January 11, 2015: A Heavens-Ripping Declaration at the River

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Baptism of Our Lord

What sort of God are you looking for? Did you even know you can create your own? Yep – it’s not only possible, but probable. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once stated: “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” Being the gentleman Rousseau was, I imagine he’d now want women to feel included, as well.

Some years back a survey asked seven hundred people what the word “God” brings to mind. Ideas varied – from warm and fuzzy like a mohair sweater, to a frying-pan-wielding grandmother – probably not coming after you to serve you a pork chop. They failed to survey those who casually use the word “God,” such as, “So help me, God.” Or, “Do that again and God help you!” Or twitter shorthand – OMG – you do know what that one is, right?

I’ve said this before. A question asked postulants for holy orders: “Tell us what God or Jesus is like for you?” Typical answers would be: “Best friend;” or “A comfort when I’m sad and down;” or “I really admire Jesus.” So, I would sweetly say, “How nice. But tell me about times when God really ticks you off.” I am suspicious of a God merely comforts and blesses, a waiter to serve up our orders, a helper who adjusts the world to our wants. Jesus does more than comfort, bless, welcome and support us. Sometimes Jesus judges, challenges, and makes demands. Sometimes Jesus is just inconvenient. How many enemies have you loved, or persecutors did you pray for this past week? Anyone lose yourself – take up a cross recently? No wonder we prefer a gentler, kinder God who blesses what we want – and doesn’t expect much of us. Doesn’t God get under our skin by sending Jesus?How about a God who tears the heavens apart to come be with us? All those lined up for baptism want is a little forgiveness – a dip in the river to assure they’ve been washed and are fit for the kingdom in case it comes near. A stranger ambles down the river bank and gets in the water for his turn. We don’t know who else hears or sees as Jesus does. According to Mark, the heavens rip apart. God’s highly interactive here, more than a casual observer of this moment – speaking, sending a spirit of authorization. The world, creation, the cosmos forever changes as God comes, blesses and identifies Jesus as the pleasing, divinely imbued beloved child. Here God finally answers Isaiah’s cry to tear open the heavens, come down, and straighten his people out – more than a little rehab; more like a holy makeover.

Granted, the divine words sound comforting and loving: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Into such an identity the Father names us in baptism, “beloved children.” Never forget who and whose you are, because God now looks at you in Christ. That is comforting. But hugs and choruses of “Kum Ba Yah” soon end. We also get handed a mission, one more dangerous than comforting. You’d hardly believe that, by watching our baptisms – as we mutter vows and quickly forget what we’ve promised. As Annie Dillard once warned – when God shows up, we should put on crash helmets and life preservers, be lashed to our seats.[1] We bring baptism indoors, a warm place with fresh water, and a compelling liturgy. Do we realize how dangerous it is to be sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism – marked as Christ’s forever? It’s a calling. When we accept the call, eternal life begins. Are we really looking for a God like this? What would we look like if we took our baptism seriously?

What if we give Jesus our utmost attention and allegiance? When the heavens rip apart, and God comes among us in flesh, he may not be the God we are looking for, but the God we get – who dislodges us from prejudices and hatred, giving us hearts to respect everyone – in other words bringing us out death to into life. When God comes among us we see who is really in control, and thank God it’s not us. We begin to see Christ in everyone, regardless, especially the poor and marginalized – those longing for justice and mercy. A little water, promises and prayers tear us from lesser things so we can say “Yes” to God. And then it takes a lifetime to see the vision of God, clearly, as Jesus did when he came up from Jordan’s River – a lifetime of being shaped into the new name we’re given – “Beloved child of God.” If the church is helpful and faithful to God, that can happen.

I’ve told you about the Nones – not the religious women, but people these days with no interest in the church. A new group has emerged now – the Dones. They still have faith. They are done with the church as an institution. They’re tired of going through motions with people who won’t take God and faith seriously. They believe God expects more than playing church. They know God has bigger plans – sealing us in the Holy Spirit to go make disciples for a kingdom larger and more real than any other we’d ever see. We proclaim good news of a mighty, powerful and loving God – and incarnate what say by loving others – all others, even enemies. For anyone as old as I am – who remembers J.B. Phillips’ little book, Your God is Too Small, he wrote it for church folks just going through motions, and skeptics and disbelievers, because they created a small, tame god – not opened themselves to the God who comes to claim us and send out on mission. As we renew our vows, we might want to think about what sort of God we’ve created for ourselves.

[1] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, p 40-41.


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