Listening to the Right Voice
SCRIPTURE: Mark 1:4-11
Today I would like us to consider just who it is we listen to. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Each of the four gospels starts off the story of Jesus in a different way. Luke and Matthew offer familiar accounts, but each from its own perspective. Luke tells us about the annunciation to Mary, the birth at Bethlehem, the visit by the shepherds. Matthew tells us about Joseph's dream, the gifts of the Magi, the flight into Egypt.
John's perspective is different from both of these. His vision exceeds the boundaries of space and time as he announces that before anything was made, God's Word already was. Then he brings us down to earth again as he makes the great proclamation: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
But how does the remaining gospel, Mark, get under way? We hear nothing about the birth of Jesus or his early years. There are no assertions about the Word becoming flesh. Mark chooses to start with the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John. Jesus walks on to the stage of Mark's Gospel a grown man.
If a Christmas story is one that announces the birth of God's new plan of salvation, then Mark's Gospel contains a Christmas story. This Christmas story is the account of Jesus' baptism. Just as the other gospels reveal their entire plot through the gifts of the Magi, the Word made flesh dwelling among us, or the song of the Christmas angels, so Mark's Gospel does the same.
For Mark what's essential is the message Jesus hears once he goes down under the river water in solidarity with the entire blighted human race, and jumps up out of the water again. Do you remember those words? The heavens are torn apart, like sheets being ripped up for rags, the Spirit descends upon him like a dove, and a voice fills his ears and all the depths of his soul: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
If you are looking for hope, then remember these words, dwell upon them. For in a sentence they contain the entire good news of the Gospel. "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
God the Father says this about Jesus, and he never repents of saying so. The Father never repents of having said this through all the days of ministry and nights of prayer in which Jesus engages, through his betrayal, desertion, humiliation, torture, and death. No, the Father never takes back these words. They remain unchanging and unchangeable: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Even at Jesus’ transfiguration, when God speaks to the disciples he says, “This is my son, the beloved: listen to him.”
These words from heaven hold true as Jesus breathes his last on the cross, and is buried in a tomb. These same words come true in a new and marvelous way when, alive again, he bursts forth out of the tomb. Even the great wide world is too small to hold him as he ascends to his father, and there in glory they become true in a still more magnificent way: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Well, you say, that's great for Jesus, but what about us? Here's the great mystery of this day, which makes our Lord's baptism worthy of a feast. Jesus accepts baptism as an act of solidarity with the entire human race. His baptism is an enactment for all the world to see, there on the banks of the Jordan, of what it means for the Word to become flesh there in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This is why the baptism story is also a Christmas story: it comes down to the same result as what happens on that silent night, holy night. In a single word, EMMANUEL. God with us. God for us. God among us.
God for us all. Every last one of us human beings, without regard to age, race, gender, national origin, creed, sexual orientation, handicap, or anything else. God for us all, down to the last and worst and ugliest sinner among us. God for us all, and if God is for us, then who dares to be against us? So, joy to the world, the Lord has come! And if you're looking to find him, there he is! He just jumped into the river water to get baptized for the love of you and me.
The least we can do is jump in right after him. That's what Christian baptism and living the baptismal life is all about. He engages in a life of solidarity with us. We can engage in a life of solidarity with him.
Our baptism into Jesus means we hear the same voice he hears. The same message from heaven is aimed at us. Joe or Sue or Pat or Bob, or whatever your name may be, God speaks to you as he speaks to Jesus, and says the same thing: "You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased."
You or I may think that to be an outrageous, unacceptable statement when directed to ourselves. After all, who are we to be children of God, children with whom God is pleased? But who asked our opinion? It's God who says this about Jesus and about us. Who are we to disagree? Our own children are sometimes bad. Overall aren’t we still pleased with them. God loved us when we were and are still yet sinners.
I'd like you to do me a favor. No, no, do yourself a favor. Write that message from heaven on your heart. Write it on your hand as though it were crib notes for a test. Write it on a piece of paper and slip it in your wallet or purse or stick it on your bathroom mirror. Do whatever you have to do to remember this and not forget that God says to you personally: "You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased."
Better yet, listen for that message. You don't have to be up to your waist in river water to hear this message come at you like a bolt from heaven. Listen carefully to the cracks and crevices in your life, and by God's grace, that message will sound forth. It may come as a whisper, it may come as a shout, and some days it may even seem like a mumble, but that message will be there, because it is a message to you that God does not withdraw or eradicate. What God does is keep saying it, whether or not you choose to listen: "You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased."
Some people say that Christianity's a matter of believing. There's truth in that. Some people say that Christianity's a matter of doing. There's truth in that. But I want to add another piece, without which all the rest is sure to fall apart. Christianity is also a matter of listening. Listening for the message from heaven. Listening for what Jesus heard at his baptism. Listening for the same message spoken to us day by day in the cracks and crevices of our lives: "You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased."
Now this listening, what I call Christian listening, baptismal listening, is no easy business. Why? Because there are other voices echoing in the world and echoing in our hearts, voices that don't say the same thing about us, that deny in one way or another our identity as God's children. These are the voices of temptation. They may sound smooth, they may seem respectable, and sometimes nobody argues with them, but they are a lie. Discipleship is more than a matter of belief and practice; it is knowing how to listen, and which voices are true.
Remember your own baptism. Remember every baptism you participated in. And the covenant you made to assist those being baptized. Your children, grand children, or other relative or friend.
We can look at the ministry of parents and sponsors as helping a child to listen, to listen to the right voice, not the wrong ones, and time and again to hear God's constant message: "You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased."
We can look at our own Christianity, our own discipleship, in the same way. All of us are learning time and again to listen, to listen to the right voice, not the wrong ones, to get in line with the constant message of God: "You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased."
This learning to listen cannot stop with our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves. Indeed, why should it? We can help people to listen who aren't even here yet. The name for this is evangelism. To share our faith with others means helping them listen in and hear the message God speaks to them constantly: "You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased."
A number of years ago, and article in The Christian Century described the first Sunday school program run by a church for mentally retarded people in the community. The teachers decided on the theme, God loves us. They provided construction paper and scissors and glue and a stack of magazines. The students were to cut pictures from the magazines and paste them to the construction paper to make posters illustrating the theme, God loves us. The teachers were a bit nervous. Would the students be able to handle the assignment?
The students got busily about their job, and all of them completed a poster. Most of them involved pictures of families or people embracing -- things of that sort. But one of the students pasted a picture of spareribs to his construction paper. The teachers didn't understand that poster -- so they asked -- what does this mean?
This man with a child's mind said, "Well, um, my mother and father like to go out to eat at Chinese restaurants. They like to go together because they're in love. And, well, they way they love each other reminds me of the way God loves us."
When it is said that God loves man
this is not a judgment on what man is like,
but on what God is like.
This is the new thing about Christianity.
No one had ever even dreamed of a God like that before.
Men had always known of a God of might and majesty and power,
a God of terror and of fear,
but, until Jesus came no one ever dreamed of a God
whose heart and whose door were wide open to saint and to sinner alike.