"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 circumstances surrounding the baptism of Jesus have always been fascinating. That experience represented the beginning of a major identity crisis for Jesus. Regardless of the supernatural drama that the Gospel writers have attributed to this event, for Jesus his baptismal experience brought confusion, inner struggles, and conflicting thoughts that no doubt produced bewilderment.  Think of what such an experience would do to you.   

     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 follow.

     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 serve him.

     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.


     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.


     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 . . .