Moments of Clarity (Isa. 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Lk. 3:15-17, 21-22)
We live in a confusing world, and many times we are forced to decide what to do with less than a satisfying amount of information or a sense of the implications of our choices. It’s just part of life that, every day, we have to choose one thing or another, one way or another, one action or another. It’s only occasionally that we get clarity about the decisions we make. Life is ambiguous and can come out many different ways. Even our choices seem limited much of the time, but we have to live with those choices nonetheless. As we go along today, let’s keep this whole business about the ambiguity in which we make life-choices as a background for our lectionary texts. Each of them comes out of a much broader context, and it’s important to include as much of these contexts as possible in order to reduce as much ambiguity as we can.
In Isaiah’s text, the ancient people of God found themselves in a strange place that wasn’t home, and that led to ambiguity in itself. Babylon had conquered Israel and carried off its leaders to a place where, as “social nothings,” they lived at the margins of Babylonian society. The Babylonian royalty, military, as well as the gods and goddesses that represented them had triumphed politically, militarily and religiously. What did that say about Israel’s traditions, and, more importantly, its God? Earlier, in Isaiah 42, God had said that, though Israel was the people of God, they were still blind and deaf. In that situation, who could blame them? Can we identify with feeling cut off from the mainstream of life, and maybe a little blind and deaf, even if we’re not prisoners? Do you sometimes not understand what’s going on in the world? When you watch television (if you do) do you find anything of real interest? A great many of you have commented to me that you have several hundred channels on your TV and there’s nothing on any of them worth watching. I agree. Do you try to watch the commercials? I mute most of them because they’re so loud, but even in those I watch, I’m often not sure what they’re selling. When I find out I realize I’d never buy it. Then, I often comment to Maxine that “I think we’re supposed to know who that is doing the selling.” But we have no clue mostly.
That’s a little, pretty benign, psychological example of exile, alienation and the strangeness that Israel experienced. That strangeness and not being able to figure stuff out in the world comes in many forms. In a world that we don’t understand, how difficult it is to figure out what God’s up to among us.
In this remarkable poem God makes several statements that tell us what God is like and what God is up to in the world, strange as it is. Let me put all these in the form of verbs because God is actually doing such things, then and now. God says: I have made you, I have redeemed you (in spite of who you still are), I have called you by name (I know you personally), you are mine, I will be with you in danger, I am your God, I value you more than anything, I love you and would do anything for you. At the beginning and end of all these things, God says this in the midst of ambiguity and unclarity: “Stop being afraid.” In such a world as that in which we live, God knows that people’s lives are products of fear: fear of enemies, fear of friends, fear of ridicule, fear of being wrong, you name it and fill in the blank. And there are many folk who would want you afraid all the time. After God says stop letting fear, in the sense of dread, be that which guides your life, God says, in essence, “Certainly don’t dread me, I love you.” And this is just before one more thing God promises to do. God says, “I will gather you – all of you, those like you, those unlike you, from all over the world: from the east, the west, the north, the south. The God who does all these loving things is the God who gathers in exiles and cares for them. You might say that to be and to do these things is God’s choice in the midst of ambiguity. This is our God.
God’s statement of love and care from Isaiah 43 is the underlayment of the Gospel text. This story is found amidst the ambiguity of the ministry of John the Baptist who called all kinds of folks in and around Judea to change the ways they’d been living and the choices they’d been making and go in another direction. Many did. But it was not all that clear that John had it right among the many voices of Judaism in the first century, not to mention that the real power was not in the hands of any of them, but belonged to Herod’s family and existed there by his allegiance to Rome. Why make the choice to undergo that Jewish cleansing rite of baptism? What real difference could that choice make?
Matthew’s gospel makes much of John’s connection with Jesus’ baptism. Luke’s does not. In fact if you read Luke flat on, you might think that John had already been thrown in jail before Jesus was baptised with a lot of others one day. To Luke, it’s not the baptism, but what happens next that gave Jesus clarity in the midst of ambiguity. As Jesus is praying, the doorway between where God is (that’s what “the heavens” are in the Bible), and where people are here (on earth) is opened and the presence of God (which is what the Bible means by spirit) settles on Jesus with words of affirmation that paraphrase Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Jesus is God’s son, Jesus is God’s beloved, and with Jesus God is “well-pleased.” This last word is the same one that the angels used in the Christmas message to the shepherds, “and on earth, peace, to humans, with whom God is well pleased.” Jesus is the embodiment of God’s well-pleased affirmation.
After Jesus’ baptism, we read about the beginning of his “work” in the world, including being tempted in the wilderness, preaching, teaching, and healing. In the ambiguity of who is in charge of the world, Jesus chooses to undertake a certain type of work and live in certain ways. Jesus’ baptism is a moment of clarity and decision, if you like, both for him and for God. God also goes to the work of loving and gathering which were mentioned in the Old Testament Lesson and now embodied in the life of this Jesus.
The Book of Acts, Luke’s second volume, illustrates the story of making choices and getting clarity in the midst of ambiguity with an interesting story. By and by, the Christian movement had grown from being simply a Jewish group in and around Judea and Galilee, and had moved out into Gentile territory. Acts Chapter 8 tells an interesting tale about how things went when the disciples of Jesus came to Samaria. Now, Samaria was the home of the Samaritans, and they were sort of half-Jews. The New Testament is not shy to say that Jews and Samaritans didn’t share much in common. It’s not surprising that it was the evangelist Philip that went to Samaria, for Philip, at least has a Greek name, and was probably a Gentile. Philip went there and preached and served, and all kinds of folk responded, but not in the same way that Jewish converts might have. They were used to different ways. There were a lot of magical rites done in Samaria. One of the really good magicians, whose name was Simon was among the converts. And when he and many others were baptized, he was fascinated by what Philip was doing. That’s the background, which simply says that the early Christians were growing outside of the box.
It seems most common in the New Testament to have experienced the Spirit of God coming upon one when one was baptised. Not so among the Samaritans. They had been baptised in the name of Jesus only and hadn’t heard of the Holy Spirit. What happened was that Peter and John went to Samaria and laid their hands on the believers and then they Spirit as well. The Bible does not make a big deal of these differences and think of them as heresies to be stamped out (that came later in history). Different people experienced God and the Christian life differently. That’s a lesson that Paul would later champion in many ways, and still a lesson well worth learning and remembering in our diverse and multi-ethnic world. We so often think that God is just like us and only acts in ways that are common among us. Not so.
It was a big deal was when Simon the Magician thought that he could buy the privilege and control God’s power for his own benefit. That was an error that mistook who was really in charge. This is another lesson worth learning. We do not control God, nor are we the ones who decide who God loves, nor do we get to hand out all the goodies in God’s name. This is really the lesson behind God’s speech in Isaiah about “I love you.” It is God who loves and does all the rest of it, and we don’t set the agenda. The old hymn is right: “For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind.” At Jesus’ baptism, it was God’s presence that came upon him to empower him for his vocation. It’s interesting how often over the centuries those of us who claim to be Jesus’ disciples have wanted to crawl into the driver’s seat right beside Simon the Magician and dictate who’s in and who’s out and how things are to go. Peter’s words to Simon are worth remembering: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with it!”
Well, since we’re not in charge of things, and it’s unwise to try to make others have just our experience of God, what kind of things might we want to say and do as those who, like Jesus, witness to the open heavens, are engulfed by God’s own energy and power, and listening to Jesus, God’s beloved? Here we return to our Old Testament Lesson. As I said at the beginning, in Isaiah God makes clear that, although Israel was God’s servant, It was both blind and deaf, and remained so. Israel never became perfect or perfectly good. Israel does not ever completely avoid doing the wrong thing and making the wrong choice. None of God’s people ever do. At nearly the end of Isaiah 43, which we didn’t read, are these words, put in God’s mouth in the midst of a discussion of Israel’s imperfection: “I, I am the one who blots out your rebellions for my own sake, and I will not remember your mistakes.” It’s not because God’s people always think, believe or do the right things that God transforms, loves, and forgives them or others. It’s “for God’s own sake.” It’s because that’s who God is.
In the ambiguity of the world, perhaps the best we can do is remember that we are blind and deaf, but, also loved and gathered by God who chooses not to remember our faults. The call is to be a community like that, to mediate such fault-forgetting love to those God is gathering, of all shapes, sizes, colours, genders, peoples, nations, and languages to the end that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.