As you read the Hebrew Scriptures there is one sin that is criticized more than any other. It is the sin of idolatry. The prophets are always railing against it. More so than murder or adultery, Israel is told over and over again to avoid idolatry. She is commanded not to worship false gods.
Now you might think that this sin of idolatry has little relevance to our lives. But that would be incorrect. In fact, there is a particularly strong temptation to idolatry in light of current events, particularly the recent tsunami disaster.
So, what is idolatry and why is it wrong? Idolatry is setting up as God something that is not God. It is wrong because it gives us the impression that we can see God or fully understand God or perhaps control God. The prophets knew better. They knew that God is so much greater than us that there is no way that we could fully see or understand God and certainly never control God. They insisted that the only thing we can know about God for sure is what God has told us. To presume that we knew more than that was pride, and to pretend that we could somehow figure God out was false. It was idolatry.
Now we who follow Christ believe that Jesus is God made flesh. We worship Christ as the splendor of God. We believe that in a real way Jesus reveals God to us. Yet even in Christ we never know God completely. Such knowledge is reserved for heaven. Even in the revelation of Christ the only things we know for sure are the truths which God has revealed to us.
This is why today’s Gospel is so important. In the Gospel today God reveals an important truth about Jesus and about us. As Jesus comes out of the water after his baptism, God identifies Jesus as the beloved Son and thereby makes it clear to us that we who belong to Jesus are beloved daughters and sons. This is the good news, the center of our faith: God loves us as God’s own children. We know this and we believe it because God has told it to us.
But there are many other things we would like to know about God that have not been revealed. And here is where we current events begin to influence our thinking. Whenever there is a disaster such as the tsunami disaster, we desperately want to know how God is involved. You have all hear the questions and perhaps thought them yourselves. “How could God allow such a calamity to take place? Why did God not stop the deaths of so many people? Why did so many innocent children die?”
Why did God not stop the tsunami disaster? The answer is, we don’t know. But we desperately want to know and here is where things become dangerous. In our desire to know, in our desire to make sense, we can create a false god. Again you have heard these attempts to make sense out of this disaster in the media and in people’s conversation. They will say, “The tsunami happened because God was angry, because God wanted to punish us or the people of Indonesia. God did this to teach a lesson. God did this to reduce the overpopulation on the earth.”
All these so-called explanations of this disaster attempt to make sense out of the tsunami, but they are blasphemous. They are idolatry because they set up as God something that is not God. They are idolatry because they create a false god, a god of vengeance, a god who does not care about the death of innocents, a god who has no compassion for human beings and their lives. Moreover, these explanations contradict the things that we know for sure about God. We know that God cares for us, that God sees us as God’s own children. We know this because God has revealed this to us.
Therefore, the gospel today calls us to avoid idolatry. It commands us not to set up false gods in order to explain the tsunami disaster or any other evil that happens in our lives. As Christians we are called to limit our knowledge of God to those things that we know, to those things which have been revealed to us. What are those things? What are the things we know for sure? God loves us and cares for us. God does not will the death of the innocent. God treats all people as valuable and precious. God calls us to do what we can to relieve the suffering of those who have been affected by the tsunami. God calls us to use all of our intelligence and science to prevent such loss of life in the future. That is what we know. Why did God not stop the tsunami? That we do not know. And it is better to admit that we do not know rather than creating a false god to explain it. It is better to admit our own ignorance of things beyond us than to distort our God who has been revealed to us as a parent who cares for all people and loves us as beloved daughters and sons.
Dignity and Service
January 13, 2008
A few years ago, the African American poet, Maya Angelou, was offered a guest professorship at Wake Forest University. In the first day of her class, she spent the entire class period, learning the student’s names by spelling them out and having the students explain their origins. In the second class period, she reviewed the names again and in the third class period, she repeated the process. After the third time around, she asked the class, “Why do you think that I have devoted twenty per cent of valuable class time simply to learn your names?” There was a deafening silence, so Ms. Angelou answered her own question. “Your name is a sign of your dignity. Calling someone by name is recognizing someone, not simply as human, but as a person. You bestow dignity on another person when you call them by name.”
Our value, if it is to become real, must be claimed. If our dignity is to have power, we must hear our true name. This is what is happening to Jesus in today’s gospel. What is the significance of this scene, which we call the Baptism of the Lord? It is the moment in Jesus’ life when he recognizes his own dignity. It is the moment in his life when he hears his true name.
The baptism of Jesus marks a specific change, a watershed, in Jesus’ life. At that moment Jesus realizes that he is more than the son of Mary, more than a faithful Jew, more than a son of the carpenter. He is God’s beloved son. This is the name that is given to him from the heavens. Now, of course, Jesus was always God’s beloved son. But in his humanity, his dignity needed to be claimed. This is what we celebrate today on the Baptism of the Lord.
Just as Jesus needed to claim his own dignity, we need to do the same. We are valuable. By faith and Baptism, we have become daughters and sons of God in Christ. That is who we are, but unless we claim that dignity, it will never have power. Unless we own our true identity, we will never be able to understand who we truly are. If we go through life just doing one thing after the other, it is easy to let the circumstances of life define who we are. We can allow our failures and mistakes to tell us that we are worthless, that we are expendable, that we are of little value. But that’s not true. God has made us and saved us. God has made us God’s own. We will only know that identity when we claim our true name.
And the minute we do that, it leads us to mission. The minute we are able to say to our selves, “I am a beloved daughter or son,” in that minute, we have good news. We have good news to spread to the world. Jesus’ baptism does not only mark the moment where he claims his true identity and dignity, it is also the beginning of his public ministry. For in Jesus’ life, as in ours, when we claim our identity, we become empowered for mission. Dignity leads to service.
So that is who we are. We are God’s beloved children. But we need to claim that identity in order to know our dignity, in order to serve. We need to claim that identity regularly. Here’s what I need to do. I need to wake up each morning and say, “My name is George and I am a beloved son of God. I am not worthless. I am precious. I am not without purpose. I am called. I am not forgotten. I am loved. God delights in the fact that I have another day to live.” That’s what I need to do each day and you need to do the same. You need to wake up each morning and say this is my name and I am a child of God. Once we do that, once we claim that identity, a question follows: Lord, what do you want me to do today? That’s the way to begin each morning, claiming your identity and asking God how you are called to serve.
I assure you, if we could begin our day in that way, we would live a radically different life. We would not lead a life of emptiness, but of dignity; not a life of aimlessness, but of purpose; not a life of confusion, but of joy. The difference comes from claiming who we are. The difference comes from hearing our true name.
Jesus’ Beginnings and Our Own
January 9, 2011
The gospels agree that Jesus’ public ministry began with his baptism in the Jordan River. It is this baptism which marks the beginning of Jesus’ public life. But the scriptures not only tell us about Jesus. They shape the story of Jesus in such a way that it relates to our own lives. So it is appropriate for us to use the story of Jesus’ baptism as a way of reflecting upon beginnings in the lives that we live.
Life does not stay the same for very long. Things change. New beginnings occur. Some of these we welcome. Others we dread. But one way or the other, new beginnings happen, and we have to adjust to them. There might be a new relationship that comes into our life, or perhaps an old relationship that comes to an end. We might have a new demand in our business or a different expectation from an old friend. We might recognize a new interest or hobby or hear a call to work for a change in our family or in society. We might be faced with a sudden illness that frightens us or a remission of that illness that gives us joy. Changes come and whether they are joyful or fearful, easy or difficult, we have to adjust to them, we have to change with them.
The baptism of Jesus tells us two things about new beginnings in our lives. The first is that when Jesus comes out of the water Matthew says that the heavens were open to him. This is Matthew’s way of saying that what is going on is being guided by heaven. The ministry of Jesus which begins at the baptism was a part of God’s plan. Therefore Jesus’ baptism was not simply a turning point in his life. It was a turning point in his life in which God was involved. You and I need to believe that God is involved when new things begin in our life. Whether we welcome them with joy or with fear, we need to believe that things happen not by chance, but that God has a plan and is constantly working to bring that plan into being. The changes that we experience in our life are a part of that plan. Now the fact that God is involved in our beginnings does not mean that they will be easy or without pain. That was certainly not true for Jesus. But it does tell us that each time something new begins we are challenged to believe that God is in charge and that God is bringing things about for good in our lives.
The plan of God is, of course, much bigger than anything we can see or fully comprehend.
So how can we adjust, how can we adapt to beginnings when God’s plan is far from clear? This brings us to the second important characteristic about Jesus’ baptism. After he comes out of the water he hears a voice that says, “This is my beloved Son. In him I am well pleased.” The voice tells Jesus that he is loved. At this point of his life he does not yet know all that will unfold during his ministry: His sermon on the mount, His curing of the blind, His passion, and His cross. But what he does know is that God is with him and that God loves him. When we face beginnings in our lives, we need to claim our status as God’s beloved daughters and sons. We too, like Jesus, will not completely know all that will unfold out of the beginning that we face. But we need to know that God is with us and that God is for us.
New beginnings are unfolding constantly in our lives and when they do we must first assert our belief that God is involved in them. Then we must listen for God’s voice and believe it. The voice that says, “You are my beloved child. Whatever happens from here, you will not have to face alone.”