Scripture: LUKE 3:15-17, 21-22
I think a lot about food. If I’m being honest, I think way too much about food. And if I’m being really honest, truth be told, I eat too much food and, too often, not the right food. There’s my new year’s confession. Now, I don’t know if I’m ready to change that habit. But if you’re in a generous mood, you might give me points for at least knowing it!
The other day, I ran across some familiar words of the food writer Michael Pollan. Pollan once wrote this as a kind of seven-word manifesto about how to think about our eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Eat food rather than chemicals and additives. Eat in moderation. And gear your intake more to flora than to fauna. People will put their own spin on this, and adjust it in their particular ways. But it’s really pretty sound advice: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Having a pithy formula can be a helpful guide for how to approach whatever we’re doing. When I was in seminary, a professor said to us would-be preachers, “You should be able to sum up your sermon in one relatively simple sentence.” Meaning that the sermon should have a focus, and everything in it should relate directly to your theme. As I prepare a sermon now, if I get lost, I come back to that question: can I sum it up in a sentence; does everything in it cohere?
As I listen to the story we just heard about the baptism of Jesus, and re-read Michael Pollan’s words about eating, and reflect on the need of the preacher to focus, I begin to wonder if we could do the same thing regarding faith that Pollan does regarding food: could we say, pithily, what being a disciple of Jesus is all about?
From one angle, of course, that kind of summing-up is likely not possible. We have a 2000-page Bible, after all, and millennia of theological and spiritual reflection on the mysteries of God. If all we needed were a simple hook—like “i before e except after c, or when sounded as a as in neighbor or weigh”—if that’s all that were needed, someone would long ago have come up with just the right formula. You could well argue that the riches of faith have such depth that no formula could ever fully capture it.
That said, though, people of faith have, throughout history, come up with concise ways of reminding themselves what’s central. Jews come back again and again to what’s called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Christians often center themselves on the double love commandment—we’re to love God with everything we have, and our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27). Sometimes people of faith look to the 23rd Psalm—“the Lord is my shepherd”—as the heart of their life in God. Or to one of Jesus’ more memorable sayings: what you have done to the least of these, you have done also to me (Matthew 25:40).
Today, though, we hear again a story we hear every year in worship, and it, too, can give us our bearings as disciples of Christ. It’s the story of Jesus’ baptism as told through Luke’s eyes. I say “as told through Luke’s eyes” because each of the three versions of Jesus’ baptism has its own nuances, and today we’re going to pay attention to Luke’s account.
Imagine for a moment that we’re playing a game of Jeopardy, and the category is “Jesus’ Baptism,” and you say, “I’ll take ‘Jesus’ Baptism’ for $200.” The answer comes up: “The person who baptized Jesus.” And all of us would buzz in and readily answer, “Who is John the Baptist?” and then we’d say, “I’ll take ‘Jesus’ Baptism’ for $400,” and the answer would come up, “This is where Jesus was baptized.” And we would immediately buzz in and ask, “What is the Jordan River?” And if we were talking about the stories Mark and Matthew tell, we’d be correct. We’d collect our winnings for those two Jeopardy questions, and move on.
Strangely, though, in Luke’s version of the story, neither of those two details is mentioned. Luke, in fact, makes it explicitly clear in his story that John the Baptist did not baptize Jesus. Our prescribed gospel reading for today, as you may have noticed, omits three verses from the story Luke tells. Those three verses recount John’s arrest and imprisonment. And then we’re told that Jesus is baptized. So John could not possibly have performed the baptism because he’s in jail. And there’s not a single mention of the Jordan River. In fact, the baptism itself is barely mentioned at all in Luke’s story, and not a single detail about that baptism is conveyed. The story just says, “And when Jesus . . . had been baptized, . . .” (3:21) and then goes on—mention of the baptism is just a throwaway line, acknowledging that it happened but giving it little priority.
When Luke tells this story, other things are more pressing than the baptism itself. At the heart of the story is the voice that comes from heaven after the baptism: “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). Some of you know, because I have said it before, that I love the translation of this verse by a great Roman Catholic biblical scholar named Joseph Fitzmyer. Here’s how Fitzmyer puts it: “You are my beloved [Child]; in you I have taken delight” (The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, p. 479). “Well pleased” is certainly fine. But “taken delight”? That’s all about joy and thrill and adoration. This is no formal, stilted relationship between God and Jesus, in other words. It is sheer elation.
Isn’t that what you and I might most crave? To have our spouse or our children or our neighborhood or our colleagues at work and indeed, and especially, God delight in us, revel in our presence, thrill to our very being? Is it just me, or does that sound like heaven—to walk into a room and have everyone there look to you with expectancy and shower you with adulation? So now my spouse Mary knows how I’m looking forward to being greeted after worship today! And it just may be that she’ll point out that’s how I’m to greet her, as well!
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the heart of the spiritual life, it’s very beginning point, is what Susan Pitchford calls “the sacred gaze,” which is God gazing at us the way we might gaze at our own newborn baby or grandbaby. The sheer delight God exhibits in Jesus at his baptism is the very same delight God takes in you and me. Pitchford quotes the great Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams that the core of prayer is this: God says to us, “‘Sit still, because I like looking at you. I like the sight of you . . . It’s not just about you contemplating me, in prayer,’ says God, ‘it’s about me contemplating you . . . The real you . . . The you I made, the you I redeemed, the you I love forever and ever. Just sit there and let me enjoy myself,’ says God” (The Sacred Gaze, p. 54).
It may sound simple, but it’s so not. Most of us think we’re too busy to take the time to simply be the source of God’s joy. Why would we do that? Or maybe we just gloss over that sort of affirmation—‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it 1000 times in church. OK, God loves me. Let’s move on.’
Or maybe you’ve so absorbed that truth of God’s adoration of you that you really don’t need to take it in anymore. Maybe you’re so enlightened that you can skip that whole dynamic, that whole experience of God enjoying you. Maybe you can do that. But I know I can’t. And I’m betting most of you can’t either. Because there’s something in most of us that wonders: ‘Am I really worth it? Can God really thrill to me? Aren’t I just a cog? Aren’t others more worthy of that love than I am?’ If you’re like me, you may lie awake some nights and wonder, ‘Who have I been; how have I earned my keep; what have I done that justifies the space I take up on this earth?’ So hear that word: God delights in you.
Almost forty years ago, Carol Gilligan published a groundbreaking gender study called In a Different Voice, in which she wrote about some of the struggles women have in feeling as though they count. She talked about how, when we’re born, we think we’re the center of the world. Everything revolves around us. Then, Gilligan wrote, as life goes on, most women learn that life is supposed to be about the other, usually a man. They’re socialized to relinquish a sense of their own importance, and to make the man, or men, the center of their lives. And what Gilligan said, essentially, was that women needed to remember something crucial: that they deserve to be in the circle of those who are entitled to receive care.
I suspect it’s not just women who have too often shunted their own desires and needs off to the side, having internalized the conviction that it’s someone else, and really only someone else, who deserves that care. I suspect that way of looking at the world is endemic in so many of us. It’s not we who are deserving. It’s not we who are worthy. It’s them. It’s somebody else. It’s those others.
When God takes delight in Jesus at his baptism, when God takes delight in us at our baptisms, it’s God wrapping us in holy arms of affection and declaring that we are indeed deserving, we are indeed worthy. That’s not to say we should be self-centered and egotistical and arrogant. It’s only to say that we, too, are worthy of being included in the circle of care that everyone deserves. Your task, my task, is to receive that bottomless affection.
Unlike the other accounts of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew and Mark, here in Luke it says that after Jesus is baptized, he immediately starts praying (3:21). Prayer is vitally important in Luke’s vision of what it means to live a full and joyful life. And it may be that there’s no more vital dimension to prayer than basking in God’s delight in us. We, too, deserve to be in the circle of care, both God’s and each other’s.
And just as crucial as our absorbing the fierce embrace of God is our being the conveyors of that love to those around us. It’s as we pass on the delight God takes in us to those we encounter that we are part of God’s great drama of love. There is no more vital dimension of faith than blessing each other the way God blesses us.
Arthur Kleinman is an anthropologist and physician who suggests that “giving and receiving care are what we are made for.” Kleinman writes about how, after his wife, Joan, developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and began not always to believe him when he told her that he was her beloved husband, he learned to take her hand and kiss it, assuring her that she was loved and that he was who he said he was. . .. Others took their cues from him. Once when Joan wandered out of the family circle in a busy subway station, her five-year-old granddaughter took her hand, kissed it as she had seen her grandfather do, and gently led her back. . .. Through the giving and receiving of care each is made and remade.”
If, as Kleinman says, so many of the challenges of our lives are crises of care, what difference would it make, he asks, “if we understood the suffering of migrants and asylum seekers as a failure of care?” For Kleinman, it’s a “bedrock of our humanity [that] we are here to care.”
Caring, for Kleinman, involves turning toward each other, facing each other, taking each other in. And sometimes it’s very hard. “Early in his training as a doctor, [he] was required [one day] to bear witness to unbearable suffering. . .. His job was to sit and hold the hand of a badly burned seven-year-old girl as she was lowered into a whirlpool bath to have her wounds debrided. Kleinman tried to distract her from this torment, to turn her attention in another direction, but she screamed and struggled and begged for help. Finally, he asked her: What is this like for you? And she gathered herself and told him. That little girl taught him what he calls a ‘clinical truth’: that a relationship of emotional and moral resonance can be built between a doctor and a patient more by focusing on what is actually happening than by turning away from it,” more by honoring another person’s reality than by trying to distract them from it.
And Stephanie Paulsell, in commenting on Kleinman’s book, says, “We all need environments that support our capacity to ask one another: What is this like for you?” This sort of care, this sort of blessing, this sort of love is what’s at the heart of our life together on this planet. (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/faith-matters/giving-and-receiving-care-are-what-we-re-made?utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=7af3bca485-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_EdPicks_2022_01_04_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-7af3bca485-85603527).
Remember Michael Pollan’s pithy counsel on how to eat—“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”? Given the richness of the baptisms of Jesus and of you and me, you may have wondered how we might sum up the insanely, majestically beautiful faith in which we are privileged to share. What about this: Trust God. Bless each other. Love well. That’s what Jesus is all about. And it’s what we might be all about, as well. Say it with me, repeating after me, one phrase at a time: Trust God. Bless each other. Love well.