St Michael’s, O’Fallon — Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-38
Those among us who have been to college, or who have sent children to college, have all probably run across a particular type of professor. This person is firmly convinced it is his or her job to “weed out” unworthy students. The class is made so demanding that only the brightest and luckiest can pass it, and a great percentage of students fail, even though they are intelligent and conscientious. A little bit of extra effort and consideration on the part of the teacher would have enabled them to master the material and pass the course, but that was considered outside the job description. One wonders what lies behind such behavior. Is it pure sadism? Incompetence? A sense of duty to let only a certain number into a particular profession?
Whatever the answer is, it’s one thing to engage in such speculation about a college professor. It’s quite another to go through the same sort of mental gyrations about God. Yet—subconsciously, at least—this is something we all do from time to time. It’s so easy for us to slip into habits of thinking in which God is, at best, apathetic towards us, not caring one way or another what we do and say and think and feel. Much of the time, however, it’s not apathy, but outright hostility that we attribute to God. God does care about what we do and say and think and feel, and He’s not too happy about it! God is just itching for an excuse to push the “Smite” button on His celestial control panel.
We are susceptible to such thinking because none of us have had an experience of God that is absolutely objective and absolutely unambiguous. This is not to say that our experience of God cannot be very real and very powerful. I believe I have had such experiences and I believe many of you have as well. But, bottom line, we have to take one another’s word about our experience of God. I cannot show you my experience of God. I can only tell you about it, and act in ways that are consistent with what I tell you. And in the end, there is always the possibility that I might be deceiving you, or I might be just plain crazy.
So there is always an inescapable element of doubt. It may not be very large, but it’s always there. And because of that little tiny sliver of doubt, many Christians lead lives that are dominated by anxiety, filled with pessimism, and rooted in dreadful fear. It isn’t that we don’t have moments of joy, but such moments are tinged with fear and sadness, because we know they can’t last. And so we seek anesthetic refuge in more “accessible” gods, gods that may be less powerful than the true and living God, but which are “there” for us, in their limited way, without any ambiguity or doubt. I’m talking about such gods as work, success, power, influence, playing hard with the best “toys,” gods like health, beauty, family and social relationships, to say nothing of alcohol, drugs, and sex. Sure, we know these are false gods. We know they will let us down in the end. But we can see them with our regular old eyes, and everybody else can too, so there’s no doubt about the matter. And for now, at least, such gods are a lot less demanding, a lot less expensive, than the real God. For now, at least.
And this is why the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan is such blessedly good news on this First Sunday after the Epiphany. We might think of this event as the “family portrait” of the Holy Trinity. God the Son, very much incarnate, very much in the flesh, is standing up to his waist in water, his hair dripping from just having been dunked by John the Baptist. St Matthew tells us than that a hole appeared in the sky—a portal to Heaven, we might say—and out of this hole two things came: First, a dove, representing God the Holy Spirit, wafting down toward Jesus. Then, the voice of God the Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now, there’s a great deal of gold that can be mined from this particular “Kodak moment.” But what really gets my attention is the hole—the hole in the sky, the portal into Heaven. That hole is a sign of hope. That hole is a sign of comfort and peace. That hole is a sign of God’s desire to have fellowship—communion, interaction—between “heaven” and “earth,” between God and Man, between the infinite and the finite, between the holy and the sinful. And it is specifically the incarnate Son with whom the Father is well pleased. This is an unequivocal affirmation of the Incarnation, a ringing endorsement of God’s union with the material world in the person of Jesus. Out of this hole in the sky comes the voice of the Father. Out of this hole in the sky comes the power of the Holy Spirit. And out of this hole in the sky comes the inexhaustible grace of God, stirring our hearts toward faith, soothing our troubled consciences, and calming our anxious hearts. Out of this hole in the sky come the sacraments—things that we can taste and smell and touch, and which mediate to us the presence of the Eternal and Almighty God. And out of this hole in the sky comes our assurance that we have a place at the Heavenly banquet table, because human nature now resides in the heart of the Blessed and Glorious Trinity.
Because of this hole in the sky, we need no longer be plagued by anxiety and pessimism and doubt. We have the basis for an underlying attitude of profound optimism. It’s not that Christians don’t continue to have cares and concerns. It’s certainly not that we don’t have to endure suffering—the fact is, suffering is guaranteed, especially for Christians, because the way of following Christ is the way of the cross. But, as we walk the way of Christ, we do so with a sure confidence—not merely a fond wish, but a sure confidence—that all will be well in the end. Life, from this perspective of Christian faith, this perspective of knowing that there’s a hole in the sky, is a little like watching a scary movie for the second or third time. The first time around, we’re on the edge of our seats gnashing our teeth. But once we know that it has a happy ending, and watch it again, we may still get a little antsy at certain times, but it’s not the same. We’re excited, but not anxious. We know everything’s going to be OK.
My friends, grace—God’s favorable disposition towards us—grace is the beginning and grace is the end of Christian theology. Life is not a college course, and God is not a professor who feels it’s His job to weed out the riff-raff. Instead, there’s a hole in the sky. Heaven and earth are joined. Amen.