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Almeida_Júnior_-_Batismo_de_Jesus,_1895

1 Epiphany, 12 January 2020C
It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.  Mt. 3: 15

All of us, at some time in our lives, who entered the world of work outside of our home, submitted a resume in response to an advertisement.  Or, depending on our own position in the hierarchy, may have written and posted a description of a position which we desired to have filled.  Some job descriptions are given in great detail, while others are brief.  For example, on my way Thursday evening to dinner with a friend, I walked by an eatery in Harvard Square that had a sign posted in its window that read: “Waitstaff needed; apply within.”  No statement of what a waitstaff did, no mention of a need for previous experience; no suggestion that more than one individual was needed; no mention of salary and other benefits; no mention of the need for references.  Just: “Waitstaff needed; apply within.”

HelpWanted

I can imagine that a firm or an office seeking someone who has skills in data analysis probably would not hang a sign on a window that said simply “data analysist needed; apply within,” but would instead advertise in a specialized journal and state more specifically what skills [we]re required.

Why, you ask yourselves, do I trouble you with such [a] modern-day situation.  What does that have to do with my religious belief, when today we observe the baptism of Jesus by John?  The answer to the second question is clear: Baptism is the initiation rite that signifies that Jesus is ready to undertake the task for which he came to earth.  And the answer to the first question is given by none other than Jesus himself as he responds to John the Baptiser: “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

We devote four weeks, called Advent, in preparation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus.  We have that great celebration, called Christmas.  Twelve days later, we celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem and we call that celebration Epiphany.  All these celebrations, events, and occasions direct our attention on a child, a baby.

It seems that, on this day, without warning, biblical history introduces us suddenly to an adult Jesus Christ, who is about to begin his ministry, when we are only weeks removed from celebrating his birth.  However, this should not surprise us, because the writers of the gospels knew Jesus as an adult and it is his adult life and all that he did during the time between his baptism and his ascension that is most important to them.  .

If we step back for a moment and do a quick analysis of the lessons read today, we might discern in them a job description and the skills needed to fulfill the task being advertised.  Hear the Prophet Isaiah’s description:

I. CEO sought to affirm and develop the Covenant for Building unity among the peoples of the earth

  • The Creator of a Covenant in Community Building seeks a candidate for a leadership role to actualize a Covenant in Community Building
  • The Covenant has been revised over a period of time to reflect the Sponsor’s desire that all should live in unity, sharing in the further building and acceptance of diversity
  • The Covenant anticipates that the Sponsor’s own being will shine through the successful candidate’s character and uplifting demeanor
  • The Covenant enlightens all people to the Sponsor’s good will towards all, including prisoners who are incarcerated

II. The successful candidate must be:

  • Willing to advocate for justice among all peoples of the earth
  • Modest, not a braggart or self-centered desiring to bring attention to himself
  • Humble and of a gentle disposition, willing to work with all sorts and condition of men and women
  • Not given to belligerent actions, as demonstrated that he will not intentionally breaking further and already bent reed into a weapon
  • Of strong emotional, spiritual, and physical stamina, as well as intellectual acuity to hold his own against opponents of the Covenant

III. Letters of recommendations and/or statements of reliable witnesses are required.

John the Baptist was aware of this open position and the requirements for [the] job, and he knew that he did not qualify.  As the son of Elizabeth, who was cousin to Mary who had given birth to the one individual who could fulfill all the job requirements, it was John’s job to make others aware not only of the successful candidate, but to help them prepare for a life-changing experience.  John’s role or position in this enterprise was as front-man, or Director of Public Relations.

To be sure, we observe the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus by John.  This is Jesus’ big day.  However, as in every worthy enterprise, the organization needs someone who can motivate people to want the product.  Or, stated in another term, intelligent, enlightened neurosurgeons or physicians of any sort are aware that, without the dedicated support staff of other physicians, nurses, [and] cleaning staff, proper care cannot be performed or may be at risk of failure.

What was it, perhaps, that caused John (and Jesus, also, for that matter) to resort to action?  As I thought about John’s problem with Jesus’ baptism, a radical idea came to mind.  You know how the Bible, in the Old Testament, in the Psalms, and in the Epistles, is always talking about giving thanks to God?  It occurred to me that John, like so many of the Old Testament prophets, faulted his fellow Hebrews for forgetting God, from whom all blessings flow.  John expressed that as “sin,” and Jesus was in agreement with John’s analysis.  Failure to recognize the centrality of God in their lives—that was the ”sin” which they both sought to eradicate.  The people failed to give God thanks.

In the Book of Deuteronomy (8:10-13, 17-18), we read: “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.  Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.  When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God… Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who give you power to get wealth.”

This precept of giving thanks to God is woven also throughout the New Testament.  Paul, writing to the church in Rome, references ingratitude as one mark of forgetting where we come from.  About pagans, Paul writes: “Though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” (Rom 1:21).  Jesus, himself, places that obligation front and center, when he healed the ten lepers. “One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan.  Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’” (Lk 17:15-18)

No thanks to God?  This is no small matter.  Ingratitude is no small matter.  How often are we put out when, after doing a favor for someone, we do not receive thanks or acknowledgement?  Where is the gratitude?  To be ungrateful for all that God has done and is doing for us is the sin that John tells us must be corrected.  Which is to say, two things: (a) our situation is quite common and (b) when one repents, it is totally forgivable.

So here is my radical idea.  The real enemy of gratitude may be ease, prosperity, good times, too much of a good thing.  When we are prosperous, we tend to forget the goodness of God.  We take things for granted, as though we deserve these good things.  We have trouble appreciating what we have, because we cannot recall ever being without.

A person might say: I don’t need God when I am sick; I have MGH.  I don’t need God when I am bored with life; I need a cruise.  I don’t need God when I am depressed; I need Prozac.  I don’t need thoughts of God to fill my time; I need television, the Internet, my Smartphone.  I don’t need the sacraments; I need golf, tennis, and exercise at the health and fitness center.

There is nothing inherently evil with any of it—unless it squeezes out gratitude to God and we come to rely on everything but God.  The challenge that John the Baptist put before his compatriots thousands of years ago, as well as to us today, is not that we lack things for which to be thankful, but that we have not heeded the warning of Deuteronomy and we may have been taken in by thinking that “my power and the might of my own had have gotten me this wealth.”

Modern medicine confirms what the Deuteronomist thousands of years ago said.  Dr. Hans Selye of Montreal, (Janos Hugo “Hans” Selye 1907 Vienna – 1982 Montreal) was a Hungarian-Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist who over his career published many books and, after years of observing patients, concluded that there are two main culprits of poor health: an attitude of vengeance and an attitude of bitterness.  He believed that the best single response most nourishing to one’s personal health is gratitude.  (The Stress of Life, 1952)

When Jesus speaks of being born again—and that was signaled by his baptism in the River Jordan—surely he had in mind, a renewed spirit of thanksgiving to God for all that we are and all that we have, a spirit which places things into the correct perspective.  But to be born again, that is to say, being restored to a relationship of the giver of life, was not only or solely for one’s self, for that feeling of wholeness that comes in getting right with God.  It was to be the turning point of making us aware of God’s instruction to use that [is] given us by God, our new-found spirit and other gifts to include others and to show them what gratitude and what thanksgiving can accomplish.

Our sin?  Placing ourselves first and on the same plane as God.  Our forgiveness?  Remembering from whom all blessing flow.  To that end, John, the PR man, and Jesus of Nazareth, the CEO of God’s Covenant, are there to guide us.

Amen

The Rev. Clarence E. Butler