Diving for our destiny. Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3:15-22

 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

As a writer, I love the reality of becoming totally immersed in what I am doing.  There is a point for every writer when you get beyond the struggle of getting going, beyond the place of awkward editing, of evaluating your work, to the place of immersion. It is at that point that the writing begins to flow and you feel yourself being written more than writing.

This sense of immersion lies at the root of the meaning of baptism. As twitchy as we mainline Protestants may be about the depth and quantity of water used in the sacrament, we have to acknowledge. To be baptised is to be immersed. To surrender to the flow.

As I read Luke’s gospel I become aware of two immersions. There is the immersion of Herod into constriction and darkness. Herod, who decided to take the low road and earned the derision and disgust of John the baptiser, then adds to the depth of his darkness and has John thrown in to prison, thence to later beheading.

In contrast there is the immersion of Jesus into the mission of the Father. Immersing himself into light and opening.

Listen to Luke, “Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”

Herod’s is an immersion into walled off imprisonment. He ends up every bit as confined as John whom he has locked up.

Jesus’ is an immersion into openness, heavens open, Spirit descends and voices speak.

We all know the power of our addictions to imprison us. To wall us in and ultimately make us lose our heads (or at least our minds). That is the Baptism of Herod

Yet every now and then, grace on grace, we are able to immerse ourselves into the Other.

To do what is required, to pray,  and like Jesus, to find ourselves opening up to light and heaven and to hear the flutter of Spirit wings. That is the baptism of Jesus.

That is the theme of this feast.

That is our surrender to all that is positive and transforming in the world.

Can we trust these foreigners? Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

There is, without doubt, something very attractive about the exotic.  Exotic people, exotic places, exotic food, exotic clothes, all hold a fascination for us, which delights our travel agents and the airlines no end.

This is not always true however.  Sometimes the exotic and different can be threatening.  The same stimulus that triggers fascination can also light the short fuse of fear.  Xenophobia and fascination differ only to the degree that the difference of the other we encounter comes with a background of benignity or a history of conflict.  If we have has a bad experience with a specific people group, then xenophobic racism is a far more expected response than interest and fascination.

I am a fifth generation Euro-African.  I know.

Knowing this truth of the xenophobic and the fascinating in our response wiring as human beings makes the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, all the more interesting.

A brief visit to one of my new favourite websites, http://www.greattreasures.org informs me that the word we translate for wise men in our gospel for Epiphany, is: μάγος (magos Strongs 3097) wise man great, powerful; magus, plural magi, the name for priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians, whose learning was chiefly astrology and enchantment.

Now Medes, Persians and Babylonians did not have a great relationship history with the people of Israel.  The Old Testament is packed with that history of conquest, oppression and exile for the people of Judea.  A modern day equivalent reference would be, “Nuclear physicists from Yemen, Iran or the Peshawar province in Pakistan, came to Bethlehem.”  The declared motivation for their visit, “to pay homage” to a new Jewish King, would have been seen as a smokescreen to gather intel and probably “remove” any political threat to the stability of the region.  Could this be why Herod engages them so actively, because astute politician that he is, he guesses the “real” motive for their mission is in keeping with his own power games to maintain hegemony for himself?

Medes, Babylonians and Persians do not come to David’s town to worship, they come to spy and conquer.Yet on reaching, the place where Jesus is, they do what they say they came to do.  They offer him homage and present him kingly tribute.

Isn’t it so disappointing when people we are suspicious of, act with integrity and honesty?  It’s hard to keep hating when they behave out of the character our prejudice has scripted them to play.

This reflection leads me to three speculations on this Epiphany Sunday.

  1. History is not a justification for ongoing suspicion and xenophobia. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
  2. Where people are from, how they look, and what culture they observe, does not determine the behaviour we may expect them to exhibit. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
  3. There is at the heart of the Universe a truth, a wisdom which is able to transcend xenophobic fear and suspicion. That wisdom is found in the life and presence of Jesus.

I find the idea of a beckoning star on the horizon of a new year, exotic and inviting and so I pray, “Lord Jesus, give me grace to be intrigued and not intimidated by the different and exotic people who, with me, will follow the star to your heart.”

Paper, rock, scissors: water, Spirit, fire – Baptism of Jesus C

Luke 3:15-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

“Paper, rock, scissors: Water, Spirit, Fire?
Is it a new team selection game? The kind you use on the playground when you have to decide who gets to choose first?
It may sound that way, and it is about making choices, but this is certainly no game.

John the Baptizer had raised the expectations of a nation disillusioned with rote religion. They were weary of a religion that justified and supported the status quo by diplomatic expediency so as to continue operating under the peace of Roman domination, the Pax Romana. People were hungry for justice and freedom. They were looking for a liberating leader and hoped that John was the one.

Those of us who participated in the transition of South Africa from Apartheid to Democracy in the nineteen eighties and nineties, will remember just how volatile and pregnant that longing can be. Ego drives and character assassinations were the dynamics of the day as one leader after another jostled and jockeyed for dominance in the flux of expectation.

Unfortunately there were only a few of the ilk of a Desmond Tutu who could detach their own ego driven greed and say, say as John the Baptist did, “There is another coming.
For South Africa, the coming one was Madiba, known to the world as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who on his release ended the jockeying and led South Africa through a bloodless and miraculous transition.
For Israel, it was Jeshua the Nazarene, or as we know him, Jesus of Nazareth.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

The coming one, according to John, was not going to chaff around. He was coming to clear the chaotic threshing floor, where all was dust and trampling. He had a winnowing fork, that would throw it all in the air so that only that with substance and value would fall through and be seen clearly as substantial life-giving grain, whilst the worthless would blow off as fire fuel.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Bathing, washing, ritual cleansing was only the beginning.  John could do that work, just as Desmond Tutu could get South Africa ready, by speech and sanctions and blood-sparing mediation.

However, Breathing, Spirit, In-spiration, that sets the world ablaze with a passion for compassion and justice for all required someone with more to give.

Back in the day, Herod Antipas, chose as unskillfully as his father Herod, who had gone off as the Butcher of Bethlehem and killed all the children under two, to try and stop the coming of the true king. Antipas thought that imprisoning and finally killing John the Baptizer would halt the coming of the king’s reign.
They were both wrong. They chose badly.  They listened only to the voices of their fear, and never (it would seem) heard a voice from above.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Jesus, on the other hand, heard a voice from above that drowned the Gethsemane voices of fear.

Water

Spirit

Fire

Bathe, breathe, burn.

That was the sequence of Jesus’ ministry.
After ritual bathing in baptism, he heard the only words any child needs to hear to be complete as a human being, “That’s my child, my beloved, I am so proud of you!”.

Jesus was ready for the breathing of Spirit every moment as he burnt his life up as an offering for the salvation of all.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Once you know who you are, beloved child of God, there is nothing that can defeat or hold you. No prison, no power, no political regime.
You are then, as Jesus was, Invictus. You are Invincible.

(This poem, by William Ernest Henley, kept Nelson Mandela sane for twenty seven years on Robben Island)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

The words from his Parent in heaven, held Jesus, in the three and a half years of his ministry as he poured out his life.

I wonder what will hold me in this year, this life, still unfolding?

In my sane moments I choose to believe that the voice from heaven, speaks to me as it spoke to him, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When I hear it, and the voice of my my fear does not drown it out, I too know I have the potential to be Invictus.

Bathe, Breathe, Burn…

Disturbing Tourists – Epiphany Year C

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I don’t know about you but I don’t like being disturbed.   Especially when it has taken me a while to get everything just the way it should be, and I can finally settle down into the comfort of the conditions I have created.   Whether it be the way my office administration operates, or something smaller like settling down to have a cozy evening read; I dislike disturbance.

On this feast of the Epiphany Matthew tells us that Herod and the whole of Jerusalem were disturbed.   It was all because some exotic Eastern mystics, called Magi, who drifted into Jerusalem, wanted to know where the child was who had been born as the king of the Jews.

I am puzzled as to why this should have made troubled Herod, and why Herod’s perturbation should have been so infectious as to disturb all of Jerusalem with him?
But when I remember how I dislike being disturbed I begin to understand Herod’s agitation.  He had built himself a comfortable kingdom that worked for him.   Obsequious enough to Rome, he was rewarded with “homeland” rule, much like the puppet leaders of the old South African regime were rewarded for their loyalty to the Pretoria Nationalists.

The mere thought that there was another “king” out there who could threaten Herod’s comfort was cause enough to disturb him.  The fact that the whole of Jerusalem was agitated too, is testimony to the fact that there are very few societies that embrace change.  Despite the graces of  a Gandhi, Mandela or Obama, we still find change from our familiar power bases disturbing.

As we read on into this chapter however, we are given deeper clues as to the reason for the agitation.  Herod like so many power players was agitated because at a deep level he knew that there were ethical issues at stake.

The research that Herod commissions from the scholars yields an interesting piece of prophecy, ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.

It would seem to me that Herod’s agitation is deepened into murderous intent when he realizes that this is no mere political opponent he is going to have deal with.  I infer this because of the phrase, “a ruler who will shepherd
Shepherding is not associated with political power is it?

Rulers rule. Presidents preside. Leaders lead. Executives execute.
They don’t shepherd!
Shepherding implies compassion, care and a courageous life-sacrificing quality that few powerful people would understand or want to practice.

Yet this had always been the basis of Godly rule from the inception of the monarchy in Israel.  The very first king David was called from the flocks to be the shepherd king, an archetype which was espoused and fulfilled in Jesus the good shepherd.

Herod, power player and man of maneuvering, could not begin to think of his leadership in those terms, and even though his scripture scholars may have pointed out that this was the scriptural paradigm, Herod knew that this was not how he came to power, and this was certainly not how he was going to stay in power.

So he turned his focus to bloodshed and destruction and is forever remembered as the butcher of the Bethlehem innocents.

I wonder how we are reacting to the reality that there is one amongst us who challenges our illegitimate power bases? This holy child whose birth we have totally over-celebrated, once again, last week.

Do we also want to “put him away” this Epiphany?  Of course not  in butchering bloodshed!  We are too subtle for that.  No we can simply pack this shepherd king away with the Christmas tree and lights, as we dismantle them on the twelfth day of Christmas and assign them to the musty cupboard till next Advent?

Are we also agitated and troubled by the thought that allowing this child to continue to grow in our “homelands” may cost us too much, and disturb our comfortable kingdoms more than we care for?

Herod hid from grace and terrible destruction was the fate and fruit of his life from then on.
Could we do it differently?

The mystical magi are knocking on the door.  They speak of stars and destiny, and shepherd kings who can lead us to God.

Will we allow them to disturb us enough that we might join their caravan of change?