Good morning. A belated Happy New Year to you. We arrived back from our time in Kansas early this week and have been getting resettled into our regular routine. We celebrated Eve’s birthday out in Kansas, and it’s getting a little harder each day to remind her that she is 6 years old and not 16; so the earrings, the cell phone, and driving are not going to happen this year. Meanwhile, Abbie’s dad had a birthday recently and he informed us that his best birthday present was that he had spent all year thinking that he was 56 getting ready to turn 57, only to realize on his birthday that he is just now turning 56. So, I guess, depending on what stage of life you’re in, those additional years are either really exciting to gain, or to lose. But we’re all pulled along into this new year, and we look forward to what it holds for us and for our congregation.
One of the highlights of the Kansas trip was getting to visit for the first time the Sternberg Museum in Hays, Kansas, not too far from where Abbie grew up. As hard as it is to imagine going to Kansas to find really big fish, much of the museum is dedicated to the fossils that have been found throughout the state when the area was an inland sea during the time of the dinosaurs, between 65 and 100 million years ago. Their most famous fossil is called fish within a fish, an almost perfectly preserved skeleton of a predator fish, about six feet long, with a smaller, almost perfectly preserved fish skeleton, right in its belly. The big fish had just had a big meal and somehow got buried alive, where it stayed put, for 65 million years, waiting to be discovered by the Sternberg family. It’s worth seeing if you’re passing through Kansas on I-70 – and your Cincinnati Museum Center membership will get you in free.
Mark 1. This should all be becoming quite familiar by now. John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, baptizing people in the waters of the Jordan River, as people confess their sins and undergo initiation into a new life, a baptismal identity. Jesus also comes from Galilee to the Jordan, is baptized by John, and, as he is coming up out of the waters, sees the heaven torn open, the Spirit descending in bird form as a dove, and hears the voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved.”
Parts of this passage were read during the second week of Advent which focused on John’s role as a repairer and preparer for the coming of Jesus. This was also the passage that I chose to reflect on as a hope for what the summer Sabbatical could be, as Jesus begins in Galilee, undergoes baptism and wilderness transformation, and returns to Galilee, ready to begin his ministry. A full circle kind of journey; in the words of TS Eliot, arriving at the place where he started, and knowing the place for the first time.
And this passage comes around again the Sunday after Epiphany, which commemorates the Baptism of Christ. Our new year commences with water, with Spirit, with the Divine voice naming us as Beloved Children of God.
I want to come at this passage of the baptism of Christ by way of the back door, so to speak. I’d like to do something of a biblical treasure hunt which starts in a place apparently far away from this scene by the Jordan, and leads us, eventually, back to baptism and its significance in Christian meaning-making of our lives, which is the treasure that we are going to be after.
We will start with the Psalm that is paired up with this gospel for this Sunday, Psalm 29. If you want to take a look at these treasure hunt clues yourself, you can feel free to turn to these passages in your Bible. That way you can tell me if I’m leading you astray!
Very early into Psalm 29 we can recognize that we are in a world very different than one we are accustomed to. “Ascribe to the Lord (to Yahweh), O heavenly beings, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength. Ascribe to Yahweh the glory of his name, worship Yahweh in holy splendor. The voice of Yahweh is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, Yahweh, over mighty waters.” The Psalm is addressed, not to us, but to the heavenly beings, literally the “sons of God,” bney elohim, the children of God, the gods. And these sons of God, heavenly beings, are instructed to give glory to Yahweh, the god of the people of Israel. This is one of the number of passages in the Hebrew scriptures which describe something of a heavenly divine council made up of divine beings, gods, with Yahweh the supreme God, holding court. This shows up in the book of Job where Yahweh and the bney elohim are visted by the Satan, the accuser, who has a case to make against the righteous Job. Various prophets like Micaiah and Isaiah and Jeremiah are depicted as paying a visit to the divine council and getting a speaking role among the gods. These children of god in the divine council also show up throughout the Psalms.
These occasions carry strong connections to the ancient Canaanite culture in which the early Israelite community was formed. We know through texts uncovered in the last hundred years that the divine council was a common motif during the time. Baal, the storm god, is often depicted as holding council with the children of god, the other heavenly beings, in the courts of El, the high god of the Canaanites. Baal, we may recall, doesn’t come across so favorably in the Bible. Some scholars believe that Psalm 29 is based on a hymn to Baal, remixed and remastered as a song of praise to Yahweh, who is the true power in the thunderstorm, whose voice is over the waters and thunders in glory. Who, as verse 10 proclaims, “sits enthroned over the flood; who sits enthroned forever.”
The Psalm is used on baptism Sunday because of its continued reference to the waters. It points back to the ancient waters of chaos at the beginning of the creation stories of the ancient near east. It’s a reminder to us clean-tap-water-on-demand-at-the-temperature-of-my-desire people that water, the very substance that enables life, carries a strong element of wildness and chaos. How do you get from chaos to life? From raw nature to grace? In the early days of the earth life forms out of no life in the warm waters. Contained within the oceans, life multiplies and thrives. Eventually, life learns how to contain the oceans within itself and comes onto the dusty land. Lands and oceans shift boundaries with the passage of time. Kansas gets baptized, and emerges from the waters with a new calling, a prairie. We humans, late-comers on the scene, are still 60% ocean, mostly water, still stumbling around on land, trying to find our footing and breathe freely in this air. In Genesis God’s Spirit hovers patiently, over the watery chaos, and speaks creation into being. We are spoken into being. Water, dust, and Spirit.
I admit that Psalm 29, in itself, is difficult for me to adopt as a personal hymn of praise. Seeing Yahweh, the God of the storm, enthroned in the heavens over the other divine beings is not the first thing I think of when I experience a thunderstorm. Quite the contrary, we wince at statements that attribute the will of God to natural disasters that cause damage to people and places. Unless it’s our own house or car, in which case we bank on the insurance company categorizing it as an Act of God! In many ways the Psalm feels more like a fossil, some odd and ancient creation, miraculously preserved for us to ponder and wonder about. A council of heavenly beings? Really? So much for monotheism. The Psalm is a creature from a different world.
But the biblical witness is a little more creative than relegating itself to a collection of fossils. What seems dead and gone always has a way of coming back to life, of being re-presented in a whole new light.
The next step in this treasure hunt is Psalm 82.
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” OK, this sounds familiar. We’ve got that same picture of the ancient pantheon with Israel’s God at the top. But all is not well in the divine council. These gods, many of them representing the nations of the earth, are not carrying out the job descriptions that Yahweh would have for them. So, in the verses that follow, God addresses them all collectively:
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” This is the job description of those that would be called “the children of god” and Yahweh is calling them all to task. So in verse five we have an exasperated Yahweh bemoaning these failing gods, these collective personalities of the peoples they represent: “They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” We have a full system failure here, and creation is teetering on self-destruction. So, what is Yahweh’s solution? Vv. 6&7: “I say, ‘You are gods, children of the Most High’” – there’s the b’ney elohim again – “You are gods, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”
My friends, the gods have just been demoted. In the Hebrew imagination, the gods were not living up to their calling of protecting the most vulnerable of society, the weak, the orphan, the destitute, and so Yahweh pulls a Donald Trump and says to all of them, “you’re fired.” You’re getting demoted to the same mortal status as human beings. So Baal of the Canaanites, and Ra of Egypt, and Marduk of Babylon, and all the others, you will not live forever. You’re mortal. You are not carrying out the calling of justice and righteousness.
And in verse 8 we have a heavens emptied of the gods. Downsized to a company of one. “Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you.”
The danger here is that we come to think of God, Yahweh, the Holy One, as being just a bigger, better, kinder version of the gods. The last man standing. And God is nothing of the sort. God is much closer to being no-thing rather than some-thing since God is not an object or a collective personality or a projection of ours. God is not a god. God is the ground of being, the well-spring out of which existence flows. And the ground of being arcs toward justice and pours out belovedness on creation, all the nations.
One more link to bring us to the backdoor of the Jordan River.
Jesus quotes Psalm 82, this Psalm we just looked at, in John chapter 10, beginning in verse 30. He cites those words, “You are all gods,” and does so in such a way as to give them new meaning.
Jesus has just said, “The Father and I are one,” which does not go over well with his listeners. So verse 31 says, “The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?’ So Jesus’ statement refers to the good things he is doing which points to his oneness, his common life, with God. “The Jews answered, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.’” So this is another case in John where Jesus and his conversation partners are wildly, almost comically, misunderstanding each other. Jesus says, “I’m doing the kinds of things that God does, God and I are one.” The religious people are saying, “You’re a human, you can’t make yourself out to be God.” To which Jesus quotes Psalm 82. “Is it not written in your law, your scriptures, ‘I said, you are gods’? (There’s the Psalm 82 quote – “you are gods”) If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, “I am God’s Son?” So Jesus, in good rabbinic argumentation fashion, pulls out a quote originally speaking about the heavenly beings, who are demoted to human status, to now be remixed to be a statement about humanity, now promoted to the status of gods. I’m saying God and I are one. Scriptures say, “you are all gods.” But how does one live as one of the children of God? What does a b’ney elohim look like? Jesus says in verse 37, “’If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’ Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.” What does it look like to be God’s Son, God’s daughter? You accept the job description. You love the weak, the orphan, the destitute. You do what Psalm 82 calls for and what Jesus actually did. The b-ney elohim of the ancient pantheon get demoted to mortal status, but Jesus begins a process whereby the human mortals accept the invitation to live out their calling as the b-ney elohim. The children of God. Those who become one with God by allowing their lives to become channels of the divine overflowing love.
Where does Jesus go after this exchange that nearly results in his arrest and pushes the accepted norms of the human relationship with God?
V. 40. “He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there.”
Jesus returns to the place of his baptism. The place where he symbolically passed through the primordial chaotic waters and received his identity – where he heard the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Where the Spirit fell, bird-like, from the skies and rested on him.
If you got lost on this treasure hunt somewhere back in the old Canaanite pantheon, or somewhere in Jesus’ rabbinic reworking of Psalm 82, then don’t worry about it, and come over to these welcoming waters. The point is this: Our new year begins with us being named as children of God. With us receiving the title: Beloved. With the Spirit gently hovering over the chaos that is our lives and landing to create it anew. God is in you, and you are in God. The whole world is being baptized and the new creation is opening up and Jesus, our elder brother, is leading the way.