Monday, January 14, 2008

Of Raptors and Crash Helmets

Matthew 2: 13-17
Acts 10: 34-43

Baptism of the Lord, Year A, Jan. 13.

I’m a margin scribbler. I fully expect that when I have retired, my primary Bible will look a lot like my friend Chuck’s, who is retired now. You can’t hardly see what the text is for the notes he has scribbled in the margins for a good part of his ministry.

In reading the texts that are assigned to this week of the calendar, I saw in the margin a note next to the bit about a dove descending from heaven—“BBT more like a hawk, with talons”.

I think that BBT means baptism. But the hawk bit definitely refers to the dove descending, and it brings to mind a quote from one of today’s most famous preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor. She says somewhere that if we were truly serious about being church, we would issue helmets in church and the pews would have seatbelts.

Being Christian isn’t meant to be comfortable. The Holy Spirit descending like a dove isn’t meant to be entirely comforting. If we’re about God’s word and leading, it leaves us in all kinds of places we never thought we would end up in, all kinds of situations that we would not have chosen for ourselves.

Peter, in the Acts passage for today, certainly feels the same way. What has just happened, before our text, is that Peter has had his great vision while standing on top of the house. The sheet has come down from heaven, and on the sheet are various foods that Peter and his culture consider unclean—un-kosher foods like pork, lobster, shellfish, etc., and a voice from heaven has told his that what God has created, he shall no longer consider unclean. He receives this vision three times, and then the sheet is raised back into heaven, just as there is a knock at the door. They are men from a Roman soldier, the instrument and symbol of Israel’s occupation, who have been looking for him to take him to their master. Their master is a “god fearer”, and he is to go to them to bring the Gospel of Christ.

To a gentile, and an enemy. Peter has to get used to the idea hat this new message of salvation to all in the name of Christ really does mean all.
Our message is to all people, even the ones who make us uncomfortable, who make us angry, the ones who normally we would wonder why God spent energy creating.
And actually acting on this belief takes courage, and that’s why we need crash helmets. Not literally because churches are dangerous places, but figuratively, because taking the gospel seriously means that you will get knocked about at times. Being a disciple does leave a mark.

Obedience to God’s will also takes you to interesting places. Matthew tells us about the story of Jesus and John the Baptist, when Jesus came to be baptized. Baptism, for Jews, at that time, was similar to a ritual bath, or a mikveh. The priests would take a ritual bath before serving in the temple, and before high holy days. Women would need to take a ritual bath once a month. John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins—not for all time, it was entirely possible that people might have come more than once.

When John, who knows who Jesus is, says that Jesus needs to be baptizing him, Jesus’ reply is that this is how it needs to be, for now. The assumption is that Jesus does not need to be ritually cleansed, since he is already God in some sense. But he does accept baptism anyway. There are some reasons for this—if he is to be among the people of Israel, they are going to want to have certain things set up as appropriate. A ritual bath is one of them for a man who seeks to be a religious figure. But deeper than that, Jesus showing up to be baptized is in a very real sense necessary, because it means that he has accepted the mission given him. This is what he means by “fulfilling all righteousness”. You have to go through the motions, participate in the rituals, and accept the symbols for your work to be accepted as real.

For our culture, there are similar rituals. For instance, to run for president in America, as we are now seeing, there is a long series of poses one must assume; you have to go to places like Iowa and New Hampshire, and be seen and photographed in school gyms, diners and the like, talking to people. That is how you fulfill all righteousness with regard to American Presidential campaigns. For Jesus to be a religious leader in that time and place, a ritual cleansing must take place. Let it be so for now, he says to John; the proprieties must be observed.

The Christian church has considered this moment the public declaration of Jesus work on earth; he knew who he was before this, but here is the moment he begins to be what he has meant to be. The dove descending from heaven, God’s voice speaking to John and those others standing by the river God’s “laying on of hands”, ordaining Jesus, in a sense, and Jesus had to show up for this to happen. The voice that speaks from heaven, in Matthew’s version, speaks in the words of the Scripture that they all would know in that scene; so much of Matthew harkens back to what we call the Old Testament. The voice of God combines to scriptures, Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42. Psalm 2 is what’s called a coronation psalm, one that would have been sung at the beginning of a King’s reign. Its voice is full of warning, both to the new King and to those who are around—a righteous King of Israel is an instrument of God. Isaiah 42 begins the portion of Isaiah that scholars now call the suffering servant passages, where it speaks of not bruising a reed, not quenching candles, and bringing forth justice.

That sort of justice brought peacefully and with grace is very hard to do, but it is God’s way. We are not bullies, we are not looking for conquest. There is no winning or losing. There is just courage, and a willingness to follow God to whatever place we’re led, and being faithful in the journey and in the arrival.

Jesus knows about following God’s will, and it leaving a mark. Jesus calls us into service that isn’t entirely comfortable, into a service that sometimes requires safety gear. The Holy Spirit might indeed have looked like a dove that day as Jesus rose from the Jordan river, but that dove had talons like a hawk. Gentle they may be, but talons they are. It’s those talons that get in, under our skin, and bring us forth in God’s name.

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