United Church of Jaffrey
As you know, I have had the honor of being your minister for three years – long enough, now, that the anniversary came and went without anyone noticing.
I’m not complaining about it!
I consider the quiet acceptance of my presence to be further evidence of the very lovely fact that you have come to take me for granted.
This is as it should be! The proof that you are loved, as every parent knows, is not to be properly measured by how much brouhaha you inspire, but rather by the extent to which you are taken for granted.
I am not, as this line of reasoning might suggest, comparing you to my children – that would not do, especially given the fact that many of you are old enough to be my parents!
Nor am I encouraging you to think of me as your son. I love you, but I will not come over and do your dishes for you!
I am simply noting that, my third year upon us, the honeymoon is over and we have settled into a rhythm and, lo and behold, it seems to be working out!
No one is running out of the church screaming… at least not yet.
A new fuse has been put in the boiler…
We have some new faces in the pews…
Rich Alden has climbed up on the ladder and taken the Christmas wreaths from the windows without mishap…
The dented and expired cans in the food pantry have been sent into Babylonian exile…
The hymns have been chosen…
The scriptures read…
And we are ready, once again, to worship God, in our own gentle way.
I mentioned this business of being in my third year for a reason, which I seem to have temporarily misplaced…
Ah yes, here it is!
When I looked over the scripture passage that the Revised common lectionary served up for me to preach about this Sunday, I realized that I’d spent some time, not to long ago it seems, ruminating over the ideas found therein – and when I looked back on the UCJ website, my suspicions were confirmed…
I’ve been here long enough to have completed the entire lectionary cycle, and if I were a certain kind of unscrupulous and unimaginative pastor, I could take you for granted and simply start repeating my old sermons…
Well, that’s not the kind of preacher I am… but…
You can bet I did look back at that old sermon…
And it wasn’t bad.
And it occurred to me, that, while it would be unscrupulous of me to repeat my old sermons, it would be a fine thing indeed, to build upon them.
Not a remake, as such, but a sequel.
The last time I preached about Matthew’s telling of the baptism of Jesus, I discovered something that I thought was pretty interesting.
When Matthews gospel tells the story of Christ’s baptism, the text describes the experience in this way:
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The interesting thing that I noticed was the prevalence, in this text, of the third person masculine singular pronoun: he.
The story is told exclusively from Christ’s point of view, which may not be surprising since the baptism, after all, is happening to him – but the result of this telling is surprising.
Our tradition has, for many generations, simply assumed that when the dove alighted on Jesus and the voice from heaven spoke, these were grand events that were witnessed by a gathered multitude, who must have all been struck dumb with amazement.
But the exclusive use of the first-person masculine singular provides scant evidence to suggest that anyone, other than Christ himself, was aware of the miraculous and dramatic events described.
This observation allowed me to reconsider the baptism of Christ, not as a public event, but as a private one.
Through a process of storytelling, oral tradition, at length, through the technology of the written word and, many centuries later, the printing press – we have become participants in the events of the baptism…
But in its essence – in the beginning – the baptism was a rite of passage that happened to one person… an intense experience of personal transformation.
And where there is transformation, there is God.
As is my wont, I then told a story of personal transformation, to illustrate how personal story of transformation has as much, if not more, religious significance for people of faith, as a public one.
That was how things were at the end of the last episode…
So what, pastor Mark, is this episode going to be about?
I’m glad you asked.
I did notice something new, this time around, that I didn’t notice last time.
If we focus our attention on the part of the story right after Jesus comes out of the water, we have one scant piece of evidence that suggests that the events might have been witnessed by other people beside Jesus alone.
The text says:
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
If the voice from heaven was talking to Jesus alone, surely it would have said “You are my Son…”
But the voice from heaven uses the adjective “This” — “This is my Son.”
The voice from heaven seems to be bragging about Christ to someone other than Christ.
We don’t know how many people we are talking about. It could be a handful, or it could be a multitude – but there is one thing we do know.
These people – however many there were – knew very little about loud noises.
They lived in a pre-technological age.
There were no motorcycles without mufflers…
No car alarms…
No airplanes taking off…
No rock concerts…
They had no experience of any sound greater than a sound that could be naturally made by a voice, an animal, or a natural event.
I imagine, the loudest sound they knew of was thunder.
And thunder was an unusual event in that desert like area.
A voice from heaven today, might be mistaken for an outdoor concert, a truck backing up, or a plane passing overhead.
But back in the 1st century AD the people would have had absolutely NO way to understand the notion of a human voice amplified.
I know that living in a pre-scientific time was hard. I don’t want to start romanticizing about a time without antibiotics, when, if you got sick, you tended to die.
But in this one way, at least, maybe it wasn’t so bad.
Today, we are engulfed in amplification. Not just microphones, like the one I am speaking into right now – but the unrelenting amplification of our media, that must sensationalize – that is, artificially amplify things — in order to turn a profit.
And the person with the loudest Megaphone, as the writer George Saunders has pointed out – is the person who dominates the conversation – whether what they say has value or not.
Back in the 1st century AD by the banks of the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized, there was no Public Address system. There were no phones. There was no email, or twitter. There was not even any morse code. Communication was not mediated by anything.
If someone wanted to talk to you, they had to walk up to you.
It was an intentional, inherently personal act.
So one loud voice speaking to a multitude of people all at once – something that is totally normal to us, would have been indisputable evidence of divine intervention to them.
For the people who heard the voice, it would have been a moment when they were given a key to understanding the mystery of the divine.
God has chosen to say something out loud.
And what has God said?
Has God proclaimed God’s power?
Has God threatened us with eternal damnation?
Has God judged us?
God has done the same thing that we do.
God expressed love:
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”