12 January 2013

A people eager to do what is good

The Baptism of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

All that the Old Covenant with Abraham promises, the New Covenant in Christ Jesus fulfills. God makes a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He repeats this promise to their children and their children's children for generations. The promise is delivered again and again by fire, cloud, water, blood; by war and prosperity; by disease and good health; in slavery and in freedom from slavery. And in the voices of the prophets He sends to warn and plead with His people, God speaks one final promise: I will send my Servant to suffer and die for My people; to free them from sin; to show them my mercy and love; and to bring them all back home to Me. The Lord says through Isaiah, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit. . .” Eight hundred years after Isaiah records this prophecy, Jesus of Nazareth emerges from the River Jordan, baptized by John his herald, and hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Thus begins the public ministry of the Christ among God's people and the ministry of God's people among the nations. 

Luke records the moment: “After. . .Jesus had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” Recall Isaiah's 800 yr old prophecy, “Here is my servant. . .upon whom I have put my spirit.” As the Holy Spirit descends, Jesus hears a voice proclaim, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Again, recall Isaiah, “Here is my servant. . .my chosen one with whom I am pleased. . .” These parallels are striking b/c the New Covenant fulfills the Old. In Matthew's account of Jesus' baptism, John refuses to baptize Jesus, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus answers, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The phrase “to fulfill all righteousness” means “to make good on God's promises, to do all that is right in the sight of the Father.” John's public baptism of the Father's Son fulfills the 800 yr old prophecy given to Isaiah. The suffering servant upon whom the Lord places His holy spirit, the one He upholds, is among us, and his mission to save us is begun. What is his mission? How does he save us? And what is our part in this salvation drama? 

The first part of Isaiah's 800 yr old prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus' baptism, so we can argue that the second part is fulfilled in his public ministry. Isaiah prophesies: “I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice. . .and set you as a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement. . .those who live in darkness. . .[you] shall bring forth justice to the nations. . .” Hearing this we might conclude that the savior the Lord sends among us is a warrior-king, a battle-prince, one trained to command armies and conquer nations in bloood. And we would be right. However, as we all know, the sword Christ wields is not forged of steel but of light, the light of truth, and the blood he spills is his own. His justice is not a legal settlement, a constitutional amendment, or a defense of natural rights. His freedom is not a license to do as we please and then demand that the neighbors to pay the bill. The prisoners Christ frees are held captive by all the injustices born of from the womb of human disobedience. Therefore, his public ministry is the preaching and teaching of the Good News, the good news that our Father has forgiven our trespasses against Him and only waits for us to receive His freely given mercy. We are the freest we will ever be this side of heaven when we obey the law of divine love. 

Jesus of Nazareth is baptized in the River Jordan so that he can fulfill all righteousness. In obedience to his example and explicit command, we too are baptized and set out on a mission identical to his. Paul writes to Titus, “[God] saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit [through Christ]. . .” Why? “. . .So that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” In the water of baptism, we are made right with God, and we receive as an inheritance the hope of life eternal. We are made righteous heirs to heaven as a gift, a freely given heritage as children of God. What do we do with this gift right now? His grace “train[s] us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly. . .as we await [Christ's return].” Jesus, baptized in water and confirmed by the Holy Spirit, “gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.” Are we his people, a people cleansed from lawlessness? Are we a people eager to do what is good? Do we live in the blessed hope of his return? 

All that the Old Covenant with Abraham promises, the New Covenant in Christ Jesus fulfills. God makes a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob make their promises to God in turn: to live according to His laws, in peace with one another, always seeking justice, and honoring Him alone as their heavenly Father. God's promises are delivered again and again in flame, smoke, flood, and tears; through violence and peace; by injury and healing; in exile and deliverance from exile. And from the mouths of the prophets He sends to admonish and beg His people, God speaks one last promise: I will send my Servant to suffer and die for My people; to free them from sin; to show them my mercy and love; and to bring them all back home to Me. That servant, our Savior, has arrived. And though he has long ago ascended to the Father, his public ministry continues. . .in those who are baptized in his name, confirmed in the Holy Spirit, and grow holy on the food and drink of his body and blood. Twenty-eight hundred years after Isaiah records his prophecy; and two thousand years after John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, we emerge from the waters of baptism and hear a voice say, “You are my beloved sons and daughters; with you I am well pleased.” 

Christ's mission among his Father's people is to preach and teach the good news that all is forgiven. Receive His forgiveness and come home. Christ gave himself to death so that we might know what divine love truly is: sacrifice for another. When we live in obedience to the law of divine love—sacrificing for one another—we are living our days in holy justice, and giving public witness to the power of God's mercy to repair ruined lives; to free souls from sin and death; to shine the light of truth in the darkness, and guide anyone who wants it to His peace. The history of our salvation is scarred with human failure and the ugly consequences of that failure. If we see history repeating itself—the cycle of laxity, licentiousness, debauchery, and exhausted collapse—then our blessed hope in life eternal becomes all the more blessed. But whatever history fires at us, whatever this world throws at us, our mission—baptized and confirmed—it never changes. We bless the Lord. Live in righteousness. Work for peace. Forgive one another. Love one another, especially those who call themselves our enemies. And we never cease in preaching and teaching the overwhelming mercy of God, freely given and waiting to be received. Christ died to cleanse for himself a people to be his own, a people eager to do only what is good. 

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  1. You've really got to stop doing this to me :-). Making my tear ducts work over-time!

    I really appreciate the artistry here; the way the words and phrases are put together. Though some days this can be somewhat distracting, for me: I feel the rising and falling, the crescendoes building, the pauses, the softenings, the tempo changes...so on a first read-through I "feel", and can get caught up in, an emotional (maybe "musical" is a better word) subtext - which may or may not be intentional. Your writing gives excellent directions to someone who is trained in public reading/speaking/drama. Don't get me wrong, the content is certainly there, too, which I am compelled to go back and find and immerse myself in, but there is that nagging pull to stay with the language (the feeling from it) and ignore what is actually said. I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing, just something I noticed a little more than usual today.

    But for me, today, this packaging really worked - the beauty of the words combined with the urgency of the message. It made it easier for me to allow the message to move from my head into my heart and then back again. It encouraged me to move, to do, and at the same time to hold that beauty inside which makes being at peace while moving and doing, that much easier.

    Just what I needed, right here and right now. Thank you.

    1. Wanna be my P.R. Guy? :-) Actually, I'm surprised this turned out at all. I was wide awake at 2.50am. Rolled out of bed at 3.15am. And had nothing to say/write by 12.25pm. It came slowly. I always try to write for the ear. . .the better it turns out, the more exhausted I am. I loosen up and let the Spirit do the hard part. The ending could be better. Preaching this one was no fun b/c I was so tired. Going to bed early tonight. . .got the 8.30 and 12.15 tomorrow!

      Thanks, as always, for the comments.

  2. Anonymous5:16 AM


    10 out of 10 rating.

    1. Wow. First "flawless" one of these ever received! :-)