... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Baptism of Jesus Year C
Message January 13, 2013

Baptism Prayer and Sense of Self

Text: Isaiah 43; Luke 3:15-17,21-22

We’ve all heard the joke about the rebuilding of an Anglican church – the priest asks the architect to design the nave to ensure people sit up close to the front – the Wardens ask that something be done to ensure the sermon time never exceeds 15 minutes. When complete the church with its large nave is empty except one set of pews at the very back. The priest is somewhat upset and asks how will this seat the members of the congregation let alone get them up front. The architect states, “wait and see!” As the pew fills up a low hum is audible and the pew moves to the front and at the same time another pops up at the back. I won’t go on to explain the working out of the Warden’s request. Suffice it to say it’s a humourous take on a basic truth of human behaviour which we all experience, we all subconsciously recognize and we all tend to avoid: fear of who we are, where we belong and, of what value we are!

We see it all the time – as people get on a bus or fill a movie theatre – you look to see if there is someone you know – if so you migrate towards that area if not you choose to find an open area away from others. We witness it in such things as the empty nest syndrome or the retirement recluse behaviour. We joke about senior moments or about mid-life crises situations. Yet the truth is it all stems from a fear of self-identity. And men are more prone to it than women! This is because men tend to define themselves as to their vocation or their accomplishments. I’m a lawyer or I’m a priest or I’m an executive. Women on the other hand tend to define themselves by their relationships – wife mother grandmother and so on. Perhaps this is why women have better social groups, understand socialization more deeply and have an easier grasp of the spiritual side of life. While the relationship in life gives greater comfort to the here and now, the grasp of the relationship between God and creature however, has a more lasting and broader spectrum in how we deal with the bigger aspect of life in the midst of evil and despair. The great psychologist Victor Frankl noted that those who tended not only to survive the concentrations camps but who did so in better physical and mental state had an overarching mindset defining their entire lives, their relationship to God and to one another.

And today we delve into what that relationship is all about! From the passage of Isaiah to Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism we are encouraged to see that we are more than created creatures, that we are more than what the world throws at us.

In Isaiah 43 we move from words of accusation concerning sinful ways and self-indulgent lifestyles to words of sympathy and expressions of hope. The prophet now speaks to a people bruised and battered suffering the consequences of their mistakes. As they languish in the despair of exile the prophet reminds them of who they are and the ultimate divine relationship they have. God still loves and cherishes Israel and despite their sinful ways will redeem them. Hope rests not in the accomplishments of self, nor in the grandeur of the abilities of people, but in the will of God. Even so the words of hope and comfort of Isaiah 43 must not be taken out of the context of the chapters preceding it. Being loved comforted and redeemed is not a license to do as one pleases. Nor are they words of cheap grace. Israel though chosen, though designated to be a light to the world had turned from their calling and had ventures away from their rightful relationship and in consequence of that had to suffer the wages of their folly.

Who was Israel? Where did they belong? What made them worthy? Isaiah reminded the people that it was God and their relationship to God which answered those questions and gave them hope to rise from the ashes of despair, to overcome the hardships of exile and to rejoice in a future not yet realized.

Pairing this Old Testament passage with Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism in this regard opens for us the same words of hope and the same understanding of relationship. In the waters of baptism we are marked as God’s own in Christ Jesus and given the same relationship with the Father as Jesus himself experienced.

Unlike Matthew’s or Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ baptism, Luke’s account is short and put into the context of the gift and worship of the Spirit as well as the power of prayer. There is no dialogue between John and Jesus, no parting of the multitudes to let Jesus to the front of the line and no divine address to the populace. In fact the verses left out of the reading today deal with John in the political sphere of Herod’s paranoia concerning him. John’s introduction of Jesus only tells of Jesus’ ministry – to baptize with the Holy Spirit. A close reading doesn’t even show that Jesus was baptized by John – it is something that is just assumed.

We are left to ponder why Luke’s version varies so differently from the other two synoptic accounts and how Luke’s readers understood Jesus’ baptism in terms of God’s relationship to the people. First of all we must look at the order of baptism. When all the people were baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying. Now we see two important aspects of Luke’s Gospel – 1st Jesus is part and parcel of the people – He is not apart from or over-against; 2nd the proper response to baptism is prayer. In fact one of Luke’s central themes through his Gospel and his Book of the Acts of the Apostles is prayer.

Even in our Acts reading today the place of prayer and its connection to the gift of the Holy Spirit is seen as instrumental and inseparable in Jesus’ ministry and by extension in the ministry of the disciples. “What is begun in baptism is lived out through the practice of prayer by which one receives the Holy Spirit.”

Perhaps it is with the particular pairing of Isaiah and Luke that we come to appreciate the proper perspective of a right relationship with God. God chooses us and marks us as such at our baptism but it is only through and by a proper response that that relationship can be fully appreciated in our lives. Prayer – true deep sincere prayer not just the simple superficial arrow prayers – is what opens for us the answers to “who am I? Where do I belong? And what makes me worthy?” In a parallel but more complex way prayer is to our relationship with God as is reflection meditation and resolution to do unto others is to our relationship with our family friends and neighbours.

May we, by prayer, come to understand more fully what it means to be children of God and thus come to know who we are, where we belong and our value to ourselves and creation.