"Would Divine Recognition Make Us Different?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 13, 2002
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
The writer of Matthew
described what happened in this manner, "As soon as Jesus was
baptized, he came up out of the water. Then heaven was opened to
him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and
lighting on him. Then a voice from heaven said, 'This is my beloved
Son, with whom I am very pleased.'" This sounds as though God was
making a public announcement to a number of assembled witnesses.
Jesus baptism is recorded
with identical language in Matthew, Mark and Luke. However, in Luke
there is a slight variation. His Gospel suggests that other people
were present. The question comes; did anyone else experience heaven
opening up, a dove descending, or hear the voice announcing Jesus'
identity? Probably not. Most likely this experience occurred only
within Jesus. Why do I say that?
First, John the Baptist made
no change in his own ministry. Had he seen and heard what the
Gospel writer described, no doubt John would have become Jesus'
first disciple. That did not happen. In fact, his ministry
remained separate from that of Jesus until Herod beheaded John.
And secondly, we recall the time that several of John's disciples approached Jesus and said, "John wants to know, are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?" John appears not to be aware of his cousin's identity. Jesus responded by telling them to go back and tell John what they see, the blind receive their sight and the lame are able to walk.
How would you respond if you experienced something very similar to what Jesus encountered? Suppose God communicated directly to you, "You are my son. You are my daughter. I am very pleased with you." After such an intense mystical experience, what would you do differently? What assumptions might you make about God's future relationship with you? Would you be happy with the implications of receiving such divine approval?
This morning we are going to
put Jesus under the microscope and see how he navigated in these
very strange waters. We will sense his struggles. Perhaps we will
understand how comparatively easy it is for us to follow Jesus now
that he has shown us the way. Jesus and his followers provided
the spiritual infrastructure of what a life looks like when it
mirrors the same loving energy as our Creator. Jesus had no one
To begin with we need to understand that so far as the Gospels are concerned, there is no record of any further communication from God to Jesus. Jesus was left alone to figure out the meaning and purpose of God's words. Jesus learned very quickly that life would not be easy. And there would be no favors granted by God.
There are lots of Gospel references of Jesus going off into the hills to pray. If God answered, the Scriptures make no mention of it. Even in the Garden following his betrayal, as Jesus reached out to God in great anguish, heaven remained silent. There was no special treatment and no awareness or evidence that Jesus had accomplished anything significant with his life. From the cross he could have said, "Why? What purpose has my life served?" Instead he said, "Father, forgive them, they no not what they do."
Think what it would mean to know you are God's son or daughter without a blueprint, without definitive expectations, or some kind of road map. Maybe that was a blessing for Jesus because without knowing anything, he could be exactly who he was while allowing his ultimate destiny to remain with God. Figuring out what to do with who he was became Jesus' greatest challenge.
I remember when I was a little
boy, the people who scolded me for misbehaving would frequently remind
me, "You ought to know better, Dick. Your father is a minister." The
identity of being a preacher's son was very difficult to carry. People
expected more from us than they would from others. There was another
side to the experience as well. If I were ever caught doing something
really inappropriate, it might reflect on Mom and Dad's ability to be
good parents. All four of us grew up knowing what it was like to live
in a fishbowl.
Perhaps more than some people, I empathized with the pressure that was brought by the media when President and Laura Bush's twin daughters were caught attempting to buy alcohol by using false identification.
It would be wonderful if all of us could grow up without having to test our limits or experiment with social taboos. Few of us can do that. Wisdom comes to those of us who learn through our experiences. The Gospels, to their credit, never attempted to hide the fact that Jesus was no different. Perhaps we can be less condemning of ourselves when we watch the growth patterns that Jesus experienced.
Coming back to our theme, did Jesus struggle and experience limitations? I will probably find myself standing with a minority of preachers willing to say this, but you bet he did. The Scriptures attest to his struggles in the wilderness. Do we think that he won his Mother's approval when he abruptly walked away from his carpenter's shop and wandered in the wilderness for 40 days? Was she applauding as she watched her eldest son walk from place to place without a consistent place to sleep at night?
As we review his ministry, was
Jesus really happy with himself when he upset the tables of the
moneychangers and even drove them out of the temple courtyard with a
whip? Is this the way the Son of God should act? Is this the kind of
behavior he wanted to model for his disciples? It appears as though
Jesus was communicating that when people do not show proper reverence
for God, it is fine to use brute force to correct their behavior. Much
later in Jesus' ministry he displayed a very different spirit, but it
took time for him to get there.
During the early phases of Jesus'
ministry his communication skills were not as polished as they might
have been. He once approached the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees
with these words, "You snakes and children of snakes." (Matthew 23:33)
Once when his disciples failed to cure a boy of epilepsy, he said to
everyone, "How unbelieving you are! How long must I stay with you?
How long do I have to put up with you?" (Mark 9:19).
Jesus had no picture of what being the Son of God should look like. And perhaps the most frustrating aspect of his entire ministry was that he would not live long enough to see the results of anything he did. His friends ran away. The people he had healed and ministered to were nowhere to be found. According to earth's standards, everything Jesus stood for appeared to collapse at the end of his life.
During challenging moments in our
lives, how many times have we found ourselves saying, "Why should I even
try? It doesn't do any good. Why should I go on kidding myself? It's
like trying to communicate with a rock."
How many times have we brought
our best to our jobs and we remained "invisible"? There is no
appreciation. There is no congratulations. We may even be passed over
for promotions. We did a hundred things extremely well and were written
up for one mistake, which overshadowed everything else.
Without strong connections to the
One who is painting the portrait, such experiences can easily erode our
confidence levels. When we doubt our self-worth, we must hasten to
remember that Jesus could have gone there too, any number of times, but
he did not.
From our perspective Jesus'
entire life looks very impressive. As we read the Gospels the story
line reads well. We receive many incredible insights for living from
what Jesus taught. But go back in time and walk in Jesus' sandals for a
week or two. We would quickly learn that being the Son of God did not
produce the quality of life that most of us seek.
Think what it would mean to be
the only one who sees what you see and the only one who knows what you
know. Think of how alone Jesus must have been. Think what it was like
to point to a garden Jesus called "God's Kingdom" when few people knew
what he was talking about. Think what it was like to trust God to
determine the outcome. Jesus had learned something very fundamental --
he accepted what came his way without creating thoughts that would not
One of the ways our faith may be deepened is when we learn to deal creatively with events that do not work out as we had hoped. We think, "I had hoped that my marriage would work out and it did not." Or, "I once envisioned the joy of watching our son or daughter grow up, but there was the automobile accident, the drug overdose, or a military mishap." Or, "We had our retirement plans in place. There were so many things we were going to do. We never thought that a stroke, that breast cancer, or that a fatal heart attack would happen to one of us but it did."
Jesus lived with reversals almost daily yet remained connected to God. That was the bedrock on which he always stood. In other words, being in harmony with God did not connect Jesus to the earthly rewards and "blessings" that so many people around him appeared to receive.
This understanding should
communicate a very profound lesson to us. Just imagine what it would be
like to be at your retirement and face a crowd that yelled, "Crucify
him! Crucify him! Crucify him!" Think of holding on to your
understanding of how much God loves you while soldiers stretched and
nailed your body to a cross.
Would divine recognition make a difference in how you live? Only you can answer that. If we are looking for a life of blessings, one where prayers are answered, and one where every chapter has a storybook ending, we can see how quickly people abandon their faith. They do because life is never like that. Our expectation of God should be tempered now with our understanding of what Jesus experienced during his ministry.
We have all been called. This is why we were born. We are all sons and daughters of God. We make mistakes and some of us make big mistakes, but we are not the artist. We are not the One who takes our smiles, our thoughtfulness, our volunteer hours of service, our challenges to those who have forgotten how to love, or the two copper coins we put in the temple treasury, and creates a magnificent portrait of the world that is coming. God does that. That is where our confidence must remain.
The miracle we celebrate this morning is that Jesus led the way to the new world that is dawning. He was the first to point accurately to what God had in mind for all of us. And he did so without an instruction manual and no one to follow. After his baptism, he tried to embrace a world that knew very little about embracing. He invited us to follow. Now it is our turn to show the way for others. Remember your baptism and in spite of what life brings to you, cling tightly to how much God loves you. Through each of us God will create tomorrow's new world.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Our hearts can be numbed, O God, by the
news we receive. Lift our vision above the same drama which has
continued for thousands of years. Guide us to see the good in others.
Move our spirits with the awareness that you gave us a wonderful world
filled with angels in the flesh. Just as Jesus made his way among those
who were strangers to his message, so may we patiently teach others to
find their inheritance. Each of us can be kind and gentle. Empower us
with the wisdom that true power is found in patience. Truly all beauty
is in the eye of the beholder. Guide us to help others become
beholders of all that you have made available to us. With grateful
hearts, we thank you for loving us. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, that we are here this
morning. There are so many inviting reasons for us to take a break from
being with our church family, yet life has taught us that opportunities
to focus our attention on you are not as many as we think there are.
Some of us plan to start our day with a quiet time of prayer and
meditation, but our morning rituals often take us in directions our
habits have created. We think to ourselves, "Well, maybe tomorrow."
Our minds this morning will focus on Jesus'
baptismal experience. For him there was no, "well, maybe tomorrow,"
because his life-changing adventure started immediately. And we are glad
that it did. He left us with such a legacy along with a wonderful,
warm, heart-felt invitation to follow him. We pray that each of us will
take our life experiences and our calling as seriously as he did.
We confess that we never know where life will lead us. So many variables lie beyond our control, yet we ask that you lead us to know with absolute confidence who we are as we go there. Life does not always take us where we would prefer and our experiences are not always what they seem but through us you know how to bring healing, renewed hope, and a passion for living to those who may have lost their way. Use us, O God, as followers of Jesus Christ, to mold and shape our world. We pray these thoughts in the same spirit as Jesus experienced when he taught us to say when we pray . . .