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ASH WEDNESDAY SERVICE: FEB. 14 AT 12:15 PM

“This is my Child, the Beloved: Sunday, January 7, 2024

The Baptism of the Lord:
Mark 1:4-11

“[P]eople from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to [John the Baptizer].” The whole Judean countryside, and ALL the people in Jerusalem: the picture painted here is that this is the place to be, and everyone wants to be a part of it. It’s hard to fathom or to relate to what’s being described here. What mostly comes to mind are rather sad or ironic comparisons from our own day: Boxing Day sales that result in some unfortunate people getting trampled at the doorway. Or people camping out overnight to secure tickets to a concert. Those examples capture the numbers, but not so much the excitement and deep yearning described in the Gospel.

I recall not too long ago — not here, not in our diocese, and not even on church business — I met a young man who described his involvement in a justice movement at his school and in his community. He described how he spent his time, how he met and worked with his friends. How this justice work gave him and them a sense of purpose and a sense of hope. But something just wasn’t quite right. “Oh?” I asked. “It sounds like you’ve found your community. What could be wrong?”

“Well,” he began, “most of them aren’t really sympathetic about my faith.” I understood what he was getting at. Most young people his age, raised outside the Church tend to assume that Christians are caricatures — dangerous, closed-minded caricatures — like what they’ve picked up from the media. “It can be tough getting past those stereotypes,” I tried to reassure him. “There might even be times when you might just have to agree to disagree. Your friends will know you enough to respect you.”

“It’s getting bigger than that,” he explained.” They’re talking more and more about how they’re supportive of the idea of assassinating the chief of police.”

“Oh. OH…” And I don’t recall all the details that followed, but it was a much more serious conversation about the challenges and complexities of co-existing with others, and being part of a group or a movement, all the while being true to yourself, your values, and your integrity. And about violence and murder…

Jesus knew something about all that. In the Fourth Gospel’s version of the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves, it ends: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” He has thousands of people rallying around him, and yet they don’t quite get it… The energy and overly-thick brush of the movement risks obscuring the nuance of the individual (even the individual at the heart of the movement).

And that happens with John and Jesus. In one of the other Gospels we read: “Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus, and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.'” To people tuned in but somewhat removed from the situation, Jesus and John the Baptist seemed so similar that they’re confused, or merged. I wonder if this says something about the risk of losing oneself in one’s work, especially if part of a big group or movement.

And that’s where the importance of today’s celebration comes in. With the Baptism of Jesus, we aren’t stuck with these experiences of confusion, but with an experience (or ‘epiphany’) of recognition: “[A] voice came from heaven [the voice that called all things into being], ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'” Every word and action that is recounted about Jesus reflects and flows out of this identity. There will be misunderstandings, mobs, controversies, but in all things Jesus is faithful to who he is, and to his calling. And sometimes this will disappoint people, even those on his side. They’ll complain about rival healers, or ask for inhospitable towns to be struck by lightning. But each and every time Jesus will respond in the way that most fully honours God and the dignity of neighbour.

You might recall another episode, where John himself sends envoys to Jesus, to clarify whether or not he is, in fact, the one they’ve all been waiting for. There’s a sense of disappointment; they’re underwhelmed in what they see and hear of Jesus. Their radar is more open to fireworks, programs, armies. Not so much this wandering teacher who just happens to change lives everywhere he goes, in a haphazard rather than programmatic way.

A more modern-day way of looking at all this is what some call “self-differentiation.” It’s a million dollar word for basically being connected to other people and to groups, but also remaining true to yourself. Where you’re connected to and invested in (for example) your spouse, your family, your church, your work, your social justice movement… But you also recognize that even with this connection there is a point where you end and they begin. Where their anxiety doesn’t have to become your anxiety. (But you can be with them, and care for them as they process it.) Where your baggage and foibles (or my baggage and foibles) don’t have to infest and infect the wider group. And through this dynamic of tending to one’s self while remaining connected to others, we find a way to work together in common cause, whenever possible, even though we recognize differences within the group. Where, even when we get frustrated with our group (or family, or movement), we maintain a space where our chaos and discord can dissipate, and be transformed (we would say: by God; rather than by our often muddled and flawed best efforts).

The deepest reality in Jesus, and in each one of us, was declared by that heavenly voice: this is my Son [or my daughter]; my Beloved. That is who Jesus was and is. And that is — through our creation and through our participation in the life of God through Jesus — that is our deepest, most real identity. And our neighbour’s.

There is perhaps no better way to start a new calendar year than with this Sunday’s readings and observance. To recall that you were created by God. To recall that God’s Spirit is animating and guiding you. And to recall that you are God’s Beloved. Throughout the Christmas season we celebrated the presence of God in the child laid in the manger. And now two days outside of the Christmas season the task is to continue that celebration, but recognizing the Divine Presence not just in the manger, but in ourselves, and in our neighbour.

And just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove… And can you hear the voice addressing you? ‘You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

© 2024 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter