Epiphany 1 (12-01-2020)

Celebration of the Baptism of Jesus

“Who am I?”

Read  Isaiah 42:1-9  & Matthew 3:13-17

“This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt.3:17b)

I would like to make two main points to start: 1) This was the point at which Jesus’ life changed dramatically from being an anonymous Galilean to a bold prophet-healer who proclaimed the presence of the Kingdom of God; and 2) it is also potentially our story; the point at which our lives may undergo a comparable transformation.  Perhaps we can evoke this by pondering the question:, “If Jesus knew he was God’s son, why did he go to John be cleansed of his sins, especially when it was a four-day trek into the desert?

All of us, with few, if any, exceptions, have likewise been baptised.   At the very least, baptism tells us that we belong.  But the very fact of our belonging tells us much more.

As a chaplain at Deakin University back in the 90s, I was privileged to spend time with young adults.  If you can remember those years, or those years of your children, you may recall that people of this age are engaged in trying to figure out who they are, what they ought to be doing and where they belong.  Behind 90% of all questions that students direct at me is the real question:  Who am I?

Of course, you wouldn’t ask a chaplain this question if you didn’t believe that, somehow, the answer has to do with God.  For a believer, the question is really: What has God created me for?  What does God want me to be?  What is my role here, living in this on-going creation of God?

More than one student has asked me how I knew I was supposed to be a minister.  One asked if heard a voice from the sky?  They want to know whether I ever thought I should be something else, and how I could be sure.

Of course, these students aren’t so much interested in my sense of call, but they are searching for answers about themselves.  They are searching for direction, but they haven’t heard God calling them to anything, although they wouldn’t use those words.

Maybe Jesus approached John in the wilderness with the same questions, the same doubt, the same concerns about self-identity and self-worth.  In any case, we may well envy him his experience.  How easy it would be for us if the sky opened and the Holy Spirit came like a dove and a voice spoke, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.  If one’s calling or vocation always happened like that, we certainly wouldn’t need career counsellors or chaplains.

Now, some people do have dramatic, unambiguous experiences like the one at Jesus’ baptism; one in which it was as if a voice spoke to them, as if the veil of heaven was pulled back and they heard, they knew, they saw.  But most of us must be content with less dramatic revelations; so ambiguous, so veiled and quiet that we often miss them if we’re not careful.  This is the way God speaks to most people, most of the time; not via some heaven-descended dove, but through some still small voice.

A few years ago, Morton Kelsey randomly surveyed a group of Americans and found that a majority of those surveyed reported having had a mystical experience of God.   Surprising?  Kelsey was told by most of those people that they had never told anybody about it, and that the last person they would tell is their priest or minister because, they said, “He would think I was crazy.” 

I don’t think people who have visions of God are necessarily crazy, but I do think that such occurrences are comparatively rare.  Perhaps they are rare because we have become dull to the divine.  Sometimes we can only see what we look for, and not everyone is looking and listening for God.  But perhaps a more likely reason they are so rare is because God’s call is usually transmitted through people, a book or an event; slipping in through the back door so to speak; piggy-backing on every-day human experiences.

The story of the Spirit dipping down at Jesus’ baptism like a dove is thrilling and curious because it is so unusual.  The thing that strikes me, after four decades of listening to people who are trying to listen to God, is how usual, how mundane and ordinary is the sound of God’s voice.  Most of the time, from what I had observed, there is no voice from above; rather, there’s a voice from within.  The voice speaks so clearly that you know you’ve heard it, yet it speaks so ambiguously that there are dozens of ways to explain it other than as the voice of God. Therefore, you must respond to the voice in faith rather than in certainty.

Candidates for ministry are always asked about their call, and it becomes a question which students for ministry talk about among themselves.  One of my colleagues actually heard voice coming from the back of a truck full of dim sims he was driving, but most have rather unspectacular, ordinary and mundane forms of communication.  They tell stories of people coming up to them after church and telling them they should be preachers.  They speak of books they have read or a remark by a professor in the middle of a history class, or a grandmother. I heard of one man who went into the ministry because, as a boy in Sunday school, one of the elders of the church said that he had a head which was the shape of a minister’s.  (I’m curious about what shape that is.)

God’s call, the divine response to the ‘Who am I?’ question, doesn’t usually come falling out of heaven, so we have to listen; listen very carefully.  If you were each to take turns right now explaining who you are and how you came to be here, I expect we would hear you explaining your presence in this church, in this faith, by reference to something or someone pretty ordinary and commonplace.

Please note that when I talk about call, I am not talking about something that only happens to ministers.  At our baptism each of us was called to be a disciple, to try to do God’s will, to search after God’s desire for our lives.  We all share that.  And when God is calling us, God will use any handle available.  Don’t be surprised if God is speaking to you in the middle of some crisis in your life, just when you feel most confused, least sure of what you ought to do.  Or perhaps God is again speaking today as we reflect upon our own baptisms.

When thinking about what you ought to be doing with your life, what God wants you to do, a good rule of thumb is this:  Where the great needs of the world intersect with your God-given gifts, that is your call.

-oOo-

At the evening service on this day we had a confirmation service. Coming on the day we celebrated Jesus’ baptism, it was well-timed, because confirmation is tied to baptism. I include here my comments on confirmation.

Confirmation is sometimes called a rite in search of a theology. Why? Because there is no biblical or theological reason for it. 

Confirmation, the celebration of the Holy Spirit within us, initially was celebrated at the same time as baptism in an era in which adult baptism was the norm.  After it became common to practice infant baptism, probably about 300 years or so after Jesus, eventually it was recognised that the baptised infant had no real part to play, was not able to acknowledge what had happened and had never made a decision to follow Jesus.  So, toward the Middle Ages the rite of confirmation came to fill this gap as the part of baptism-to-come-later, and was understood as the sacrament of maturity and an affirmation of baptism.

This got me thinking about two words that are used in the order of service: confirmation, the name of this rite, and affirmation, which is the label given to our responses.  In fact, in Uniting in Worship, ‘confirmation’ is described as the affirmation of baptism.

‘Affirm’ means, to validate or state positively, to assert as valid and to express one’s dedication. ‘Confirm’ means to ratify, to strengthen, and to give assurance. 

This helps to explain who does what in this rite.  We humans are not ones doing any ‘confirming’ here.  In creating this rite, the Church wanted to create a symbol of God’s confirmation of our place in God’s family and the realisation of the gifts of the Spirit that had been conferred upon us through our baptism; i.e. confirmation is a ratification, an assurance, by God of our place in the kingdom, and a strengthening by the Holy Spirit of our spiritual gifts.

Our response to this act of God is an affirmation; we assert our dedication to the kingdom into which Jesus guides us.

I went online to search for a more contemporary liturgy to use this evening.  Usually, the internet is good resource for such things, but I found nothing of use.  Instead, I discovered that confirmation is a current subject for debate in the Church, and in some churches, people are talking about discarding it altogether.

The theological arguments for this are pretty sound, and if only theological arguments counted, I would jump on the band wagon and toss confirmation in the bin. But pastoral concerns demand a different response.  

When I look at my own life in the church, the key to my continued participation, particularly when I found the church’s message to be primitive and of little relevance to my life, was the sense of belonging that had been cultivated in my early years by the members of a small town Methodist congregation.

Belonging is the foundational message of confirmation: it is saying to the candidate, on behalf of God and, most importantly on behalf of the church, not just “you are a member,” but “you belong.”  This is the essential message of baptism, when one is initiated into the family of God, and it is confirmed in this ritual.  Laura, you belong.  You are never isolated, disconnected, alone, for you belong.  Furthermore, it is not just the good Laura, the Laura that gets projected to the world, it is the whole Laura, spots and all, who belongs. God confirms it and we affirm it.  Now and always, you belong.

An open, virtual door to the world