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Reflection January 19, 2020
"Heaven Was Opened (The Baptism of Our Lord)" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
(Since our live-streaming of last Sunday’s service stopped half-way through - I’m including last Sunday’s sermon in this edition of The Advance. The preaching text was Matthew 3:13-17).
Why Baptism? There are two main New Testament theological approaches to Baptism. Our brother Paul envisions baptism as incorporation into Israel; as becoming a member of God’s Chosen People. Luke’s understanding in Acts involves a confession, a repentance, a new life akin to John the Baptist’s ritual.
It seems to me that Luke’s version won out over Paul’s version. But both are important. Theologically we’re God’s Chosen People; theologically, we’re Jews. According to Paul, we’re Jews with a Christian veneer, a Christian patina (I’ve always liked the word patina!)
We, who pastor, fail our people if we don’t make it clear how we’ve become heirs to all the prophetic promises found in the Hebrew (Jewish) Scriptures. Baptism, according to Paul, allows non-Jews to become Jews, to become members of God’s Chosen People. Perhaps we could have a new ad campaign: “Become a Jew for Jesus, get baptized!” I’m kind of kidding here but that’s what baptism does according to Paul.
Another critical component of Baptism in the New Testament is the descent, the presence, of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is, Scripturally-speaking, the door, the window, through which the Spirit comes upon the one being baptized.
I believe it was a mistake to move Confirmation away from Baptism. Confirmation is the celebration of the presence of God’s Spirit on someone. This happens with baptism! The Eastern Christian Church kept this vital understanding while the Western Church abandoned it.
We celebrate baptism this Sunday. This is a special feast for those of us who are Baptists. If I’m not mistaken, I think this is the day when every member of a Baptist church provides accolades and presents to their pastors! But I could be wrong about this!
Baptism also means that we’re “Children of the Water.” Water is, scripturally-speaking, an image of cleansing as well as an image of chaos and uncertainty, such as we see with the unsettled waters of creation.
Let me add something from the first chapter of Genesis. I will use what I believe is the best translation available, the translation of Robert Alter: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste, and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters (Alter notes the Hebrew word translated as hovering was the word used to speak of an Mother Eagle hovering over her chicks!), God said let there be light and there was light.” (I believe our New Revised Standard Version misses the dynamism found in the Hebrew.)
I’m in no way a Hebrew scholar but I do love the phrase translated by Alter as welter and waste - tohu wabohu. We, and all creation, arose out of chaos; from welter and waste, from uncertainty. According to the first chapter of Genesis, we’re children of chaos, children of the unknown and the unknowable.
In the Critical Thinking Class that I’ll begin teaching this Tuesday, I often present my students with a full-page map of Africa, without any countries listed. I tell them that if they can correctly identify just five countries (out of the 54 countries), they will receive extra credit. So far, no extra credit has been awarded. I do this not to highlight their lack of geographical knowledge. I do this to point out how little they know about the larger world in which they live.
We know so little, yet we think we know so much. This goes for me as well. I’ve had enough education to convince me how ignorant I really am. We’re children of chaos. We’re children of uncertainty. We’re children of ignorance. But if we acknowledge this, we find hope waiting for us. But it’s hope wrapped in paradox.
The Baptism of Jesus by John is a paradox. Why would Jesus undergo a baptism of repentance, a cleansing of sin? Hard to say! Yet it’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in all the Gospels.
The baptismal scene also reminds us of God’s Breath, the Spirit, hovering over the chaotic waters of the Genesis account of creation. In Matthew, heaven is opened and God’s Spirit hovers over Jesus as he rises from the waters of the Jordan. Heaven is opened and it remains open to this day.
Many of us were trained in school, (including Sunday School), as well as being warned from many pulpits not to trust paradoxes. Paradoxes always raise questions. Paradoxes always bring with them some element of doubt.
Yet either our faith life is filled to the brim with paradoxes or it’s the kind of faith that is shallow and easily fractured. Faith that has no room for doubt, faith that cannot tolerate any uncertainties, is shallow. Deep faith, strong faith, is faith lived in the belly of paradox.
Jesus’ taught with parables, which are deeply paradoxical teachings. And, as Jesus points out in Chapter 11 of Luke, the sign we’ll be given is the paradoxical Sign of Jonah. Simple but deep faith allows paradox. Shallow faith fears paradox.
In my many decades of pastoral service, pastoral ministry, I’ve encountered many thousands who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, many of them forget the Sign of Jonah. It wasn’t just the people in Palestine, Jesus was talking about when he said only the Sign of Jonah would be given them. Jesus was talking about all times and all people. The Sign of Jonah is the only sign we’ll be given until Christ returns.
We, Christians, must live in paradox, in the belly of the whale, if we want deep, strong faith. It’s more difficult to live this way than the shallow faith proclaimed by many TV evangelists and many pastors and preachers. Instead of fashioning deep faith, many sell their insipid brand of shallow faith and the heresy of the prosperity gospel. They forget the cross of Christ and avoid paradox with a passion.
Faith is simple but deep faith requires the belly of the whale, the ability to live with paradox. Just this week, I came across two startling paradoxes. The first concerns the oldest star ever discovered. It’s about 190 light years away and is rightly called The Methuselah Star. It’s estimated to be around 14 billion years old. The paradox is that the Methuselah Star would then be older than the estimated age of the universe!
Another paradox from this week is that while the observable universe is calculated to be about 90 billion light years across, the universe that exists beyond what we can see, may be 1 Billion Trillion times bigger than the observable universe. Whoa!
Paradox upon paradox. We swim all our lives in the deep, chaotic but creative waters of paradox. Deep faith must allow paradox. Deep faith must also allow the paradox of suffering.
All suffering is unjust. These past four weeks, I’ve been struggling with the serious suffering of significant shingles. But here’s the thing: we, like Jesus, have to embrace our unjust suffering until it teaches us compassion, until it teaches us the importance of community, until it reveals our communion with all who continue being crucified in our wounded, unjust world.
We shouldn’t want to suffer. Yet it comes to us all. And it will teach us what we need to learn about our life in Christ-Crucified if we let it. Such is the paradox of suffering; such is the paradox of deep faith. Deep faith is not disturbed by the discoveries and, yes, the paradoxes of science. Shallow faith fears paradoxes and the findings of science.
Deep faith is always a love story, a love song. I very much enjoy love stories and love songs. So I end this sermon with lyrics from Shallow, sung by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper: “We’re far from the shallow now.” May this always be true for us in our small but beloved family of faith; a church that goes deep! Amen!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor