darkness of isolationism nor the shadows of rhetoric, but actual peace; peace around and with us. But here’s the rub.  Peace cannot be only for a few, or those who perceive themselves as “chosen.” Peace, a real and lasting peace can only be enjoyed if everyone is included.

One final thought this morning. In 1969 Jim Strathdee, a songwriter and theologian, wrote a hymn in response to a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman. I would like to leave you today with the words of the refrain from that hymn because they illustrate so poignantly the meaning of Epiphany.

“I am the light of the world. You people come and follow me. If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be”

My friends, as we leave this place today and as we continue our collective journey from darkness into the Light, may we too discover the mystery of what we were meant to do and be; and along the way, may we encounter the peace that God intends for all the earth.

This is my prayer.

This is my hope.

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] There are multiple sources found at www.thoughtco.com from a post by N.S. Gill

Buckle S. 2007. Descartes, Plato and the Cave. Philosophy 82(320):301-337.

Juge C. 2009. The Road to the Sun They Cannot See: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Oblivion, and Guidance in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. The Cormac McCarthy Journal 7(1):16-30.

Ursic M, and Louth A. 1998. The Allegory of the Cave: Transcendence in Platonism and Christianity. Hermathena 165:85-107.