In Luke’s gospel for today we hear a statement of fact following Jesus’ baptism by His cousin John. The writer, who we call Luke says
“the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove”.
A rather passive benign event with a solid image of the Holy Spirit in a physical form.
But the writer of the earliest gospel, who we know as Mark, tells it differently:
“He [Jesus] saw the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.”
Jesus ‘saw’ a disruptive event, and ‘saw’ the Holy Spirit; it reflects a vision that came to Jesus and included the voice of God calling him ‘son’. This vision reflects a similar vision reported in Isaiah.(43:1ff)
This telling is of a more active and unexpected event. The language carry’s a sense of urgency.
When we think of baptism, what are expecting? Gentle passivity or urgent action?
I guess we are likely to think of a gentle passivity, a benign benevolent act of grace surrounding a baby.
But often in the Bible when sea/water images are used, as in the creation story, or Noah and the flood, or the parting of the Red Sea, or the violent storm on the Sea of Galilee, the image of water or sea carries with it the discomfort of massive change that ‘disrupts’ if you will, our passive acceptance of the status quo.( Even the changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana had that affect)
All three of the synoptic gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism:
it was after the actual baptism, the ritual submerging in water, that
the heavens are ‘opened’ except in Mark where they are ‘torn’,
the Spirit descends, and
the voice of God addresses Jesus.
The recorders must have believed the story they had heard about this event pointed to something significant, something relevant to the lives of the followers of The Way, something momentous.
Indeed it did, and still does, for people of faith today.
It is the story where the 'identity' of Jesus is revealed, and the hope of God is given voice once more.
It is the epiphany moment for followers and storyteller; it is the moment of new insight and understanding for all who sought hopefully for freedom, for salvation, for a life-giving future..
But is not about a baby, it is the adult Jesus who is centre stage:
it is not about powerful men from foreign parts bringing rich and ‘significant’ gifts, it is about being gifted the spirit of a desire for justice;
it is not about storing up gold. or the treasures of the earth, it is about sharing the wealth of the earth;
it is not about being a king, it is about being a servant of God’s justice making love.
And God’s hope in all this?
We hear the echo of Isaiah in the verses in Luke's gospel. An echo Jewish contemporaries of the gospel writers would have been very familiar with. We heard some of God's hope and intention in the pieces from Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading: “I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations .... a bruised reed he will not break ...” and then on to “opening the eyes of the blind and bringing prisoners out of dungeons.” Luke is at pains to ensure that his hearers were in no doubt as to who Jesus was, and what to expect. If we too choose to follow the (Jesus) Way we should be in no doubt either of the hope of our companions that we will engage in 'justice making love'.
It is one of Luke’s ‘little bits of detail’ that I find encouraging. In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus was baptised along with a crowd - he was in the midst of crowd hype... and, Luke tells us, it was as after the action, as Jesus was praying quietly alone, that the heavens opened and he heard God’s voice, and ‘knew’ all that separated God from humanity was done away with (torn or opened) and ‘knew’ himself to be a child of God.
Have our experiences of church and of baptism led us to expect such things? To expect moments of epiphany like this?
When did you last experience deep quiet realisation that you are loved, that you are not alone, that your life can be meaningful on this spinning planet?
Do we really expect to find 'God' here among us not ‘away above the clouds’ or at a distance?
Do we expect God to intrude in our daily lives and social interactions?
This might be a disturbing thought, but we should expect it.
I’m using the dreaded should word advisably now, and there are a list of them because to me they are not options for those claiming any relationship with the Christian Way - let alone baptism!
We should expect at all times to be aware of God’s discomforting presence expecting us to point out injustice,
and to speak out against violence and disrespect
and, expecting us to be intolerant of dehumanising behaviours
and to unmask efforts to blind us to what is going on in the struggle for life for so many in our community.
Instead of acting out our outrage and speaking out our dismay, we have learned instead to set up self-protective boundaries, to separate ourselves from disturbing thoughts and events, to keep our expectations of ourselves moderate and therefore protect ourselves from participating in disturbing actions, or from disappointment,
But the loving energy we know as God will not be contained by those boundaries we have created for our self-protection.
We should expect them to be broken,
we should expect to be expected to care about our world and those who share it with us - disturbing though that might be.
An epiphany is a moment of change, a moment when the status quo is torn apart, it is a disruptive insight into some new way,
it is a deep knowing
we should expect to experience them and be prepared to step beyond our boundaries.
I feel old and tired when I hear myself say these things.
I no longer want to be disturbed by the demands of God - and I sometimes wonder if that is why many people I know have given up on God and church - they do not want to be disturbed, they do not want their lives to be disrupted!
But. in my experience the Spirit of God doesn’t see the same limits to my engagement with the world as I do! So I am still engaged in the Living Wage Movement that aims to encourage big employers to pay a just wage, and with a new venture (Te Ohu Whakawhenuaunga) aiming to encourage Not for Profit Organisations to work cooperatively to bring structural change that will lift families and children out of poverty.
It seems I’m not free to set these things aside yet!
What is it that disturbs you? What are you doing about it?
You know, it is not the act of baptism itself that is the epiphany! That ritual incorporates us into a community of faith, a community of 'vision-holders' as it did Jesus. If that community remains true to its origin-story then it expects God to be present among us, and for the presence of God to make a difference to our relationships and expectations.
The epiphany Jesus experienced came after his baptism, in a time, we are told, when he was expecting to be relating with God through prayer, through focused attention on matters of concern to himself and the community he had just been ritually incorporated into:
He was waiting on God if you like.
It was when he had put busyness aside for a moment, put aside attention demanding activity, and crowd-hype that his epiphany happened.
I am encouraging you as this New Year is getting underway to think about your expectations of God, of this community of faith and of how you choose to live your life.
I’m encouraging you to expect an epiphany, to be prepared to recognise it with all its potential disruptiveness.
I am encouraging you to spend some of your precious time in waiting in expectation for an epiphany.