12 January 2014

Just take the offer. . .

Baptism of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA


John, seeing Jesus standing in line to be baptized, must've been shocked. No, not shocked. Thoroughly confused. Maybe even a little intimidated. Here he is a simple prophet, carrying out his mission to baptize repentant sinners in water, and up walks the fulfillment of every messianic prophecy ever uttered in ancient scripture. As far as we know, this is the first time Jesus and John have met since they were both in their mothers' wombs—when John leaped with joy in the presence of his savior. They know one another not by acquaintance nor friendship but by the complementary gifts given them by the Father. One goes before; the other comes after. One baptizes with water for the remission of sins; the other baptizes with blood and fire for the salvation of the world. At first, John hesitates to baptize his Lord, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” In his shock, confusion, and fear John reveals the fundamental movement of grace, the primitive motion of the Father's love for His creatures: Christ comes to us. Before anything else happens in our lives as followers of the Christ, Christ comes to us.

How does Christ come to you, to me? Given our all-too-human tendency to think that all things divine must be overwhelmingly dramatic, we might expect that Christ comes to us in dazzling technicolor visions, or from the midst of a great conflagration, or in a booming voice while visiting a church. But notice how Isaiah describes the coming Christ: “. . .he shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.” No parades, no wailing over the Emergency Broadcast System, no magical appearance at a Saints' game. He brings forth justice in a whisper. He doesn't break a bruised reed when he walks nor does he quench a smoldering wick when he breathes. So quiet, so gentle is his coming to me and to you that we wait—like the coast lands—for his teaching. The primitive motion of the Father's love for us is His choice, His move towards us. Isaiah reports: “I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you. . .” I called you. I grasped your hand. I formed you. Says the Lord. For the victory of justice—the victory we share with Christ—is the Father's victory in Christ. He won for us. And He sent His Son as a sign of His victory. Christ comes to you, to me as a delicate triumph, as a small, singular success that manages nonetheless to “open the eyes of the blind” and set prisoners free.

The Son of God is no prisoner to sin. So, when he approaches John for baptism, John squawks, “But but but, you should be baptizing me! And yet, you come to me?” Jesus—I always imagine that he smiles—says, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” To fulfill all righteousness. Not a phrase we hear everyday. What does Jesus mean? First, he means that since he is the fulfillment of scripture's messianic prophecies, he must do all that those prophecies require. Second, he means that though he has no sin to repent, he still needs to show us the necessity of repentance and baptism. And finally, he knows that his baptism is to be followed by a revelation, a word spoken from heaven confirming his identity and mission: “. . .he came up from the water and behold, . . .a voice came from the heavens, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'” All righteousness is fulfilled by this revelation. All is right with the world b/c God's beloved Son is among us, sent to us for our salvation. The long-wounded relationship btw creation and its Creator is healed. You and I are approached by Christ and offered. . .everything. Everything we need to live freely, to think truthfully, to act justly, and to speak his Word of mercy to sinners. 
Last week, we celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord, the occasion of the magi searching for and finding the newly born Jewish king. That these Gentiles found him and offered him their homage tells us that the king of the Jews is also the king of the Gentiles. Today we celebrate the Lord's baptism and the final revelation of his identity and mission: Christ is King and Christ is the Son of God. He rules heaven and earth. And he rules not with fear or power or wealth but with his teaching, his preaching, and his love for the poor in spirit. Peter reminds his brothers and sisters in Acts that after he was baptized by John and anointed by the Father “[Christ] went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Christ rule is liberation from power, fear, and the spiritual oppression of things. We are approached and offered freedom. Approached and offered healing. He will not rule a heart that is not first given to him freely. He will not rule a mind that is not first turned toward him. He brings forth justice with a whisper. He doesn't break a bruised reed when he walks nor does he quench a smoldering wick when he breathes.

This can be both good and bad news for us. Good news b/c who wants to be coerced into being free? Bad news b/c we must be attentive enough to hear his approach and offer. This bad news, however, really isn't all that bad. Part of my job as a preacher is to make sure that you know that there's an offer on the table. And make sure that you understand the offer and the consequences of accepting that offer. So, here goes. There's an offer from Christ in front of you. He's approached you—each one of us—and laid before us a simple proposition: we repent of our sins, get baptized, and follow him, and eternal life awaits us when this life is done. Unlike the magi, we don't have to go searching for him. Unlike John, we aren't surprised that he's come to us. We don't owe him anything. We don't have to put up any collateral or sign away an organ or a child to follow. Repent. Get baptized. Follow him. He's not going to shout or jump or promise us great wealth or a better looking spouse. In fact, and here's the hard part of my job, following him in this world is a promise of conflict, persecution, trial, and near-constant opposition. When we pick up his offer and follow him, we become an irritant to the world. This isn't surprising. Christ himself is the Cosmic Irritant, and the world convulses to dig him out. Why would you or I be spared?

With all the conflict, trial, and persecution, you might rightly wonder how a follower of Christ is supposed to accomplish his/her mission to speak the Word of God's mercy to sinners. Isaiah prophesied in the desert and on the street corner. John baptized in a local river. Jesus preached on hills, from a boat, and in the market. The world tells you to be quiet. The world fears your good deeds. The world wants you to be embarrassed by the cross. It's the world that tells us that our faith is a “private matter.” It's the world that tells us that we believe in fairy-tales and tribal myths. And what does the world offer instead? Power, influence, wealth, celebrity. Corrupting power, compromising influence, dirty wealth, and fleeting celebrity. All to weigh down your soul and keep you enslaved. . .to what? Nothing eternal, nothing permanent. A lust for more? More corruption? More compromise? Our God has called us, grasped us by the hand, and formed us to be “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind,” to live and breath His victory of justice. Take His offer and He will say on the last day, “These are my beloved children, with whom I am well pleased.”

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  1. Dr Duncan7:01 AM

    This is so simple, yet so demanding. I am challenged

    1. Good! Pray I have the strength to pick the challenge with you!