Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Wrath of God

Feast of the Baptism – Matthew 3:13-17

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, MD

The Wrath of God

This Feast of our Lord’s Baptism tells us something about the wrath of God. Yet, with all of the hullabaloo surrounding Christmas and Epiphany, today’s Feast of the Baptism might be easily overlooked.

I visited Israel ten years ago with an ecumenical and inter-faith group from Baltimore, and when we visited the site where Jesus’ baptism is said to have taken place, it became apparent that for Orthodox and Baptist Christians this was perhaps the most sacred historic place we visited.

My Baptist roommate immediately remarked, “This is it!” When I asked what he meant, he explained that the scenery we were looking upon was exactly what is painted behind the baptismal pools in many Baptist churches. And our Orthodox companions explained that this Feast of the Baptism is their most sacred Feast day next to Easter.

Indeed, this Feast of the Baptism may offer us the most important reminder of who we are and whose we are. It is on page 298 in the Book of Common Prayer that we are told, “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the church. The Bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”

Baptism is not a precious moment to name a child. It is a moment of transformation and change. I recall a bishop who once pointed to the Baptismal Font and said, “This is a dangerous place. No one ever comes away from this font the same as when they come to it.”

Indeed, although Jesus’ baptism is very different from our own in some ways, he comes to John as one of us. John tries to defer to Jesus. Jesus has none of that. He asserts his full humanity – he looks for no privilege, he does not pull rank. This is to become a hallmark of his mission and ministry.

Just as he comes up out of the water, we are told, everything is changed. He sees the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. Then comes a voice from offstage – from heaven says the text: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I got it – the connection between what our prayer book says about Baptism and this story – a story, as I have said, that gets lost somewhere between Christmas, Epiphany and the coming of Lent.

But it is quite simple – if our Baptism makes us, incorporates us, into the Body of Christ, then when we come up out of the waters of Baptism this offstage voice must be saying to us, ”You are my Beloved…I am well pleased with you.”

I honestly truly believe this to be the case. I now imagine at every Baptism at which I am present that little cherubim like we sang about at the beginning of this service are singing into the ears of the newly baptized, “You are God’s beloved….God is well pleased with you….” As we “grow up” we tend to forget we ever heard these words. We need reminders. If one looks carefully at the promises we make and renew at every baptism, we are meant to be the reminders for the rest of the world!

A case can be made that the entire Bible from front to back means to remind us that we are God’s Beloved people – God’s Beloved Community – meant to be a blessing to all nations and all people, announcing to them just how much God loves them too. When we forget all this, and when we forget just how beloved we are in the eyes of God, we tend to forget how Beloved others are also. This provokes the wrath of God. Maggie Ross, a hermit and writer on the life of the Spirit, has suggested that, “The wrath of God is his relentless compassion, pursuing us even when we are at our worst.” The Fire of Your Life, (Paulist Press, NY:1983) p. 137

To make just this point, the late Henri Nouwen wrote the following in his book, Life of the Beloved. It is a passage that compiles some of the endless references in the Bible to just how much the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus really loves us. We might note that the majority of these quotations come from what we call the Old Testament:

God says to us:

I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will satisfy all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, your partner, your spouse … yes, even your child. Wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.

-Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p.30ff

I have put this on a bookmark that I want us all to have in our Bibles. Read it once a day so that we may never forget who we are and whose we are. Once we pass through the waters of Holy Baptism we are never the same, thank goodness! We are the Body of Christ sent into the world as instruments of healing for the world, the whole world, and everyone and everything therein. We are agents of the “wrath of God!”


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