January 12, 2014, Epiphany 1 – The Mystery of Humility

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It is a very hard thing to feel helpless. When we are very sick, or in recovery from surgery, there are times when we can’t do anything at all for ourselves. We don’t like it at all – that feeling of helplessness and dependency is often worse than any pain or discomfort we are feeling. And I think one of the most humbling experiences is when we have to allow someone, a nurse or a caregiver, to bathe us. That was a sweet experience when we were tiny children and we splashed around with our measuring cups and squeaky ducks and what have you and we didn’t feel any embarrassment or shame, and the only complaint we had was if our mother got soap in our eyes. But as adults, the experience of being bathed is one of total vulnerability. We are helpless, and we are exposed in all our weakness and imperfection. It requires an attitude of great humility on our part to submit to it with grace, no matter how good it might make us feel.

John’s baptism was something like that experience. The baptism of John was not the Christian sacrament that we know now. But John didn’t make it up, either. The Jews were familiar with the ritual of baptism because when Gentiles converted to Judaism, washing with water was the first step in the ceremony. Then the men in the family would be circumcised, and finally they would offer the appropriate sacrifices, and then they would all belong to the household of God. Then they could eat and worship within the community just like other Jewish people. But first everyone in the family had to be washed with water to cleanse them from the impurity of being Gentiles, because Gentiles were unholy – because they were not set apart for God as the Jewish people were. And that meant that they were unclean. According to the Law of Moses, if you were a member of the nation of Israel, it made you unclean to eat with Gentiles or to enter the home of a Gentile or even to brush against a Gentile accidentally in the marketplace. So if a Gentile person wanted to be accepted into the Jewish community, first they and their whole household had to be washed clean.

But when John began to preach, out in the wilderness, he called his own people to come and be cleansed in the waters of baptism. He came preaching a baptism of repentance, and he taught that they, even they who were God’s chosen people, were subject to the judgment of God. Chosen people or not, they were sinners. John warned them that they were not clean in the sight of God by virtue of their laws or their Temple sacrifices. And they were not acceptable in God’s sight by virtue of their lineage. John was pretty brutal – “Don’t try to tell me you’re OK because you’re a son of Abraham. Listen, God can take this rock and make a son of Abraham out of it. What you need to do is to repent of your sins. You need to take a good look at yourself and your sinfulness and your unworthiness to come into the presence of God. And then you need to throw yourself upon the mercy of God, because that is your only hope.”

John called on the people of Israel to allow themselves to be stripped bare of all that they had been relying on for their own righteousness, everything they had assumed made them clean and pure and acceptable before God, keeping the Law and offering sacrifices and avoiding contact with unclean people and unclean things. In those days of preparing for the coming of the Messiah, God revealed through John that none of those things got to the heart of their problem. Their only hope was to come to God weak and helpless, and to allow themselves to be washed clean by John in the waters of the Jordan River. Their only hope was the utter humility of repentance, because repentance is humility; repentance is coming to God and admitting that only he can make us clean.

And that is why John was so disturbed when Jesus came forward to be baptized by him. John was as aware of his own sinfulness as any of those who were coming to him to be baptized. John had the naked honesty of a prophet who had given up all the trappings of being a respected member of society, as a man who had given up wealth and security and comfort, and who knew exactly who he was – just the servant of God calling his people back home, preparing the way for one who was so much greater than himself that John would say later – “He must increase, I must decrease.” I think it was John’s own humility that drew those thousands of people out to be washed clean in the waters of baptism. But when Jesus came forward, John knew that here was a man – the one and only man – who didn’t need his washing. John even tried to stop Jesus, saying – “No, no, I need to be washed by you, not the other way round.”

Jesus didn’t deny that John was right; but he said – “Let me do it this way, because this is the way I am going to fulfill all righteousness.” And then John baptized him, and we read that the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit appeared upon Jesus, and the voice of the Father spoke so that everyone could hear – “This is my beloved Son. I am well pleased with him.” The Holy Trinity was revealed to the people right there on the banks of the Jordan River, and it was a dazzling moment. But the mystery remains for us to look into – why did Jesus need to come to John in humility, and allow himself to be washed with the waters of repentance? What does it mean that the Son of God who is all righteousness had to fulfill righteousness?

The baptism of Jesus is one of the most important events in his life. All four gospels tell about the baptism, because it is the moment of the inauguration of his ministry. Even more, it is the moment that defines his ministry. John – the other John, the apostle, not the Baptist – told us what Jesus’s ministry was all about in his gospel – “God loved the world so much that he sent his own Son to them, so that everyone who believed in him would have life. He didn’t come into the world to condemn it; he came to rescue it.”  And it was in his baptism that Jesus revealed how he was going to bring about the great rescue. It was the kind of plan only God would have dreamt up. The people had their eyes focused on the horizon looking for a glorious and powerful crusader, but when the Savior himself stood before them on that day, he didn’t tower over them in might; he stood humbly and meekly with his people in their sorrow and shame. He emptied himself of that righteousness that was his by right, he let go of it, because his plan was to share his righteousness with all people. It turned out God had not sent a crusader after all, instead he had come himself. And perhaps even more strange, he had come as a servant, and it was humility – not power – that would define every part of his ministry from then on.

The mystery of Jesus’s humility is one of the greatest things we will ever learn. We don’t call it a mystery because God has made it too obscure and weird and exotic for us lowly peasants to grasp. It is a mystery because it is so deep and so rich, so wonderful, that we will spend the rest of our lives and on into eternity discovering its wonders. The natural human intellect can understand power and strength; we have a good grasp on “might makes right.” But the way of God is wonderful beyond what we human beings would ever have devised for ourselves. In the Old Testament passage we read today, Isaiah described the Messiah in meekness and gentleness, not might: “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.” A humble and gentle Savior is the last thing the world expected. But a humble and gentle Savior is exactly what it needed. That is what Jesus’s baptism revealed, and the whole Godhead, Father, Son and Spirit, delighted to reveal it – the heavens were torn open in sheer joy and wonder.

The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” How can we, who so often resist obedience in our selfishness and pig-headedness – how can we understand a God who let go of his perfect obedience in order to learn it on our behalf, enduring temptation and testing like any man, suffering every human weakness and vulnerability, but without giving in to sin, learning obedience through his human suffering so that he could represent us in every way in his death on the cross? How incredibly great a love is revealed in that kind of humility?

When we set out to be good disciples of Jesus Christ, I think that we like to think of imitating his kindness and goodness. We think of doing good things. We know we are taking his yoke upon ourselves when we forgive one another, when we work at giving generously, when we stop ourselves from complaining or gossiping, when we are careful to speak the truth. And those are all very Christlike actions. But the most Christlike thing, and probably our greatest challenge, is true humility. Paul wrote to the Philippians – “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus; he didn’t hold onto his identity as God, instead he made himself nothing, he became a servant” Those times in our lives when we are helpless, when we are weak, when we are totally dependent on others, when we feel that we are nothing – as we offer those moments to God, stepping into them willingly as Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan – those are the moments when we can most nearly have the mind of Christ.

In our times of helplessness we have the opportunity to begin to see without the distractions of our pride or the deceit of our self-sufficiency what Jesus became for us, the Son of God, utterly emptied of self, bathed only in the grace and mercy of the Father. That absolutely doesn’t come easy for us. It may be some of the greatest suffering we will have to endure. But when we are able to let go of our fearful grasp on our self-righteousness, and on all those things that we depend on to feel acceptable and in control; when we are able to admit that we are helpless and give that up to God – then the heavens are opened to us and the Spirit washes over us. And in the stillness of our humility we can hear the voice of the Father who is always saying to us – “You are my beloved child, I am well pleased with you.”

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