From Pastor Kenny's Desk
January 13, 2019
The people were full of anticipation, wondering in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah. John answered them all by saying, “I am baptizing you in water, but someone is coming who is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not fit to untie! This One will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire. A winnowing-fan is in his hand to clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into the granary, but the chaff will be burnt in unquenchable fire.”
When all the people were baptized, Jesus also came to be baptized. And while Jesus was praying, the skies opened and the Holy Spirit descended on the Anointed One in visible form, like a dove. A voice from heaven said, “You are my Own, my Beloved. On you my favor rests.”
~ Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism begins with the people who have gathered with John, because they believe he might be the Messiah. However, John insists he is not. The one who is coming after him is more powerful. John is baptizing with water, but the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire … a purifying, refiner’s fire. The winnowing fork will separate the wheat from the chaff, which grow up together in the same stalk. After John’s sermon to them, Jesus is baptized, and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and the voice of God declares that this is God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God’s favor rest … with whom God is pleased.
The first line of this week’s sacred text really grabbed my attention: The people were full of anticipation, wondering in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah. What I find fascinating is not actually how John responds to all this attention; rather, I’m intrigued by the wondering and perhaps the chatter and even hoping among the people about whether John might be the promised Messiah in the first place. And that got me to thinking: Are we … in one way or another … people still anticipating a Messiah? Or, perhaps more accurately, Who are we looking to with anticipation, wondering if he or she might be the one to save us or make things better in our lives?
Because here’s the thing: I suspect we’re almost always hoping to find someone to save us or to transcend whatever experience, situation or memory that makes us uncomfortable, brings question and doubt, brings us pain or whatever we see as needing change in ourselves or the world. Sometimes the longed-for messiah operates on the national or world stage or might be our favorite super-hero. Perhaps its Rachel Maddow or Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senator Elizabeth Warren or Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg or someone we see as powerful and influential who can fix or even help us escape from all we see as wrong in our life or needs to be changed in society and our world. Or maybe a sports hero or team, who make us feel like we’re a part of something bigger and … to boot … winners.
Sometimes the long-for messiah lives closer to home … that special someone who is a candidate for a new romantic relationship or someone who will help fix our current relationship wreckage … whatever that might be … so that we’ll never feel lonely again. Or maybe we’re hoping to be saved by the people we work with, longing for them to tell us how indispensable we are. Or perhaps we expect to be saved by our children, nieces or nephews, as they grow up to fulfill all of our dreams for them and … truth be told … for ourselves!
Again, I think that we, like the people Luke describes, continue to be filled with anticipation and expectation, wondering if various persons globally or in our local circle might be the messiah. Even when they disappoint … and of course they eventually all do … we keep looking with anticipation of our personal messiah. Maybe we can’t help it.
But here’s the question: do we really, really truly believe … and really trust … Jesus is that Messiah?
Certainly, we as a congregation think and believe Jesus is the Messiah. If not, why would we be members and friends of a church, right? But do we expect and trust Jesus actually to be with us … to help us to care for ourselves and our needs … and to save us … not just in the eternal get-out-of-hell-free-card kind of way … but actually to save us here and now, making a tangible difference in our everyday lives? I’m not so sure. When will we understand that the whole point of the birth and ministry of Jesus … was for God to get involved in our lives, personally and directly, do we … can we … believe and trust … that God cares enough for us, that God desires to intimately become involved in our lives … to minister to us when we hurt, or experience painful events or when we feel we are not worthy … or when we simply need to feel loved?
Of course Luke doesn’t have the same thoughts of God taking on human form that we encountered over Christmas in the beginning of John’s gospel, but we’re getting something very close in the sacred text above, when Luke says that the skies opened and God spoke directly to Jesus. It’s a dramatic scene … Jesus emerging from the waters of baptism as the Holy Spirit falls upon him. I think we sometimes forget the power and symbolism of the scene Luke describes, as God moves from the heavenly realm to encounter Jesus … and, through Jesus, all of us … in ways that are personal and intimate to each and every one of us. That is, God removes everything that separates us from God and meets us where we are.
This is the power of baptism … that God has opened up the heavens, descended from on high, and come to meet us where we are and just as we are… in order that we might know that we are beloved children of God and that God is well pleased with us.
Yes, Jesus is our Messiah, the one who identified with us, tangibly bearing the presence of God into our world, choosing that we might know and continually discover God’s gifts of transforming love. And if we take that seriously, two things occur. First, we don’t have to find messiahs all around us. We can support our favorite hero or politician or sports team, hope for a good relationship and great colleagues, knowing that we will not be saved by these things. Realizing, we will regularly be disappointed by and … truth be told … disappoint these persons. But they will not save us nor can they save us … it’s not their job! And that’s okay, because God in Jesus has done just that … once and for all.
Second, once we realize that we don’t need another messiah, it frees us up to make a huge difference in the world and in the lives of those around us. After all, we are those people named and claimed by God as beloved children and chosen by God to be and do wonderful things in the world.
Can you imagine, just for a second, if everyone who supported a particular candidate or someone we see as a super-hero decided to take responsibility for some aspect of the problems we hope our elected leaders will solve? Or if instead of waiting for that special someone to find us, we went out looking to befriend those who are lonely or less fortunate? And what if we simply valued our colleagues, our children, our family members or neighbors for who they are, not for what they can do for us or who we think they should be? I believe if we simply affirmed people for who they are and the individual, valuable gifts they contribute to life … the world would be a remarkably different place.
As we remember our baptism we might remind ourselves … and celebrate … that because Jesus came specifically for us we don’t need any other messiahs; and because Jesus came as one of us, we are also caught up in the power of the creating and redeeming God. That is, we are those people who do not need to save the world but have been called and equipped to make a tangible difference to that little corner of the world in which we find ourselves. And when we do … our homes, our neighborhoods, community and world are transformed.
I believe this is part of the legacy and mission of MCC Richmond. We are people who truly care for one another and anyone who comes in contact with any part of our ministry. We are people who continually experience God’s transforming and healing love active within in our lives AND ... we know how to share this blessing with others. As we continue to develop ministries to grow and deepen our relationship with the Divine, let us do so knowing and believing that our Messiah has come intimately for us in the life and person of Jesus … and through Jesus God is pleased with each of us. May we always be a congregation who embraces the reality that through God’s loving embrace we are transformed and as we share God’s love with others we transform the world. Amen.