(Below is the text of a sermon delivered at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church on Sunday, January 13, 2013. I am cross-posting the text here from the DBCC Blog, which also has a podcast and downloadable MP3 of the sermon.)
“With You I Am Well Pleased” (Luke 3:15-22)
I must confess that I approach this text with a great deal of trepidation that stems from things in my own history. I will mention one of them: My own baptism. My own attitude towards baptism is very complicated, mainly by the fact that I was raised Southern Baptist, a tradition in which baptism is pretty much everything, second only to masculinity, another area with which I enjoy a complicated relationship. Unlike most of my peers, I was not baptized as a young child. I was baptized as an adult—specifically, while I was a Ph.D. student in philosophy, within a congregation of the United Church of Christ in State College, Pennsylvania. The pastor who baptized me—his name was Bill— would, about eighteen months later, be arrested at a McDonald’s in southern New Jersey for attempting to meet someone he thought was an underage boy for sex, but who was actually an agent of the FBI. I have lost touch with Bill, who ended up in federal prison for his offense. Baptism is a strange event, weaving the history of our faith together with all sorts of other stories.
In today’s Gospel lesson from the gospel according to Luke we encounter two strands of a story woven into the baptism of all Christians: The ministry of John the Baptizer, and the baptism of Jesus himself. In between the two, skipped over by the lectionary but no less important, is John’s arrest and imprisonment on the orders of Herod, the Roman puppet ruler of the Jews in Palestine.
We know remarkably little about John beyond the sketchy accounts we find in the four Gospels. What we have in the Gospels uniformly ascribes to him a prophetic role in foretelling and foreshadowing the role Jesus will ultimately come to play. Whatever a fuller picture of John would reveal, the picture that does emerge is that many people thought that John might be the Messiah, the long-awaited liberator from Roman oppression, but that John firmly denied it. Instead, John the Baptizer proclaims that his baptism is a form of preparation for one to come, one who “will baptize with the holy spirit and fire.” We get a very stark picture of what John thinks will happen after that: The winnowing fork is in the Messiah’s hand, he says, and he has come to separate the wheat from the chaff, keeping the good wheat and throwing the spurious chaff into unquenchable fire. It is clear why so many people answered John’s call to repentance and purification. Certainly this sounds rather urgent! And yet, we are told in the very next verse that this, and John’s other similar proclamations, were a form of “good news” he was bringing to the people.
I don’t know about you, but I admit that for myself, it can be very hard to see John’s apocalyptic proclamation as “good news.” Let us be clear about something, then. John’s terrifying vision of separating the wheat from the chaff, and throwing the chaff in unquenchable fire, is not meant to sound like good news to us. For you see, John’s message is meant to sound like consolation to those oppressed by empire: Those under the yoke of Roman occupation, apartheid, and oppression, those for whom subjugation on every level is a fact of daily life. You and me, by contrast? We Americans live in the latter-day equivalent of Rome. We are not, by and large, the Johns and the Jesuses. We are instead the citizens strolling about the marketplace, feeling at home in our own country. We are (though perhaps not because we choose to be) the oppressors, the underwriters of occupation. We are, as little as we might want to admit it, more like the chaff than the wheat. The fires of the Holy One burn for us, and John tells us they burn unquenchably.
If you find this reality a little disturbing: Good. So do I, since it names me too. It is meant to get to us a little bit. Certainly it got to Herod. Luke’s account leaves us with little insight into exactly how John got crossways with Herod. He says that Herod imprisons John on account of some rebuke or other John had given him due to Herodias, his brother’s wife, but we don’t know from Luke what the rebuke was. Whatever it was, it was enough to get under Herod’s skin to such an extent that Herod throws John in jail. We later learn that Herod has John executed, but at this point in the narrative he is simply sidelined.
Luke’s account then continues to relate the baptism of Jesus. The other Gospels also relate Jesus’s baptism. But Luke’s account is interesting. What is most fascinating about it is how it says important things by not actually saying them. The first interesting detail is that in Luke’s account, Jesus’s actual baptism doesn’t seem to be all that special. Jesus, we are told, is just one more person among “all the people” to get baptized. Recall how Luke puts it: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” Jesus’s baptism seems almost like an afterthought. He is just one more person, his baptism one out of an unnumbered multitude. Another even more fascinating thing: in Luke, John the Baptizer doesn’t baptize Jesus. Luke doesn’t say who baptizes Jesus; he doesn’t specifically say that John doesn’t do it. But since John has been thrown in prison in the preceding paragraph, we are invited to draw the obvious conclusion that, unless John baptized Jesus and everyone else in the prison yard during exercise time, someone else must have done the baptizing.
And then, the part we have been waiting for, the part that recalls the other stories the evangelists tell about Jesus’s baptism. Jesus, we are told, has already been baptized, along with everyone else, and he is off praying when—the heaven opens! And the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form like a dove! And a voice calls out from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And, well, that is pretty much it. The story stops. No reactions from the crowd, no expressions of fear or praise: Nothing. I think, though, that this lack of reaction is the point. What matters to Luke in relating this story is simply what the voice says: With you I am well pleased.
It is no secret that our faith has had, over the course of its long history, a strained relationship with pleasure. Pleasure is, among those who have called and still call upon the name of Jesus, a matter treated with deep suspicion, a notion too often associated with temptation, with sensual gratification at the expense of the intellect and the spirit, with sin and all else that stands between us and God. Certainly our pleasures can, when they get the best of us, not only separate us from God and from one another, but very nearly destroy us. But our tradition is clear that pleasure is in itself good. It is, I think, in part its attitude towards pleasure that makes early Christianity something unique and revolutionary, something more than just another technique for bringing pleasure under control. The Roman world was full of such techniques, popular among the wealthy citizen classes: Stoicism, Epicureanism, various species of Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, and still other -isms. For the sophisticated philosophical Roman citizen, the most high God is impassive, unyielding, the cold hand of fate, impervious to the body and to its passions. For Luke and the earliest Christians, though, God instead takes pleasure and delight. As Paul’s letter to the Colossians states, it is in Jesus that “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” (Col 1:19-20). God is a God of pleasure and delight. God is a God who has, in Jesus, not promised to reconcile all things to herself if they will just do better. No, God has already reconciled all things to himself, and was pleased to do it.
This is not what people are usually told about God in church. What most people hear in church is that God loves us, but doesn’t seem to like us very much. The God we Christians have grown comfortable with is a God who stokes the flames of Hell, who separates sheep from goats, and reassures we good Christians that if we pack ourselves safely inside the asbestos-lined shelter of the church, we shall escape the fires he prepares for those who are less well positioned. This is especially the message the church preaches too often about baptism. Baptism, it seems, is a pure, cleansing fountain flowing from the foot of the judgment seat of God from on high, and, if we submerge ourselves in it, it will cleanse us of our blemishes and make us into the sort of thing God can stand to look at, even if only just barely.
The God who encounters us in Jesus the Christ, though, is not a God who begrudgingly approves of us. It is a God who is loves and delights in every last bit of us, down to the marrow of our bones and every hair on our heads. And it is this supreme delight God takes in us that can change us. It has the power to transform us, to call us into a new way of living. This new way of living arises out of gratitude for the pleasure God has taken in us and inspires us to take similar pleasure in all of those things with which which God has already reconciled. This pleasure, if we but respond to it and share it, is radical. It is life- and world-changing; it changes things like nothing else can. It is also terrifying, though, because there are no boundaries set around it. It has transgressed and crossed every boundary that has ever been set in front of it. For in whom is God well pleased? With whom has God reconciled? Simply everyone. And everything.
But too often we find this good news impossible to hear. Too often we find it easier to believe that God has only reconciled with people who look and act very much like we do. Some of us Christians resent that God is so spendthrift with his love and pleasure: They resent that they work so very hard to please God, and yet God ends up being delighted over people they don’t think are trying very hard at all, or at least aren’t trying like they are trying. But this kind of jealousy, this feeling that God is cheating on us with his other creations, is, when you get right down to it, more than a little silly; it speaks of nothing more than our fears and insecurities. The pleasure God takes in all of us is boundless; if God shares it with others, there is not less of it for me. In fact, there is more, if we allow the love God has for us to transform us and free us to love others with a love like that God has for them.
What, then, of John’s language of winnowing wheat from chaff and burning the chaff? Or, for that matter, of the frequent remarks Jesus makes in the Gospels that describe sorting out the good people from the bad? I admit that these are difficult passages for me to read. But I come back to them because they seem to capture something essential about God’s love of justice. While God loves us and takes pleasure in us, we still fail to love one another as God does; we still look with contempt and hate upon those whom God has looked upon with love and delight. Worst of all, we simply fail to see, or, even worse, refuse to acknowledge, God’s beloved. In our hearts, there is wheat, but chaff of various sorts—of injustice, of privilege, of ignorance and greed—clings to it. It is with the help of God and with trust in God that we can endure the hard task of winnowing out injustice and violence from our own hearts.
So what is baptism for, if it isn’t to make us presentable before God, if God delights in us and is reconciled to us before it even happens? It is, I think, a purification that we seek in order to be able to look at ourselves and to accept that God delights in us. The waters of baptism are not magic; they do not carry with them a special power to purify us. It doesn’t matter if the one who pours them over us is a deeply flawed, broken man, like my pastor Bill; it doesn’t even matter if no one remembers anymore who did it, as in the case of Luke’s account of Jesus’s baptism. The waters of baptism signify dying and rising: Dying to the selves we used to be, selfish, insecure, and afraid, and rising to the confident selves we can be in Christ, called up out of them by the loving voice of God. They are waters into which we must wade again and again, at least through the reminders we receive in communion and in the baptisms of others.
The waters of baptism are not a pure stream flowing from the highest heaven. They are mundane; they are brackish and murky. What floats in them, left there by centuries of people who have gone before us, are the dead things: the grief and the blood, the tears and the excrement, the contempt and the rot and the hate and the death. It is out of such muck as that that God lifts us all, one by one, over and over again, wipes us clean, stands us on our own two feet, and smiles. It is we children of filth, baptized by the unnamed, the reviled, and the imprisoned in the name of a crucified criminal, of whom God speaks, from the high heaven: “With you I am well pleased.”
May we, no less children of filth than any other, come to be pleased also in all those with whom God has reconciled.