s034g99 Somerton Park 10/1/99 The Baptism of Jesus.
"A voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."" (Matthew 3:17).
This sermon begins by making it quite clear whose son Jesus is. I continue with some statements of the importance of this fact and I end with an exploration of the possibility that this text is in fact the message of the Church to others - not that Jesus is God's son - but that God is well pleased with us and others, and that we are all God's children.
To the first. There is a good deal of evidence that the New Testament writers continued in the normal usage of their day, avoiding saying the name "God" wherever possible. This was done, not out of disbelief but out of reverence. However, in order to make clear that it can only be God, it needs to be said that we have no evidence that either Mary or Joseph were present when Jesus was baptised. These were Jesus' "foster" parents - the only other people who could say with some degree of truth: "This is my Son". We are told John the Baptist and Jesus were related distantly. It would therefore be a false statement by John or anyone else - other than God, Mary or Joseph. It would have hardly be recorded or referred to by all four gospel writers if Mary or Joseph were hiding behind some flotsam or jetsam in the river. It is quite plain that it is the voice of God.
Now the voice of God is rarely heard this distinctly. The first three evangelists only record the voice of God being heard this distinctly twice - here at the Baptism of Jesus - and later on the mountain of the Transfiguration. It can hardly be an accident that the words are precisely the same: "You are .. or: "This is .. my Son..."
Now traditionally the Church has taken these words as showing the importance of the proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God - the second person of the Holy Trinity - and I'm not about to deny that this is indeed important.
But if that is taken one step further - to deny salvation to those who do not know or acknowledge the divine status of Jesus, and to only admit to salvation those who do - is to misunderstand the whole mission of Jesus. This is to say, albeit unintentionally, that God's purpose is to restrict (in some measure) those who are acceptable in the kingdom.
Now I can have some sympathy with the view that God has restrictions based on law. So I could understand that God does not admit those who had transgressed the commandments for instance. (I don't believe it mind you - but at least it has some logic to it. These are the rules and it is up to us to keep them. It's a bit like if I was to be caught speeding in my car. No matter how many mitigating circumstances might apply in my particular case - the law states "Thou shalt not travel in excess of 60 kph and if you do and are caught, you will have to pay the penalty". If I speed and I am caught - I pay the penalty. Grumble I might, but it's my responsibility, I know the law, and I have only myself to blame.)
But the whole of the New Testament is about the death and resurrection superseding the old covenant. So the law has ceased to be a useful criterion to determine who is admitted to God's kingdom and who isn't. This has been replaced, it seems, by a criterion of faith in Jesus the Son of God. Presumably this is to a certain extent a wider criterion, for St Paul tells us "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23).
Now this has traditionally been taken to mean that those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God are acceptable and those who do not believe aren't. Hence over the centuries Christians have spent lots of time and energy going to those who have never heard of Jesus and trying to convert them to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, lest they not be admitted into God's kingdom.
Now the problem for me is two-fold.
Firstly I don't see the Jesus portrayed in the gospel accounts going around saying to people "Believe in me, that I'm the Son of God and if you do I will let you come into God's kingdom". I do see Jesus travelling the land and accepting the hospitality of one and all.
Secondly however it is a criterion I simply cannot understand. It makes the criterion of admissibility into the kingdom dependent on the vagaries of my faith and God's fickleness. Logically I have great difficulty with a God who could bar a life long charitable atheist and admit a person who raped and pillaged most of his or her life, but in the end confessed and believed in God.
I cannot quantify my own faith, let alone anyone elses'. Some mornings I get out of bed and I can wonder if I have any faith at all. At other times, often when I find praise offered or think my purpose in life is reasonably clear - I seem filled with faith. My faith, such as it is, is a highly variable quantity, and I wonder how God is going to quantify it, when I can't myself. It seems that I am less sure of the salvation of anyone, when I should be more sure of it.
And it begs the question: At the appropriate time for me personally, will God bother with this quantifying? There is enough evidence in the Bible of God being asleep or absent at times. Perhaps God might usually count up people's good times, but when it is my turn, perhaps get out of the wrong side of the bed that morning, and just wipe me off for all of eternity?
The cross and resurrection, if nothing else, says to me that such fickleness is completely alien to the nature of God. Jesus' pain and suffering mean that God expends time and energy on me, and on you and on everyone.
It has all been done already, for you, for me and for all.
God says to Jesus, God says to you, God says to me, God says to one and to all: "You are my son, my daughter, with you I am well pleased".
Now if we look at how God touches people's lives; it might make life an awful lot easier if God said things like giving us directions for living. Do this, don't do that. Keep the law, or don't get caught :-) And there is nothing wrong in going down this path.
Or we might look to the words of Jesus and think God might echo the words of Jesus: "Love one another ..." So we might try to emulate the directions in the passage from Isaiah: trying to "faithfully bring forth justice". And there is nothing wrong in going down this path and indeed the world would be a better place if this became more general.
Yet the one time we hear the voice of God we hear the words: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Words about relationship and appreciation, not about (more) things for us to do. And we find echoes of this in some of Jesus sayings. The action of the prodigal Father, rushing out to greet his returning son, and later out pleading with his elder son to join in the celebration, immediately spring to my mind. The saying of Jesus: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Mat 23:37 & Lk 13.34).
Yet it was what Jesus did, rather than what he said that encapsulates this desire for relationship and to express appreciation. For Jesus went around accepting the hospitality of one and all. Indeed even healing the sick was less important to Jesus than the desire not to allow anyone to miss out on an opportunity to accept him. We are told: "He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons ... In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. ... Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons ..." (Mark 1:34-39). The message was one of relationship and appreciation - that they too were God's children, that God was well pleased with them - whoever they were, whatever their particular family circumstances were or weren't, whatever they believed about God or not. The important thing was that they heard that God believed in them. The demons Jesus cast out were undoubtedly the demons of self doubt and self depreciation.
So we as individual might long to hear God's voice for ourselves, speaking unambiguously, like it seems God spoke to Paul and turned his life around. Yet the paradigm is that when God speaks it is most often to "hug" us like the prodigal father hugged his son. As Jesus "hugged" his hosts by accepting the hospitality of one and all. We have but to accept being hugged, and allow that Jesus hugs others too.
And we can often wish the Church was more "up front" in public affairs - advising governments and condemning the violent and ungodly "out there" who don't come to Church or seem distainful of the particular social mores that we hold to. Again this might lead to good things, but it may as likely also to lead to frustration. Perhaps it is also to miss the hugs of Jesus which might enable us to hug others, as and when it is appropriate.
And, of course, when I say "hug others" I mean not physically, but far more widely - allowing them to be the person they are, accepting them, not trying to change them. Seeing in others something to contribute to our own lives.
One of the nicest things reported to me recently was the observation that after the Christmass midnight service, apparently people gathered around to talk outside. The person commented how nice it was to catch up with some friends whose paths had diverged for a time. It was a fellowship not forced, just enjoyed, and if I have achieved nothing else in my time here, I will be grateful for that.
So the words of God to Jesus are applicable to us and to all of humanity: You and I and all people are God's sons and daughters - God is indeed well pleased with us.
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