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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 8, 2017

 Water, Spirit and Voice

Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

            In 2012, Connie and I went with a wonderful group of members from our church to the Holy Land.  Some of you who went are in the congregation right now.  One of the things that struck me about this trip, my third to this part of the world, was our visit to the Jordan River.  The only place where you were permitted to visit the Jordan was in the northern most part of the river that forms the mouth from the Sea of Galilee.  What nobody told me then was that none of the tradition says that this is the spot, but at that time it was the only spot that was safe enough for pilgrims to visit.  By 2012, we went to what has been considered throughout the church’s history, since the third century, to be the traditional site for the baptism of Jesus, with churches on both sides of the River Jordan, right in the middle between the Sea of Galilee in the north and the Dead Sea in the south.  As we drove to make our visit down into the waters of the Jordan river, on either side of the road were fences with barbed wire on the top, and signs warning us that there were minefields throughout the area.  Baptism is many things but, always it is a sacrament, not just of grace, but of peace.  Here we were heading to the site where Jesus was baptized, and warnings everywhere reminded us that this world still longs for peace and that we live in a very, very troubled globe.  Peace is fragile in our world, elusive, and so often we are reminded of how broken and violent our world can be.

            Three things happened when Jesus came up out of the water in His baptism.  Three of the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, report these three things, and John in his Gospel alludes to them as well.  The first is that Jesus saw the heavens opened.  It is not the first time that the children of Israel dreamt about or prayed about the heavens being opened.  One of the prayers of the prophet Isaiah was this: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  Jacob had a dream in Genesis.  You remember the dream of the ladder that stretched from earth to heaven, and in the dream Jacob saw angels ascending and descending upon it, giving him the unmistakable vision that heaven and earth have traffic between them, and that God, who has created this earth, has not left it or forsaken it, or stood hopelessly far off from it.

            Later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus breathes His last, there is an earthquake, and we are told that the Temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom, meaning this was God’s work.  So not just in Jesus’ baptism, but throughout the whole witness of the Bible, this notion of heaven being opened is part of the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The heavens are opened for Jesus as He comes up out of the waters of baptism.  God is entering into our world.

            The second thing that happens is the Spirit descends upon Jesus “like a dove.”  The Spirit comes and alights upon Jesus.  For Matthew especially, he wants us to remember that the Spirit of God, or the Ruach, has descended once before, and hovered over the face of the deep, because here the Spirit has once again alighted upon Jesus, hovering over the waters.  The work that God is doing in baptism to forgive, to redeem and to renew is very much part and parcel of the creative work of God in making and sustaining this world.  Matthew wants us to make the connection between Genesis and what God was doing anew in baptism.  The Spirit that descended, descended like a dove, and for any Jewish person familiar with the scriptures, it would harken back again to waters, this time the destructive waters of the flood epic, and that symbol of hope and of peace, of the dove coming with the olive branch in its beak, a symbol of restoration, renewal and redemption.  The Spirit of God comes upon Jesus like a dove because God’s Spirit comes and brings peace.  The Holy Spirit brings peace in our midst, peace to our world, and I pray to God this morning, peace within every heart that gathers here today to worship God.

            The third thing that Matthew, Mark and Luke similarly report is that Jesus hears a voice.  In Mark and Luke, we find direct personal address: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”  But with Matthew, it is public address: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  It is a conflation of two very well-known verses from the Old Testament, Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, joined to one another.  I have been thinking this week about the Voice of God and this business of peace, and our desperate need for it, and how fleeting it seems, and how desperately we long for God’s peace. 

            This past week in Fort Lauderdale, Florida we were horrified once again by more killings of innocent people, for seemingly no good reason at all.  This time the killer was a man named Esteban Santiago, twenty-six years of age, born in Puerto Rico, a veteran of the Iraq wars.  People who knew him, family members, according to the New York Times, said he left for Iraq one way, and he came back another, very troubled, very wounded.  Apparently, Esteban Santiago heard voices that called him to engage in this horribly destructive act of violence and of murder. 

            I am thinking about this voice, this voice of the Father from heaven that Jesus hears.  Every time God spoke to Jesus, it is very interesting, God spoke from the scriptures of Israel.  Listen to it.  Every time Jesus hears the voice of God in the temptations or here in the baptism, God speaks out of the ancient words of holy scripture of the people of Israel.  God’s voice is never a voice that calls us to engage in violence.  God’s voice is never a voice that calls us to conflict or to acts of hatred or to any act that does anything other than hold fellow human beings in reverence.  God’s voice, the voice from heaven, the voice of the Father is a voice of peace, and better yet, a voice of love.  A voice that said to Jesus then, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”  In Matthew the voice was a public announcement: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

            The real issue in baptism is this question: Who tells you who you are?  Baptism is the claim that no one less and no one other than the Father, the Heavenly Father that Jesus worshipped, should tell you who you are.  Here is who you are!  “You are my beloved Son,” the voice from heaven says. “You are my beloved daughter,” the voice from heaven says.  “With you I am well pleased.”  Let no one else ever tell you anything else about who and whose you are.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


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