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The Baptism of the Lord [10:00 a.m. Holy Communion with Renewal of Baptismal Vows]; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

A theologian-friend, as part of a research project, developed a questionnaire that began, “Please indicate which of the following statements about Jesus could possibly be true.” Then followed items such as, “The baby Jesus occasionally had diarrhea, and required constant changing;” “The infant Jesus once in a while had colic, and screamed the house down;” “After nursing, the baby Jesus quite often “burped up” on his mother’s shoulder;” “The favourite word of the 2-year old Jesus was ‘No!’;”Jesus, as a toddler, once in a while threw temper-tantrums and held his breath until he turned blue;” “The teenaged Jesus had pimples and was awkward around girls;” “As a carpenter’s apprentice, Jesus hit his thumb with a hammer, and muttered ‘things’ under his breath;” When travelling up and down the hot, dusty roads of Palestine, the one robe Jesus owned would often be quite dirty and smell quite ‘ripe’.”

My friend administered this test to many Christians, including clergy, and from the results gave each person a docetism score. Docetism is a heresy which teaches that Jesus was not completely, totally, absolutely human, and did all of those things which humans do, some of which we would rather forget about. It may not surprise you to hear that no one scored perfectly orthodox, and that clergy were particularly prone to being heretical!

But that was not the object of the research. My friend then administered another series of standardized tests designed to measure openness to spiritual growth and understanding of oneself as a spiritual being. He then correlated the several sets of scores, and discovered that the more a person refused to think of Jesus as totally, absolutely human, the less they believed themselves to be spiritual, and the less they thought they could grow spiritually.

The more you refused to think of your God as being like yourself, the less you accepted yourself as being like your God!

Docetism concentrates only on the divine Jesus, the Son of God, the Christ. It is still a very popular heresy, as my friend’s research showed. Actually, he might have saved himself some work, and looked at popular hymns, particularly Christmas carols. Many of them are docetic in nature. “Once in Royal David’s City” is one example. “And through all his wondrous childhood he would honour and obey,” we sing of the child Jesus. Do you know of any children like that? Or “Silent Night” with its “radiant beams from thy holy face.” Or “Away in a Manger” with its baby that does not cry despite the noise of cattle and visiting shepherds.

One of the dangers (only one, there are many) of falling into this heresy, and it is very easy to fall into, is that we read the Gospel stories about events in the life of Jesus as happening only to Jesus, long ago. We then see these events as particular to the life of one, particularly holy (and un-human) person, and come to believe that such events couldn’t possibly happen in our own lives.

The scripture stories of the baptism of Jesus are such an event. By reading them literally, and seeing them as something that happened to Jesus only because he was the Son of God, we deprive ourselves of great spiritual benefits for our own lives, as we struggle to live as baptized Christians. It’s thus worth looking more closely at the story of the baptism of Jesus, in the context of renewing the vows of our baptism, right after this sermon.

Jesus is about thirty years old. We know no details of his life between age twelve and now, so we may presume that he has led the normal life of a man of his time and society. He must have experienced some inner wrestling as a call of God, a purpose for his life, became clearer and more defined for him. For all we know, he may have tried various directions in exploring this call which proved unsatisfactory. There are theories that he spent the “missing years” travelling, coming in contact with Eastern religions, or even with Celtic religion in Britain (“And did those feet in ancient times, …”). He may have pulled back from what turned out to be incorrect responses to the call of God, and waited for further answers from God to the praying that he obviously did with regularity and devotion. When you think about it, what that describes is our own experience; living regular lives, worshipping and praying, seeking, and sometimes not finding, trying to discern what God wants for us.

However, near age thirty there comes an idea, an urge, to Jesus which refuses to be denied. His cousin John is preaching at the Jordan River, preaching repentance, a turning from old ways, and as a sign of washing clean from old sins, John is baptizing people in the river. Something compels Jesus to go to John, to be baptized. We do not know what effort leaving Nazareth brought with it. If other stories of family resistance to the ministry of Jesus are any indication, there may have been considerable opposition. After all, in that time and society, religious movements were many and varied. The motives of Jesus may have been strongly criticised by family and friends. His father Joseph was most likely dead by this time. He may have felt the responsibilities of being a wage earner and supporter of his aging mother. We simply don’t know, but all these issues are possible. And yet, at about thirty, Jesus leaves for the encounter with John that will change him forever. And again, the experience of our Lord in following his inner call is no different than our own. Whenever we agree to accept God’s purpose for us, we will do so sacrificially, at a cost to us, and those close to us. And often we will do so in the face of opposition.

In the muddy waters of the Jordan, pushed and held down by John, it may have felt to Jesus that the waters would not release him. The light is dim, the breath stopped; symbolically life has ended. Then there is sun again, warmth again, breath again, life again! At that moment, the writers of the first three Gospels tell us, the voice came; “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And all three Gospel authors report the heavens opening, and the Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove.

Listen to the first part of the Collect for this day for a moment. “Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit, … ” Revealed him to whom? If we accept the descriptions in Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, and Luke’s Gospel is not inconsistent with these, the only one who heard the voice and saw the dove was Jesus. The revelation of Jesus as God’s son, was to Jesus himself.

Considering it in this way, as an interior experience of Jesus, opens up possibilities for our own experiences. It is tragic if we try to imprison the baptism of Jesus in a cage of literal understanding, insisting that there must have been a spirit dove for all to see and a heavenly voice for all to hear. If we do that, we are saying that things could happen to Jesus at that baptism long ago that are not possible for us, in this present time. In a few minutes we will renew our baptismal promises, and as a sign of our baptism will be showered with holy water. None of us expects the heavens to open, nor to hear voices from above, or see doves descending; if any of that happens no one will be more surprised than water-throwing Fr. Matt, with me a close second.

And yet, why can’t these things happen, in our inner lives; today? And why can’t these things happen to us at other, spiritually significant, moments of our lives?

To speak this way about an event in the life of Jesus, and to ask you to consider it this way, in no way lessens God’s presence and glory in Jesus’ baptism. But it does release them from the prison of the past, and it breaks the chains binding them to Jesus only, and frees them to be a part of our present and future experience.

Let’s speak of our lives first. Surely the voice which proclaimed Jesus as Son may be heard by us at significant moments of our spiritual lives. The second half of today’s Collect prays for this gift; “Keep your children, born of water and the Spirit, faithful to their calling.” If we set out from our “Nazareth” of home, comfort, and the familiar, in genuine search for what God’s will might be, with the intention of turning our lives over to God, surely God will reward this kind of self-offering with a deep sense of affirmation. We may as well describe this as a voice, which names us as a son or daughter whom God loves and with whom God is pleased. And with such affirmation, surely will come inner peace and joy, which are true gifts of the Holy Spirit. At such moments, when we truly turn our lives over to God, in very truth the dove of the Spirit descends upon us, even if we alone see it, in our subconscious being.

And what about at our own baptism, however long ago it was. We believe that in baptism we died and were buried with Christ, and gained a share in his resurrection. We believe we were reborn by water and the Holy Spirit. We believe that in baptism we were marked as belonging to Christ, and brought into the family of the God who is revealed in the life and death of Jesus. Why then can we not believe that in our baptism God spoke to us. Who can say that in our deepest being God did not say to us, “You are my son. You are my daughter. You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” And who can say that the Holy Spirit did not come upon us, like a dove, even if no one saw it.

If we believe it, as we renew our baptism, perhaps we will hear it and see it! Again!

Copyright ©2019 by Gerry Mueller.