Leora Weitzman’s Homily from January 9, 2022

Holy Wisdom Monastery Homilies Leave a Comment

Baptism of Jesus • Isaiah 43:1–7 • Acts 8:14–17 • Luke 3:15–17, 21–22 • January 9, 2022

These words are for you as well; let them sink into your being. “You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

To picture the baptism John offered, we have to strip away our scripted church ceremonies and take our imaginations outdoors to an undeveloped streamside. We have to visualize adults brave enough to accept John’s invitation to reform their lives into a pathway, a channel, for the power and direction of God. Such a reform entails some serious letting go in the face of the full weight of one’s past, complete with its potentially conflicting investments, habits, and self-image. To counter all that resistance, John offered a vivid, memorable, public ritual. Its public nature ensured that people would be held accountable for their new commitments. The vivid experience and memory of the dusty journey and cold water would help them believe they had changed enough to be able to live differently. This baptism, even just with water, was already a powerful thing.

All four Gospels describe the baptism of Jesus, and all four have John say that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Matthew and Luke have him add that Jesus will baptize with fire. They go on to describe the winnowing fork, clearing chaff out the granary to be burned. In what sense could Jesus be said to have baptized people with fire and cleared and burned away their chaff? What might have led Matthew and Luke to include these images?

Matthew and Luke are also the only ones to provide detailed accounts of the famous three temptations. What if there is a connection between baptism by fire, the burning chaff, and the purifying experience of facing and resisting temptation? Perhaps the chaff being burned away in us is attachments that tempt us away from God’s service. Here, our resistance to living in a new way is not just washed away but burned away—an acknowledgement of how much real conversion can hurt, or cost, but also of how complete it can be. What gives Jesus’ baptism this extra power? Is this where the Holy Spirit comes in?

It’s worth noticing that Jesus’ temptations come after his baptism and his encounter with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s affirming words to him are not some kind of prize for passing the test in the wilderness, for making it through the first phase of the hero’s journey. They’re more like provisions for the journey. Maybe it was by clinging to these words that Jesus found the strength and courage to resist temptation, both in the desert and in his ministry.

Why would Matthew and Luke go into detail about Jesus’ temptations? I have to think it’s to bring our own temptations into our consciousness, to spark a similar journey in us. And if the journey is for us, then so are the provisions. If the purification, the trial by fire, is not just for Jesus but also for us, then so is the affirmation that redefines us in our own eyes, sets us on a new path, and gives us the strength and courage to follow it. “You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

When I was a newly baptized convert forty years ago, the first experiences I associated with God involved the feeling that my actions were being guided for the good of others. I came to think that my value to God was in these actions, that I was of value simply as a means to an end. But when I look again through the lens of today’s readings, I notice that I also associate with God my feelings of awe, of deep absorption in nature or art, of deep connection with other beings, and these are gifts to my own being. They are the language in which God says to me that I am beloved, that I matter, and not just for what I do. In what language do you hear that message?

The message that he is beloved doesn’t come to Jesus while he’s working. He hears it when he takes time out and goes to a special place. Throughout his ministry, he continues to take time out in solitude, perhaps listening for the echo of those original words to nourish him anew for the next leg of his journey.

The passage from Isaiah is also in the context of a journey. The promise of returning home is on the horizon for the enslaved descendants of a people in exile—but the journey is filled with danger and uncertainty. The people need the assurance of God’s companionship and protection on the way. The promise of safe passage through water evokes their history of passing through the Red Sea and the Jordan. The promise of safe passage through fire might evoke the catastrophic burning of their original Temple by the people who took them into slavery. They will have to rebuild the Temple, along with much of the city. Like those just baptized, they are embarking on a new life. Like Jesus, they receive strength for this daunting journey in the affirmation of their very being and belonging: “I have called you by name, and you are mine… You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

Though we may not be enslaved to other people, as they were, we may feel bound by some parts of ourselves or society—for example, by habits or expectations or conditioned reactions to certain triggers. These represent our personal or collective temptations, the chaff to be burned away in us. We need to hear that when we walk through this fire, the flame will not consume us. We need the assurance of God’s companionship and love if we are to have the courage to embark on our own journey to freedom. Carl Rogers wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.” We need to hear, again and again: “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

When we cannot fully take in the words, a touch can get the message across. Imagine receiving this divine affirmation through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, as people in Samaria did in today’s passage from Acts. Peter and John made a special trip to touch them individually. That travel, undertaken just for them, and the touch of those hands showed them that they mattered. This gave them new courage and spirit—the Holy Spirit with its gift of affirmation and guidance.

When Isaiah has God speak of giving peoples as ransom for the beloved ones, the essential message is again, “You matter.” I can’t believe God ultimately gives anyone up; the giving of peoples here is a symbol. It makes the point that you are worthy and of great value to God. “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

So, as you prepare to face your own journey and perhaps endure some purification along the way, whether by circumstance or by choice, hold these words of affirmation close to your heart. “You are my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

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