On Setting a Course
January 12, 2020
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Sometimes I worry that I am a controlling person. I notice that there is one question I rarely ask of anyone, especially of my children. That question is: “What do you want to do?” Now I’m not referring to the long-range time frame, as in “What do you want to do when you grow up.” That question feels safe enough. I’m thinking about the short-term “What do you want to do?” Honestly, I don’t really want to know the answer because usually I am thinking about what needs to be done or what should be done. That is precisely why my children call me “Mrs. Business” while my husband has earned the title “Mr. Fun.”
Some of the most difficult times in life are also the most formative, and surely the most memorable. Some of life’s difficulties catch us unaware and unprepared. We can anticipate other difficulties because we have set a course for ourselves knowing full well that the chosen course of action will entail great challenges.
I recall my first job out west as a biologist with the Bureau of Land Management, counting Northern Spotted Owls. Owls are a nocturnal species, so most of our work had to be between the hours of 6 in the evening and 4 in the morning. My work partner and I had 3 days of training in the office, which included many hours in a soundproof room learning how to imitate the voice of a northern spotted owl. Our first night on the job in the field (which is the less-intimidating way of saying “in the deep dark forest”) my supervisor went out with us and we walked the area together. The very next night, we were given the keys to the Ford 150 and a file folder instructing us about the new area where we were to go. After driving farther and farther from civilization, we arrived at a numbered turnout in the road and it was there that we were to head in opposite directions. We were equipped with headlamps, extra batteries, a radio, our knapsacks containing water and a midnight dinner, and a map. And thus began one of the longest nights of my life. Had I been asked, “Is this what you want to be doing?” the answer would have been an emphatic, “No!” But I knew it was something I must do because I had set a course for myself and it was a course I would follow for the next eight years of my life.
I can empathize with what I imagine Jesus is feeling as he goes public with his ministry there on the banks of the Jordan river. Jesus is approximately 30 years of age when we find him in the story today. We know so very little about his early life, his teenage years, or his twenties. Theories abound but no one knows for sure. My favorite theory is that Jesus travelled far and wide, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, learning from sages and saints, from women and children, from peasants and royalty.
Whatever he had been doing was likely preparing him for that day when he came to John and asked to be baptized. Jesus did not go to one of the hundreds of pools carved from stone that Jews used for ritual purification before going into the temple. Jesus had likely observed that ritual many times before. Jesus went a different way. The scripture from Isaiah 43 comes to mind, “I am about to do a new thing:now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (43:18-19) The new thing was happening outside of Jerusalem. The new thing was this part prophet part wild man named John who challenged all who came to him, especially the religious elite, challenged them to repent, to change, to commit to a devotion to God that would be reflected in all aspects of their lives, not just by fulfilling the law but by living into the most sacred command of the Jewish tradition: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6: 5-7).
It is easy for us to see how John was preparing the way and laying the groundwork for what would come in the teachings of Jesus, but imagine this scene on the banks of the river Jordan as if you did not already know how the story goes. John has been preaching passionately for some time, perhaps years, and the scriptures say that people are coming from all over the surrounding countryside and even from Jerusalem to hear him. Many are choosing to be baptized, immersed, in what the Jewish tradition regards as living water (the free flowing, moving water of rivers and oceans). This baptism is different because of the living water but also because it comes in tandem with the teaching of John that insisted on a commitment to personal change of heart and mind. Scholar Stephen J. Pfann describes it this way: “…to join in baptism was to leave darkness and come into the light.”
Some would say that Jesus was not in need of this for he was already fully committed to God. That is certainly the opinion of John who says, “ “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” I wish I could have seen the look in Jesus’s eyes as he replies, “It is proper for us, in this way, to fulfill all righteousness.” This is how it must be done. It may seem unexpected but this is the right thing to do.
John complies and as Jesus comes out of the water, the sky opens up, the Holy Spirit descends and alights upon him, and God speaks, calling Jesus “son” and “beloved.” Here we witness the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here we witness an Epiphany in every sense of the word. An epiphany is a realization, a revelation, and/or the manifestation of a divine or supernatural being. Here we witness God in human form. Here we are given the gift of a teacher. Jesus set his course. Jesus knew what needed to be done and how it needed to be done “to fulfill all righteousness.” In the study of his teachings and through following his example, we find a guide in how to walk the paths of righteousness as well…a path not sufficiently shaped by following our wants and our desires, but instead looking to what is required of us as children of God and disciples of Christ. Are we ready to ask what God would want us to do? Are we ready for what the answers may be? Are we ready to forgive? Are we ready to ask for forgiveness? Are we ready to lay down our judgement of others? Are we ready to change? Those are big questions; good thing we have each other and good thing we have our teacher in Christ Jesus.
In closing now, we can look ahead to the coming weeks of Epiphany and to revisiting key events in the life of Jesus that reveal his divinity. It is a time to consider the influence of Jesus’s life and teachings and especially how his teachings continue to shape us into beings more fully devoted to God, more fully devoted to love. We are invited to set a course or adjust the course we are one. We will not be alone in the darkness; we will be walking together into the light.
Beloved God, I thank you for the precious gift we receive when we look to Christ as the embodiment of your highest wishes for us and for our fulfillment as human beings. You have gifted us with the ability to feel so many different emotions and it can, at times, be overwhelming. Empathy for our brothers and sisters and the struggles they face can be painful to bear, Lord, and yet through this deep feeling, we become more alive, we become more humane, and we come closer to the place within where you reside. Help us to remember the life and example of Jesus Christ, that we may learn to empathize without feeling depleted, and that we may learn to let the love of God flow through us to others. With willingness and devotion, I pray. Amen.