Today we are looking at the readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, January 12, 2020. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; and Matthew 3:13-17.
The gospel reading today is pretty much what you’d expect: Matthew’s version of the Baptism of Jesus. According to Matthew, John the Baptist tries to stop Jesus from being baptized by him, but Jesus says, “No, this is the proper thing to do.” And when Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens opened. He sees the Spirit of God descending on him. He hears a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.” This is the story of Jesus being claimed by God as someone particularly special. The story of Jesus being announced as God’s Messiah, with a particular role to play and a particular place in the salvation story.
This is enhanced in the other readings. In Acts, Peter announces that God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power, after which he set about doing good and healing, and finally being raised from the dead. And in Isaiah, we see the anointing of a special servant, God’s chosen, in whom God’s soul delights. The one who will bring forth justice to the nations. Who will be a light to the nations, and who will open the eyes of the blind and bring out all the prisoners from darkness.
All in all, the readings today establish the anointing of a very special person, with a very special role, who will play a very important part in the salvation story. Now, the way I have usually preached on this passage, I connect the story of Jesus’ baptism to our own baptism. I try to tell those who hear me that they too are claimed by God as very special. They too have a very special role to play. They too are part of the salvation story. I think this is an important message that many of us need to hear, a message that stands in the face of the messages we hear all around us, that tell us that we are incomplete, that we are useless, that we are worthless. It’s a message I certainly need to hear when in the throes of a depression.
However, I have also noticed that it’s a message that can be twisted by our brains as well, twisted into something less than helpful. I don’t like to admit it, but there is a part of me that hears the first reading from Isaiah, and wonders if the prophet might be talking about me.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.
I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people.
There’s a part of me, buried deep, that has sometimes wondered: Could that be me? Is that why I have suffered? Is that why I always ask who I am? It’s a childish part of me, a part that started to develop in my early teenage years, when I first saw the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. I found myself relating to Jesus in that movie in a very deep way. His identity struggles, his worries, his questions. It’s no wonder, really – the film states explicitly in the first seconds that it is not based on the gospels, but on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 book of the same name, a fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict between spirit and flesh that is in each of us. So, truly, what I was relating to as an adolescent was not the suffering servant, not Jesus of Nazareth, but this ubermensch everyman that Kazantzakis created, and cleverly put in the place of Jesus.
But it stuck. Like many people with depression and other mental illnesses, I vacillate regularly between thinking I am completely worthless, and thinking I am the most amazing person ever. I see this in my career – in my own estimation, I am either the worst pastor ever, or the greatest. It’s very difficult for me to accept that I’m probably somewhere in the middle. Add in some faith, and it is easy for me to wonder if my identity as “greatest, most amazing,” could be something akin to Messiah.
I doubt that I’m alone in this. I know that one of the struggles of living with schizophrenia is a delusion of grandeur. It can be part of bipolar and narcissism. There are people in your pews who need to hear that they are loved by God, and that they are important. But there are also people in your pews who may hear that, and something in their minds will twist it into these kinds of questions: am I the Messiah? Am I called to suffer for the sake of the world? Am I going to bring salvation to the world?
So perhaps it’s important to tell them, even while you tell them how important they are, that what they are called to do is only possible because of what Jesus has already done. Perhaps it’s important to talk not only about their importance and uniqueness, but connect that to the One who is more important, and more unique than all of us. Of course, that won’t stop some people from mishearing you. The mind that lives with mental illness is really good at hearing what it wants to hear, and twisting the rest. But perhaps it can help to try to be as clear as possible on this.
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