Sunday, March 1, 2009

What Do You Want, God?

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Genesis 9: 8-17
1 Peter 3: 18-22
Mark 1: 9-15

What Do You Want, God?

Lily Tomlin has rather famously asked the question, “Why is it that when we speak to God it is called prayer, and when God speaks to us, it is called schizophrenia?” It’s funny, but it’s also an important question. When we hear someone say, “God told me to––––––––,” fill in the blank, a yellow warning light starts flashing. It flashes more brightly and with greater frequency when we hear, “God told me to tell you to–––––––.” Fill in the blank.

And we are wise to be cautious around that kind of talk. We need to practice discernment when we are trying to figure out, for instance, the next step in our lives, whether that means refinancing a home mortgage, retraining for a completely different job, saying yes to one of the kids who wants to come back home because he or she can’t afford to live on his or her own in this economy; or, a similar dilemma, we have an aged parent or relative who needs to be somewhere other than in his or her own apartment or home. We ourselves, or we and our family are the likeliest candidates for taking in the domestic refugee. At the same time, we know how disrupting this will be to our family life as we have known it, and we have reluctance. All of these scenarios are opportunities to exercise discernment.

But I again raise the caution, if you hear someone say what God wants you to do in these instances, take two steps back from that and ask God yourself.

What does this have to do with this morning’s readings? Today’s gospel of the baptism of Jesus is from the Book of Mark. In Matthew’s narration of the same event, along with those gathered around John the Baptist at Jesus’s baptism, we hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” It’s a public declaration in the third person, which serves the writer of Matthew’s purposes, viz., to put Jesus in charge right at the beginning of the gospel, right at the beginning of the Messiah’s public life story. Everybody hears it; everybody knows it. There is always an agenda going on, especially in something as charged as the writing around religious figures or events. Never assume there is a neutral point of view in these writings.

If the writer of Matthew is putting Jesus in charge of the events of his life by having him publicly recognized as God’s Son right at the get go, by contrast Mark’s gospel about the same event is a bit more nuanced. What we have can be construed as an inner dialogue between Jesus and the Father. Remember that little prayer I taught the kids? “God speaks to me and to my mind/ And tells me to be good and kind.” It’s like that. The wording of the gospel is, You––direct address to Jesus, second person––you are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased. The inner dialogue is the same as some of us may consciously have with God in our prayer. Jesus was no different. In fact, we can see this as one model of permission not to think we have lost our minds if we partake to any degree in this kind of inner dialogue with God. What we have to watch, even in our own lives, is the fruit of that dialogue. As Jesus says in another place of the fruit tree––a metaphor for a person’s life––By their fruit––good or bad––you will know them. By the outcomes of the directions we discern about our lives in prayer, we will know whether something is of God or not. Does it finally bear good fruit?

Further expansion on Mark’s gospel of the baptismal event has Jesus seeing heaven torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. The voice from heaven which Jesus heard following that vision may have been an entirely private visual and auditory experience for Jesus alone, one he very much needed, considering what he was about to embark on. The point of those images––heaven torn open, the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove and the voice of God approving of him––is to indicate that the traditional barriers between heaven and earth are broken down. What in the past have been separate spheres have been joined together.

We have to look at the fact of Jesus coming forward for John’s baptism of repentance and ask why? What does this sinless one have to do with such a baptism of repentance for sin? The writer of Matthew has the Baptist object to the idea of baptizing Jesus on just these grounds, and Jesus’s reply is “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

Mark, on the other hand, does not satisfy the question. It simply hangs in the air over the Jordan unanswered. However, biblical commentator William Barclay suggests that for Jesus the baptism as recounted in Mark meant four things: First, it was the moment of decision. Jesus has stayed in Nazareth, as legend has it, helping Joseph in the carpentry shop, waiting for the sign that his time had come. When John appeared on the scene, that was the sign he had been waiting for. It was his hour, his decisive moment and he was ready to answer the summons and challenge of God. Barclay quotes Shakespeare to good effect:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their lives
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

We all have these moments of decision in our lives. While they are a universal experience, they are unique and particular to us because of the unique particularity of our individual lives. On my 43rd birthday, I was full of joy and expectation. I had spent the better part of the previous 15 years dealing with old issues to effect what used to be called inner healing––self-explanatory. Getting rid of the stuff, dealing with the stuff that keeps us from our own lives. What I was talking about last Sunday: ending the blaming, forgiving where we need to, appropriating the healing God has for us and moving on into the lives we were made to live out. So, at 43, finally feeling that my life was my own and I could do with it what I would––return to school, knit a sock, learn to sew well, learn more languages––the world was open to me. I felt the energy and power of my own life for the first time in my memory.

I was on my knees thanking God for this moment and for my life, when God as I had come to know that One advanced toward me with the understanding, Now that you have a life, are you willing to give it up? I was shocked. No! No! I just got this life. Don’t take it away from me. But God kept coming, and as I was so far down a highway I had chosen many years before, while theoretically I had a choice, I did not in fact. Choosing otherwise would have meant giving the lie to all of what my life had come to be, and so I said yes. Truculently, with no joy, with a good measure of resentment for what I thought to be the greediness and implacability of God, I said yes. And I didn’t want to talk to God for three days afterwards. During that time, I was the cat with her back toward God whom I was talking about last week.

But I got over it, and I started again, just to live this further surrendered life. As I look back on how it has continued to unfold from that 43rd birthday, I am filled with amazement and gratitude that the Spirit of God did not let the poverty of my imagination prevail and limit any more than it has the life God envisioned for me, which I could not have imagined.

We all have had our moments of decision. What were yours? Think about it. Jesus’s moment of decision narrated in this morning’s gospel was also a moment of identification. While it is true that Jesus did not have to repent, he did want to identify with the people who were coming to John for baptism, who were preparing themselves for the full manifestation of God’s kingdom. He wanted to be one with the anawim, the poor and sinful ones, as they re-turned to God through John’s baptism of repentance.

Decision, identification, and also approval. It was the moment of God’s approval. No one sets out lightly on the course of action that will determine one’s life, and Jesus was no exception. He had been preparing and waiting, praying and discerning for a long time before he recognized what John represented and made his move. In the early Jewish writings, there is reference made to the bat gol, which means the “daughter of the voice.” At the time of Jesus’s entry into his public life, the people believed in a series of heavens, in the highest of which sat God in light which no one could approach. There were rare times when the heavens were opened and God spoke, but God was so distant that it was only the far away echo that they heard of the voice, only the daughter of the voice.

However, the voice came directly to Jesus, as the writer of Mark tells the story. It was a personal experience which Jesus had and not the public manifestation found in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus submitted his decision to God and that decision was unmistakably approved.

Decision, identification, approval, and fourth, equipment. Jesus was given what he needed to do the job he was called to do, and whom and what he needed was the Holy Spirit of the living God, who descended upon him in the form of a gentle dove.

It was that dove that next drove him out into the desert to face temptations unique to him in his calling, as we in ours have our own unique temptations. That gentle dove, that Holy Spirit strengthened him as he was tempted, as the writer of Mark tells it.

Jesus as a man with a man’s nature was tempted as we are but didn’t give in. We ourselves are haunted by both sin and goodness, and the coming of Jesus unifies that divided personality, that schizophrenia into one. This good news we can believe, which is what Jesus said when he emerged from the desert. “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Repentance, or metanoia, is a change of mind and heart, a lifelong transformation, not a one-shot deal. The metanoia to which Jesus invites us during this season of Lent is both a turning away from whatever inhibits the full flourishing of the divine intent for creation and a turning toward the source of divine love. There is no better time to begin turning than right now.

Let us be willing first of all to believe we can change, we can turn; we’re not too old or too young. We are just the right age in just the right situation with just the right people we need to change a habit, a condition, a relationship that has wanted truthful addressing for years. Everything is lined up, including the spirit of God who will undertake on our behalf as soon as we decide to turn and look at God who has never taken his eye off us. God loves us. God wants us 100%, whether it’s our 43rd, our 16th, our 85th birthday, or just another day in just another year: God wants us and all that our fullest life can give to us. Amen.


  1. Dear Judy,
    This is fantastic. Since we will not be able to make most of your services because of our own commitments at St. Denis this offers a wonderful opportunity to listen and ponder your most excellent sermons. Thanks to all at the Sheepscot Community Church for making this site available.
    God Bless,
    Dick Marchi

  2. Hi Judy,
    This is a nice way for me to take a peek at the "other side" .
    You have such an effective way of talking about issues that in other venues become divisive.
    ps. best to McGee