In a New Light (sermon at the 11:51 point)

January 8, 2017

Category: Faith

Passage: Matthew 3:13-17

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Tags: baptism, holy spirit, jesus, light

In a New Light
A member of my preaching group pointed me to a story about a 19th century farmer whose wife went into labor one night. As the doctor attended to her in her home, he asked the husband to hold the lantern as it was the only available light. Soon the woman gave birth to a healthy baby boy. “Wait a moment,” the doctor called out, “another one is coming,” and out came a second child. Then the doctor called out again, but before it could be born the husband started to walk out of the room. “Hey,” said the doctor, “come back here with that lantern!
“Oh no,” said the man, “it's the light that attracts ‘em!”
It may not work exactly like that, but the light is attractive. Even more attractive is being the light, that to which others are drawn. It's part of our cultural DNA, and can be traced if not in origin, then certainly in naming, to the famed address of Puritan John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which the layman delivered while still on the ship sailing to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are upon us.” Clearly intended as an attempt to set the tone for the new beginning for the Puritans, to draw the best out of them by reminding them that they will be watched by others, it could also be read to connote a good bit of hubris. In the time since, it has often been appropriated to signal this land was a chosen land, its people—not its native people, but its colonizers—a chosen people, from which all the world should watch and learn.
Winthrop draws this imagery from Scripture. Isaiah 42, from which you heard today, reads: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (v. 6-7). That's awfully presumptuous. We all know people who conduct themselves like they are God's gift to the world, and it's exhausting. This is why Jesus' act in receiving baptism, which we commemorate today, is so profound. Here is Jesus, about which rumors were flying that he was the chosen one, at least someone capable of strange and wonderful things. Yet, Jesus submits himself to John to receive baptism, a blessing. The symbolic act of handing his body over to another human to be immersed in the water for ritual cleansing, is the ultimate act of divesting himself of his power, a pattern we see time and again in the life of Jesus.
Still, we manage to retell this story through the screen glory rather than humility. We talk about the skies opening up, the Spirit descending like a dove in a grand scene as a voice thunders from heaven, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased.” It's a pronouncement of special status for all the world to see and perhaps at which all the world should tremble, “so that,” as Paul later says, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord...” (Phil. 2:10). Except, that's not really how the story goes, nor therefore perhaps what the story means. The story appears in some form in all the gospels, but nowhere does it say that everyone saw this grand event. In fact, in Mark and Matthew, from which you heard today, it's explicit only that Jesus sees the heavens open and the dovelike Spirit, and Jesus who hears the voice. It's not a moment of God drawing attention to Jesus, it's a moment of drawing Jesus' attention to the God and the divine affirmation and call on his life.
His ability to recognize the divine in his midst is set in motion through not an act of displayed dominance, but through humility. This calling, this experience of God, though in public, may well have happened privately. It would be different if we thought Jesus were powerless—then submission would be abusive and a public affirmation would have been supportive—but we read the story assuming Jesus has limitless power. He demonstrates he is willing to let that go of that power in order to be more connected to God. That's when he gets his call and his true identity in God. What if it is that humility to which every knee shall bend, that power need not be lorded over others even by the Lord?
Jesus isn't given a big scene, he gives himself over to a new way of seeing, hearing, and feeling. This is what defines his daily life. He seems to have cultivated an ability to recognize the movement of the sacred in the world around him, to draw it out in people, to prompt their own healing and transformation and to encourage people to trust in it. We remember Jesus as “the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12), but Jesus first showed us how to find the sacred light around us, in others, and in ourselves. It's not an altogether easy task, for there are all kinds of light from which to choose. We have spoken already of wanting attention to shine on us, the limelight. David Brooks has written about how people of our era are far more interested in fame than our predecessors. Others have pointed to a rise in narcissism. It's not surprising considering all the ways for us to get our image out. People bear the burden of constructing their image in the public forums of social media. Our youth director, Jeff, clued me in on “bots,” basically manufactured “likes” or online mentions you can purchase to make it look as though you are getting more attention than you actually are. Remember, ours is a culture in which there are people who are famous for being famous.
There is the alluring light of hollow promises of riches. I was attending church in Wisconsin where I was in graduate school and the pastor was preaching about proposed gambling sites coming nearer to Madison. He told a story about someone who had taken their children through an area with casinos to expose them to all the glam and glitter, all the bright lights, as a way of trying to introduce them early to the blindness it can create in people. The person got far more than they bargained for (this was obviously not in Wisconsin). It was in the morning. They had finished their bright lights tour and were walking on a beach. There they came upon a couple sitting in the sand, unbuttoned tuxedo and hanging tie, somewhat disheveled wedding dress, just sitting there. Married the night before, they had gambled away everything, literally fortunes. The light within them had gone out.
Then, of course there are the more outright dangerous forms of light, the light of nuclear weapons, for example, blinding, disintegrating light.
The light we are to look for in God, and which we receive from God, is not the sort that brings fleeting pleasure at the price of lasting suffering, or instantaneous destruction. Rather, it brings an abiding strength, a mysterious assurance even in the midst of suffering. This light leads us to a more fulfilling life of drawing from within to relate to and care for what's around us. This light shows us our fundamental oneness.
As with Jesus, Isaiah and Winthrop knew this too. What does Isaiah say is the purpose of being a light to the nations? To restore sight to the blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon (Is. 42:7). It is not to dominate, but to bless. Isaiah's people had known captivity, had known powerlessness. Upon receiving power, they would have cause to reciprocate in violence, offer payback, but Isaiah calls them to a higher light, a brighter one than the burning fire of revenge. Isaiah offers them hope in a difficult time, and a challenge for them to show something better to the world than it had shown them.
Similarly, Winthrop's message, at its core, is not one of hubris. It's one of humble intention, that newfound freedom will not be squandered chasing the wrong kinds of light. Like Isaiah's people, the Puritans had been under violent rule. They knew what it was like to suffer under those whose version of the light blotted others out. In fact, his words, which might seem to us self-righteous, are meant to invoke quite the opposite, lest they be drawn to the false promises of basking in their own light.
Before daring to call his people to be a city on a hill, Winthrop says, “Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities. Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality. Wee must delight in eache other; make other's conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together, allwayes haueving before our eyes our commission and community in the worke, as members of the same body. Soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace.” His challenge to them, before they would even set foot on this newfound soil, was to remember which light had guided them to new life.
Baptism, in the end, or I should say in the beginning, is precisely that, new life. Even for Jesus, it is not about how you are seen, your status in the world, but how you open yourself to seeing the world. In this tradition, we often make that commitment for our children, that we might raise them to see the world differently, through eyes that claim the lens of meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.
It's one thing to claim that lens, quite another to don it day after day, in the face of so many other options and so many temptations. We must choose it daily. Another pastor colleague of mine shared this teaching, humbly, from another tradition. It's a Cherokee lesson about an elder teaching their grandson:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.
"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

The same is true of light. That which you seek will become your guide. And, unlike the farmer, the light you hold up will truly determine what you birth into the your life and the world. Amen.