Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, January 11, 2015
Welcome to the season of Epiphany. It is supposed to be a season of discovery, of sun breaking through the ice fog, of confusing darkness diminishing, of frenzied chaos calming. But our new year has not had a very good start. Darkness in our world seems to be increasing, not diminishing. Yet, even now, there are still rays of light breaking through the dark.
In Jesus’ time, his people were living under the dark brutality of Roman rule. But, even then, there were occasions of brilliance. Jesus heard about this wild and crazy man by the name of John who was baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins, in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus went to John, and John recognized him as the one who was to come. But then Jesus did a curious thing. He asked John to baptize him. Why? Why would Jesus, the one whom the church declares to be without sin, ask John to baptize him for the forgiveness of sins?
Some theologians explain that Jesus took on the sin of the whole world at the moment he was baptized, offering cleansing for everyone. This is one credible interpretation. But it comes dangerously close to the old heresy that denied Jesus’ human side.
What does it mean to be human? More than anything else, it means limitation. We are limited by our human ability—limited by our age, our health, our prejudices and our understandings. Sometimes these limitations lead us into temptation. Sometimes they lead us into discriminatory judgement and harsh words.
Our scripture stories tell us that Jesus was all of this. They describe Jesus as a human being: he was afraid, he shed tears and he lashed out in anger. He was seriously tempted. He was sometimes judgemental and discriminated against people because of their ethnicity. Occasionally, he used rather offending and forceful words.
In one instance, when a Syrophoenician woman asked Jesus to heal her daughter, his human side got the better of him. He called her a dog, angry that a Gentile should approach him. She challenged his narrow views with subtle wisdom. That was when Jesus’ divine side kicked in and gave him the grace to listen to her, accept her rebuke and change how he treated her. He then healed her daughter. This story portrays Jesus as fully human and fully divine.
Our egos are awfully strong. In fact, our egos are so strong that I believe it takes a divine spark that allows us to admit our mistakes. We don’t like it when someone rebukes us in public. Even if we know they are right, our egos are desperate to save face. Our fear of humiliation paralyzes us. But if we can move past our very human egos and open ourselves even a crack to the divine spark within us, we will find welcome relief in a humble admission of our wrongs.
Jesus’ divine side gave him the ability to set aside his ego and humbly redress his mistakes. Jesus’ divine side allowed him to humble himself before John the Baptist for the forgiveness of sins.
I imagine John resisted Jesus’ request: “No—I’m baptizing people to prepare them for you, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. I have no reason to baptize you!” But Jesus insisted. And God was pleased. Very pleased. At that moment, everyone who was watching John baptize Jesus sensed the Holy Spirit also baptizing Jesus. “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
What happened here? Some early church leaders believed that this was the moment when Jesus became the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one. This was the moment of his birth as the Son of God—a phrase which connects with the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures. Indeed, it is on this day of Jesus’ baptism when some of the early churches first celebrated Christmas—the birth of Christ. This was the moment when Jesus, humbly and fully human, shone forth as fully divine.
This story sets the scene for Jesus’ ministry. It is his beginning—his epiphanal appearance to the people and to God. Jesus didn’t begin his ministry with a charismatic speech stirring the crowd to a frenzied acknowledgement of himself as the one for whom they waited. Indeed, throughout Jesus’ ministry, he seems to be allergic to titles of divinity or messianic status. No—Jesus began his ministry with a humble submission to John’s baptism. At the end of his life, his crown was of thorns, not of gold. On this humble one so fully human, God’s Spirit rested.
We are followers of a gentle religion, which has its basis not in glory and might, but in humble acknowledgement of our human limitations. We Christians have made serious mistakes in our history, when we have used our religion to justify torture and killing. Such justification is an abuse of our faith. And this is how faithful Muslims are describing the killings in France and Nigeria, Syria and Iraq. Such killing in the name of Mohammed is an abuse of Islam.
Last Friday evening, at a public event that the Central Mosque held in solidarity with the French victims of the terrorists, Shahina Siddiqui told us a story about the Prophet Mohammed. Every day, on his way to worship, Mohammed passed by a window from which a woman would throw garbage upon him. One day, he passed by without anything thrown on him. When he inquired as to why, he found out that the garbage thrower was sick. He then went out, brought her food and medicine and nursed her back to health. This story teaches Muslims that the response to insult is mercy and compassion. Revenge is a betrayal of the prophet.
Mohammed knew about Jesus and called him a prophet. Perhaps Mohammed was inspired by Jesus’ teachings that we are to love our enemies. Jesus is asking us to draw from the of strength the Spirit’s divine spark within each of us to resist the tempting “revenge of the ego” when we are insulted or mistreated. The divine spark also gives us the courage and strength to admit when we have made mistakes and to make reparations. We are then given strength to do what we do not think possible. We are given hearts to love when we run out of love. We are given wisdom to see what our eyes cannot. We are given words to speak when our speech fails.
I found this strength with an elderly woman I visited one time. As I was praying with her, thanking God for accompanying her in her life, she suddenly stopped me and said that God really has helped her. When I asked her about it, her eyes filled up with tears and she said that she had gone through some really tough times in her life. If it wasn’t for the extra strength and wisdom of God, she wouldn’t have made it.
On another visit with someone else, I gave thanks to God for helping this man with his addictions. Like this elderly woman, he too stopped me in the prayer and looked troubled. When I asked if something was bothering him, he said that he wanted to pray for others who were also struggling with addictions. He told me that when he finally was able to humbly accept that he was powerless over his addiction, he found strength to do two things that had not been possible for him before—one was to stay sober day by day. The other was to be able to finally think of others besides himself and to begin to care for them. He then brought tears to my eyes as I listened to his heartfelt prayer for others.
This is the good news of Jesus the Christ, wonderfully human and humbly divine. This good news is for you and for me—regular, ordinary people who lead humble lives—insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but so essential to making our world a little more humane.