First Sunday after Epiphany, January 8, 2017, Lectionary
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector – Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Open to us
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to see, know, and experience that heaven is open to us through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
I would like to begin this morning by sharing with you two testimonials. As you listen to each of them, listen for a common theme, a theme also found singularly, profoundly, that is life-changing, and world-changing in the gospel reading this morning. In fact, this theme is revolutionary—a reality reset.
The first testimonial is by a friend of Emily’s and mine who lives in Ambridge, PA. Her name is Beth Priest, married to Dana, whose reflections on the birth of Jesus I shared on Christmas Eve. Beth has been battling cancer for almost a year now. She has undergone all kinds of treatment (at times more like torture). Recently, she shared the following on FaceBook.
“I am learning through all my failures in loving that obeying Jesus requires more than simply trying harder to change my behavior…We need the transforming friendship of Jesus as a constant reality. He alone, through his companionship with us, can reproduce his kind of love in us.
I confess that it is really hard not to fail in my attempts to love others, especially when suffering from illness (remember she is battling cancer) threatens to engulf me some days. I get stuck in my own stuff, and even when I realize the struggles of those closest to me, I can get stuck in guilt over the fact that my illness is making their struggles worse. But it’s not all about me. Even as sick as I am, God wants to grow his love in me and somehow give me energy to be present to others, including my daughter and my husband. Praying for his help today. Praying for his grace.”
The second testimonial is one I have shared with you before from C. S. Lewis. Listen to it and see what it has in common if anything with Beth’s testimonial.
“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him (Him capitalized) whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.
The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?.” (C.S. Lewis. Surprised by Joy. Harcourt Brace, 1956, p.228)
Do you hear and discern a common theme found in both testimonials? Let’s look at the gospel before answering that. It is here where it all begins—this life, world-changing theme (actually it is a reality) to which I am referring.
As we heard, Jesus came from Galilee to be baptized by John. John would have prevented Jesus saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Why did John want to refuse baptism to Jesus?
If we were to turn to page 302 of the Prayer Book, we would find these questions asked of the individual about to be baptized. “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”
Of course, Jesus would subsequently after His baptism confront Satan face to face and renounce him. The reason, though, John did not want to baptize Jesus was because Jesus was without sin. He had no need of the baptismal, cleansing water. This though is where we need to catch up on a little soteriology of what we began to see on Christmas, actually nine months before then. Soteriology, you may recall, is the study of salvation.
In the continuum of soteriology and its history, otherwise known as salvation history, this in brief is what we are looking at. God, you will recall, created the first man Adam from the ground. In Hebrew the word for ground is adamah. Then God did what? We read from Genesis 2:7 “. . . then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” What is the breath? It is wind. What is the Hebrew word for wind? It is ruwach or the Spirit, the Holy Spirit.
Now, as we know Adam and his wife messed up when they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In other words, they sinned and with their fall also came the fall of all creation which included all of humanity since and forward. They were kicked out of the idyllic Garden of Eden, so we read in Genesis 3:24: “(God) drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”
In other words, God’s original creation, in particular humanity after the fall was something less, much less than He intended. Humanity had been corrupted. What was He to do about it? How would we be fixed; how are we to be improved, perhaps even supersede God’s original intention for us? Remember, as we also find in Genesis (1:27), that: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” He created us to be godlike.
In the December 23, 2016 issue of the Guardian, the British national daily newspaper, the following article by Hannah Devlin was published. She wrote, “Imagine a two-tiered society with elite citizens, genetically engineered to be smarter, healthier and to live longer, and an underclass of biologically run-of-the-mill humans. It sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel, but the world could be sleepwalking towards this scenario, according to one of Britain’s most celebrated writers.
Kazuo Ishiguro argues that the social changes unleashed by gene editing technologies, such as Crispr, could undermine core human values. ‘We’re going into a territory where a lot of the ways in which we have organised our societies will suddenly look a bit redundant,’ he said. ‘In liberal democracies, we have this idea that human beings are basically equal in some very fundamental way. We’re coming close to the point where we can, objectively in some sense, create people who are superior to others.’
‘When you get to the point where you can say that person is actually intellectually or physically superior to another person because you have removed certain possibilities for that person getting ill (genetic engineering)… or because they’re enhanced in other ways, that has enormous implications for very basic values that we have,’ said Ishiguro.” Is genetic engineering the means by which God will restore, improve upon fallen humanity?
Going back to soteriology and the salvation history that led up to it, we have these basic facts. God created humanity from dirt, breathing life into him, Adam. Humanity, though, corrupted itself. How was it to be restored? This brings us to Jesus. Jesus was born of a woman, a woman whose flesh came from dirt, just as all of ours does. God took the dirt if you will of Mary’s womb and breathed life into it when the wind, the Holy Spirit, overshadowed her. Do you see the parallel between the Genesis account of humanity’s conception and Jesus’ conception? God took from the ground, formed humanity, and breathed life into both Adam and Jesus with one big difference. Jesus was without sin. He had not been corrupted. The quick and simple answer as to why He had not been corrupted is that He is God’s son.
Even so, Jesus had taken on the flesh (the dirt) of humanity, also known as the incarnation. This is the reason He told John the Baptist that He had to be baptized. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. In other words, for as much as Jesus was human, He had to fulfill what was required of humans; that is be baptized.
No, I have not forgotten about Beth Priest and C. S. Lewis, their testimonials, and what they have in common which I said was life, world, and reality changing. To that end, we go now to look at the event of Jesus’ baptism. Here is what we heard: “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” St. John’s gospel adds this one significant caveat about the Spirit alighting on Jesus. He has John the Baptist saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”
So what is going on here in Jesus baptism? How does it shed light on Beth and Lewis’ situations, and what are the ramifications for the means of God restoring humanity, you and me, to the image He intended for us? Well, as we heard, suddenly the heavens were opened to Jesus—the heavens were opened. Think about that for a moment. Whatever the veil, its substance or if you would like something more colorful—“at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword, turning to guard the way to the tree of life,” whatever the veil which separates heaven from earth, it was suddenly opened to and on Jesus wherein the Holy Spirit remained on Him.
By comparison, Mark’s gospel says, “the heavens (were) torn apart” (Mark 1:9)—a kind of violence almost. In other words, indeed something profound and earth-shattering has taken place at Jesus’ baptism. An opening had been ripped apart (not merely some already existent door opened) between heaven and earth and that opening is found and rests upon Jesus. It is a brand new day, a first day, a re-creation day, a new creation day in Jesus, a born again of the Spirit day in Jesus, a day of our salvation and becoming the humanity God originally intended for us.
We look then at the title of this sermon, “Open to us.” It can be heard as a command as in open the door or a statement of fact. It is open to us. What is open to us? In Jesus, heaven is open to us. God commanded it to be open in His Son and it is open to us.
We finally get back to Beth Priest and C. S. Lewis, who in their testimonies testified to their dependence and, with Lewis, his resistance to heaven being open to them through Jesus. This incidentally is why we pray in Jesus’ name. He is the channel, the conduit by which our prayers reach heaven and He is likewise the channel, the means by which heaven reaches us. He is also the means by which we begin to be restored to the image God made us to be, thereby reversing the corruption that befell us through Adam and Eve.
Beth told us that: “I am learning through all my failures in loving that obeying Jesus requires more than simply trying harder to change my behavior…We need the transforming friendship of Jesus as a constant reality.” In other words, without heaven being open and the resource that is to her through Jesus, it would be impossible for her to love others, given the severity of her illness. Despite the corruption of her illness (cancer) she is through heaven being open to her becoming un-corrupted in mind, spirit, heart, and ultimately body (the resurrection). She is moving toward that more perfect image God intends for us.
Lewis shared with us that despite his resistance (he did not want it) heaven broke through to him and in his words, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” About which Lewis observed, “I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.” By virtue of heaven being open to Lewis, despite his resistance, he became a new person, indeed one of the foremost apologists, meaning advocate, for Christianity of modern time.
Would I be wrong in saying that some if not all of you know what I am talking about. You have experienced in your own lives that heaven has been opened to you in Jesus. We also call it grace do we not—that unmerited favor by which God suddenly and inexplicably comes to us, maybe not as we had hoped, but none the less rips open that veil which seems to separate heaven from earth and we say, “Wow; Thank God, and Praise the Lord!” I want to close with a reflection from Tim Keller about Christmas in an article entitled, “Why Christmas Matters.” Yes, this is the same Tim Keller whose course will be offered beginning this Wednesday.
“The Gospel is not that Jesus Christ comes to earth, tells us how to live, we live a good life and then God owes us blessing. The Gospel is that Jesus Christ came to earth, lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died—so when we believe in Him, we live a life of grateful joy for Him. If these things didn’t happen, if they’re just parables, what you are saying is that if you try hard enough, God will accept you.
If Jesus didn’t come, the story of Christmas is one more moral paradigm to crush you (meaning we have to be superhuman good to earn God’s approval and heaven’s blessings). If Jesus didn’t come, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere around these Christmas stories that say we need to be sacrificing, we need to be humble, we need to be loving. All that will do is crush you into the ground. Because if it isn’t true that (the apostle) John saw Him, heard Him, felt Him, that Jesus really came to do these things, then Christmas is depressing.
First John 1:3 says, “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son.” “Fellowship” (remember what Beth said) means that if Jesus Christ has come, if Christmas is true, then we’ve got a basis for a personal relationship with God. God is no longer a remote idea or a force we cower before, but we can know Him personally. He’s become graspable,” writes Tim Keller.
In other words, as I have been saying, in and through Jesus heaven is open to us. This means that no matter what the situation we face—be it cancer or death that heaven, grace, God’s love is open to us. This is the good news. It is the news we are to share with others, in fact be to others (we are being re-created) because we, you and I, through Jesus have a direct line to heaven. It is open to us and we can show and tell others that it is open to them through believing in Jesus.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.