Isaiah 43:1-3a; Luke 3:15-22 January 13, 2019
Just a couple of weeks ago we were reading about two mothers— Elizabeth who was unexpectedly pregnant with John, and Mary, who was unexpectedly pregnant with Jesus. When Elizabeth saw Mary, John jumped in her womb, and Elizabeth commented on how he knew he was greeting his Lord. And if Mary or Elizabeth had written the Gospels, I’m sure that we would’ve gotten at least a few cute stories of them growing up. But in the Bible infants spring into adulthood. There are no cute kids stories. We go straight from infant to mature, radical adult in just a few verses! Here we are, just a chapter after the birth of Jesus, and John is an adult, out telling people to repent and paving the way for Jesus to begin his ministry. There’s this great big build up in Luke, with John telling everyone he isn’t the Messiah and then describing what it is the Messiah will do. John describes Jesus as the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit; the one who will bring fire; the one who will come with his winnowing fork— the pitch fork that separates the wheat, the part that’s good for eating, from the chaff, the part that isn’t any good. And then John tells us that the wheat will be gathered together but the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.
All of that conjures up quite a picture, doesn’t it? John is describing Jesus’ ministry as a ministry in which Jesus separates good from evil. He says Jesus will gather up, embrace, and welcome the good people; and the evil people will be tossed away, thrown out, gotten rid of. This is not an uncommon understanding of God in the Bible. The prophets and others often talk about how when God shows up, justice will be done. The oppressed will find dignity; the hungry will be fed; those who are working like slaves will be freed. This is good news for a people, like John’s people, who have no one in power on their side. This is an image of God’s Kingdom that is focused on justice by a people who have no way of seeking justice themselves. It can be invigorating to think of God’s justice finally reigning, and it’s no coincidence that in the very next verse Luke mentions Herod, who has been doing many evil things, and how he keeps sliding down that slippery slope of evil by putting John in jail. Herod is the epitomy of evil for Luke— he has power and uses it in ways that harm others; he has money and does nothing for those who are hungry; he has every resource at his disposal, and yet refuses to listen to God and God’s people.
How often have I prayed “Come, Lord Jesus” after hearing from the Herods in our world today, or seeing the news after a tragedy. But it doesn’t take long for me to start worrying too, as I look at how comfortable my life is with food in my fridge and a closet of coats. It doesn’t take long before I start wondering if I am closer to John or closer to Herod because both seem like such extremes.
Which is why I’m always grateful that just a few verses later, we get another view of the Kingdom of God as we meet Jesus moments after his baptism. Jesus is still by the riverside. He is praying when the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and God says to him, “You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Words of grace. Words of belonging. Words that rush over me with love. Somewhere along the way, in my own journey of faith, these particular words have become special to me. I have been known to whisper these words to my children as they fall asleep at night. “You are God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased.” I have made it a point when I visit someone who is ill or dying to make the sign of the cross on their forehead and to say, “You are God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased.”
These are the words God chooses to speak to Jesus. In the Gospels you will be hard pressed to find any other words that come directly from God. In the wilderness, the angels attend to Jesus, but no words from God are spoken. In his ministry, Jesus shares all kinds of parables and sermons and words of challenge and comfort, and we understand them as God’s own, but if you’re looking for a place where God speaks directly, there are only three times. One of the three is just before Jesus suffers in the Gospel of John where a voice from heaven says that what will happen is glorified by God. But the other two instances are almost identical. The first is here at Jesus’ baptism where God says “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased,” and then the other is when Jesus and his disciples are on a mountain, God says, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
God has spoken.
And it makes sense to me that when Jesus is on the mountain, just before he begins his descent into Jerusalem and will face horror upon horror that it would be important for God to bless him and to acknowledge how amazing he is— but it isn’t just at the end of his ministry that God says this to him— it is here, at the beginning, before he has done anything at all. Jesus is baptized and is praying— that’s his whole resume so far in Luke. He hasn’t actually done anything yet, and God still says, “You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And it is here that we see the very heart of God. God doesn’t wait to see what Jesus will do before God loves Jesus. God’s love is unconditional and abundant. And it is also here that we see the heart of Jesus— or rather, we will see his heart as he begins his ministry. Because Jesus doesn’t flaunt that love; he doesn’t waste that love; he doesn’t take advantage of God’s love. Jesus knows that he is called from love to love.
And this may seem like a very different God than the one John described. In fact, I have often thought myself that John had it all wrong; that his expectations were vastly different from who Jesus turned out to be. After all, Jesus does not do much separating at all. One of the biggest critiques from his enemies is that he is too inclusive; too generous with his presence; that he hangs out with people that he shouldn’t; that he touches the unclean. But I also notice how Jesus speaks to people in power— how he has very little time for the religious leaders who try to keep people out; how he challenges the Pharisees when they take the law so literally that they hurt people with it; how he speaks out against the power of his day loudly enough that the only way they thought they could silence him, was by killing him.
And I wonder if John was right. Jesus doesn’t separate people the way we expect him too— choosing those who are polite and upright versus those who have lived rough lives and look shabby. Those distinctions, the way that we judge people, mean very little to Jesus. But he does reach out and gather in those who have been out on the margins. He extends his hand to those no one else will touch. His followers, ultimately, are a rag tag group of people that no one thought much about; and those in power are left with blood on their hands because they choose to follow the Herods of this world. In the end the wheat and the chaff are separated, not because Jesus declares that some are evil and some are good, but because they themselves choose who to follow.
Times are not so different today. We too are called from love to love. God calls out to each one of us, saying to you, “You are my beloved child.” But what will you do with that love? Will you trust in it, believe in it, live from it? Will you allow God’s love to form you and shape you so that the parts of you that need to change are blown away like chaff? Will you open yourself up so that God can take away your prejudice, your selfishness, your self-degradation, your self-doubt, your addictions, your greed for possessions, your unfaithfulness, your hatred? Will we allow God to blow away the chaff in our lives so that we can live as people who know God’s love? Imagine what the world could look like, when I choose not only to live from a place of love, but to see you as love as well. Imagine what can happen when we all live in full knowledge and joy that we are beloved of God, and so is everyone else!
Obviously this kind of change, this kind of formation that comes out of our own baptisms, does not happen overnight. And so I invite you to pray with me John Wesley’s covenant prayer. We’re going to pray it this morning, but I’ve given it to you so that you can take it home and pray it daily. You can pray it at a certain time of day— we have used the time 11:07 in the past because it’s the address of the church, so I will keep praying it at 11:07. Maybe for you the first thing in the morning before you get out of bed works well. Or maybe you have a set lunch routine that you can add it to. Maybe you’ll choose to set your phone to ding on the hour and pray it every hour. The most important thing, is that we are praying as a community of faith, for God to be at work in our daily lives. So I invite you to pray this prayer with me now.
I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
Resources Consulted: workingpreacher.org Interpretation Commentary of Luke by Fred Craddock “Diving for our Destiny” by Peter Woods Living by the Word, Christian Century