11 January 2011

Called Through the Waters

Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of the Lord/ 9th January 2011

Baptism.  Temptation.  Vocation.    This is the flow of events in Matthew 3 and 4.  Jesus arrives along the River Jordan, he goes down into the water to be baptized, that is, washed, prepared for the journey of his life.  He comes up; the crowd hears the pronouncement of God’s favor.  Here is a Son of God.  Then wasting no time, the Spirit of God whisks him off into the wilderness to be tested and trained, and eventually arrives in Capernaum to preach the Kingdom of God.  Baptism (Matthew 3: 13-17).  Temptation (Matthew 4: 1-11).  Vocation (Matthew 4: 12-17).  They’re all connected in Jesus’ life.  They’re all connected  for whoever shares in Jesus’ life. 

            Throughout Advent, especially in the sermon just before Christmas, I made the claim that Jesus’ life is the pattern for our lives.  What we see God doing in and through Jesus tells us something of what God can do in and through all of us.  God enfleshed in Jesus, God born in the depths of the human psyche, suggests that this is what God continually desires, to be enfleshed in our lives, to be born in the depths of our psyches, our souls, to grow with grace in us and through us so that we, like Jesus, with Jesus, may offer something of God’s love to the world.  If Jesus shows us the way to be human with God, if Jesus shows us how to live, then the pattern also continues for us here with baptism, temptation, vocation.

            We don’t know what went through Jesus’ mind and heart prior to his baptism, the existential wrestling, no doubt, that led him to the River Jordan.  We’re not even sure what Jesus believed about himself when he entered into the water.  But he knew he had to be there and no other place.  He knew he had to be washed, to be initiated and prepared for what was emerging in his life.  He went under with one reality and came up out of the water to discover a new reality, a truth that forever changed the course of his life.  “This is my beloved Son.” 

            It’s the nature of Sonship, of realizing one’s identity as a child of God, which changed his life.  It’s the realization that his identity and what he would do with his life would be forever identified with the identity, purpose, and work of God.  He could not be himself apart from who he came to know himself to be in God.  The experiences in the wilderness, the temptations or testing were attempts to make him forget who he was, to sever the relationship between him and God, to be someone other than himself.  Knowing that his future and God’s future were inextricably linked, his identity in and with God indissoluble, that his work would be God’s work, his joy would be God’s joy, his love would be God’s love, Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum and inaugurates the transformation of the universe.

            All because he went down into the waters.  His calling came through the waters.  The waters weren’t talking  or gurgling or whispering to him, it was the act of going down into and out of the waters that he discovered his call.  That’s why baptism, then and now, has always been a risky thing, a matter of life and death.  In the early church baptism meant being engrafted into the life of Christ.  Going down into the water meant death; rising up meant resurrection.  It meant going down into the water as one person and coming up another.  It meant dying and rising, of putting aside one way, giving up the former way, the childish, selfish way and rising into a new way, toward the mature way, beyond the self-centered way.  There’s always a cost involved, something is lost in following God’s way, before something is gained.  Values, perspectives change.  What was must be given up in order to take up what needs to be realized through Christ. 

            The calling of our lives comes through these waters too.  In our baptism, when we think of it as more than joining the church, when as adults we indwell its meaning, when we reflect upon it, pray in its knowledge, when we listen to the voice of God that sounds forth to us, we too discover what the shape of our lives might be as children of God.  The point I’m trying to make here is that there’s a direct correlation between baptism and vocation.

            Vocation is often associated only with religious professions – like Jesus, if we can view him as a religious professional (which is something he would have rejected).  Often in Roman Catholicism, for example, to have a vocation means to have a calling to be a priest.  In our Reformed tradition, however, we have always believed that ministers are not the only ones with a calling or vocation.  There are many callings because there are many jobs to do in God’s Kingdom.  Actually, everyone has a calling.  There isn’t a Christian soul without one.  Why?  Because it all starts at the font with our baptism.  If you’re baptized, then that means you have a calling. God has a job for you to do, and usually not just one job, one calling for a lifetime, but many, and they change throughout the course of one’s life.  To be baptized means you’re a child of God and God has blessed you – already – with every gift, every talent, every skill, dream, hope, idea, feeling, passion needed and the energy required to heed the call. 

            One of the responsibilities and joys of the Christian life is discerning one’s calling, attending to the voice that calls.   It’s an amazing gift to know one’s vocation.  Unfortunately, sadly, there are many who never fully believe they are called, who never discern their true calling or callings, who never come to see that their lives matter infinitely to God, that the meaning of their lives matter to God, and that God has a job for them to do that will both bring them enormous joy and serve the ends of God’s Kingdom.  The good news is it’s never too late to discover God’s will for our lives.  And that will changes throughout our lives.  What matters is that we stay close, that we listen to the voice of our calling, that we trust the wisdom and goodness and truth of that voice.

            Consider the alternative, of living a life where one has missed out on one’s purpose.  The evangelical writer, Rodney Clapp, put it this way:  “Imagine living your whole life according to a standard that is rendered meaningless at your death.  Imagine striving your whole life to achieve a goal that is completely ignored at your life’s end.  What a tragedy.”[1]

            Frederick Buechner suggests something similar in what has become his well-known definition of vocation.[2]  Vocation is more than your purpose in life, more than what you want to do with your life.  It’s not living a life with the standards, values, and expectations of society at large, what every tells you you ought to do, striving after what matters most to everyone else –endlessly driven by achievement, always trying  to get ahead, becoming richer or more comfortable.  It’s not about being driven by self-interest or what will make us the most happy.  These are all important (to a degree), but they don’t make a calling.  Actually, we could see them as contemporary temptations that lure us away from what matters most, things that matter little to God.  

So what is a calling?  What are we called to do?  You have to listen to the voice.  “No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny / the voice,” as Eliot (1888-1965) said.[3] We have to attend to the voice.  But my guess is that Buechner is right, the voice will lead us to the place we need to be, “…the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  That was true for Jesus and it’s true for us.


[1] R. Scott Rodin, Stewards in the Kingdom: A Theology of Life in All Its Fullness (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), cited in Rodney Clapp, Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004). See  www.journeywithjesus.net.
[2]Vocation:  It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.  There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than the voice of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.  By and large a good rule for finding out is…the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking:  A Theological ABC (New York:  Harper & Row, 1973), 95.
[3] T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday,” Selected Poems (New York:  Harvest/ HBJ, 1964), 90.

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