Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 43:10a, 15-21
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he…
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
When I was in seminary learning about the Bible, some read this passage with God’s voice speaking to Jesus from the clouds, as Jesus’ coming of age, so to speak. They argued that for Jesus to be fully human, Jesus was not all-knowing, as in his divine form, so he had to grow into the knowledge of his calling as a human being.
I did not like this interpretation when I heard it. It seemed to fly in the face of everything I thought I knew about God. How could Jesus not know he was God? How could Jesus have to grow into awareness of his calling – as if Jesus was growing & discovering himself, just as you and I do? If Jesus is also divine, then by definition Jesus knows all! And yet by this same logic, as a human, Jesus subjected himself to a human body – complete with brain development and coming-of-age awareness. The fact is that Jesus being both God and human is the very definition of oxymoron. And in fact when you compare Gospel accounts in the Bible, there are those authors who focus on the divinity of Jesus and those who focus more on Jesus’ humanity.
When you compare the Gospel accounts, Mark and Luke both tell the story with God speaking directly to Jesus, before all those witnesses. Matthew, on the other hand, tells the story the way I’d always imagined it, with God’s voice proclaiming to all around that Jesus was God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well-pleased.”
This may be disturbing. Have you noticed that different Biblical authors tell many stories sometimes very differently? Have you noticed contradictions? Have you ever wanted to yell out – “Hey, you guys! Get it together. Did Jesus say or do this or did he not?!”
The Bible is not spoken from one point of view. It is not written by one author. It is a collection of witnesses to God’s presence and work in the world. And like any collection of viewpoints, we find a hearty variety of views and stories within it.
Does this mean that some of the Biblical authors are lying? Does it mean that some are right and some are wrong; that some are accurate and some are mistaken? Does it mean that some were telling the truth while others were following their own agenda?
All these speculations are reasonable. All of them are rational. These are the questions we ask of witnesses in courts, when stories are not lining up, when one witness does not corroborate the next witness.
And yet, could it be possible we sometimes come to the Bible in all the wrong ways?
Today, we judge truth from falsehood based on facts. We require evidence, concrete, objective, empirical evidence. And this is often the mindset we bring to the Bible. This mindset however is new. I imagine it changed when we started being able to record data: when spoken word could be recorded, when stories long told and passed down from generation to generation began to be written down. We’ve started to see the world through the lenses of fact since the creation of the video recorder. We can now look back and SEE what actually took place (or so we think – but some police videos have called this assumption into question). We’ve started to see the world through the lenses of science, more and more, especially taking off with one Albert Einstein.
There was no video camera at the dawn of time. The beginning has been scientifically theorized by many emerging scientists, many with compelling rationale.
How do we know that God created the earth in 7 days?
Is it true? Is it factual?
Is it possible for something to be true without being factual?
In Jewish rabbinic tradition, faith stories were passed down from generation to generation. As stories do, they likely changed, as the storytellers themselves aged, as they told it to new audiences and in new situations. The stories evolved from story-teller to story-teller – each person hearing and thus telling the story in a slightly different way, with a differing take.
There was no way to look back at the recording of God creating the universe. There was no written record of the event. What we have instead is an oral history. And its purpose was not to give facts.
And in fact, facts in and of themselves have limited significance. You can tell a couple the facts of their bodies as they fall in love, but facts are like fluorescent lighting in a bedroom; they shed light on some realities while obscuring others.
Why do we fall in love?
How do we fall in love?
Can facts alone describe the beauty and mystery of compassion and friendship,
forgiveness and new beginnings,
passion and romance?
Facts can deepen our appreciation of the complexity of life, but they also have an end, beyond which we can neither see nor comprehend.
Beyond the known universe of our understanding lies mystery.
Truth stories draw our attention to realities beyond the grasp of the human mind and understanding. Truth stories help us make sense of our world and all that is in it.
And so, going back to our example of the creation story, what we find is a truth story, passed down from generation to generation, telling us that God is God and we are not. It tells us that God is Creator of all that is. It tells us that we are made to be in relationship with God and to live in harmony with all of creation. It points to our own ambition and lack of trust as getting in the way of that sweet relationship with God and this world and of all the pain and suffering that spiral out of our breach of that divinely willed wholeness and completeness.
And as is the magic of all stories, these truth stories are accessible from a wide range of vantagepoints. What a gift! To one recently engaged the story jumps out in one way. To one experiencing the loss of a loved one, the stories jump out in another way. In seasons of pain, we hear stories in one way. In seasons of abundant joy, we hear stories another way. And so God meets us right where we are in story, speaking into our lives with relevance and truth.
And so as we look at this telling of Jesus’ baptism, we can also hear truth– not 20thcentury truth, as measured by facts and evidence, but truth as in the meaning and significance of an event.
Matthew points us to the truth that Jesus is God’s Son, divine, and that the people all around Jesus need to know this. Luke and Mark point us to the truth that Jesus was a human being, and that Jesus may have needed to hear God’s direct word to him, in what appears to be a coming-of-age, coming into awareness moment for Jesus. For Jesus is then driven out into the wilderness, where he goes through 40 days and 40 nights (not necessarily 40 – but 40 as the Jewish culture number symbolizing – A LONG TIME) and is tempted by Satan and waited on by the angels. Was there anyone there recording the events? No. But from this long time in which Jesus endured a great deal of temptation in desert, barren, wild place – both physically and spiritually I imagine – Jesus emerges changed. This story tells us that Jesus went through something, that Jesus was faced with temptation, but that God was with him.
Prior to this transformative moment, we’ve heard only one story of Jesus – of his lingering in the Jerusalem temple, sending his parents into panic-mode.
After this moment, we encounter a Jesus who has purpose, and voice. Jesus proclaims the fulfillment of time and the imminence of God’s Kingdom. Jesus calls disciples. Jesus changes water to wine, heals the sick and lame, and even raises people from the dead.
And so this telling of Jesus’ baptism and wilderness season is a truth story about the process Jesus went through, from which he emerges full of purpose, awareness, vision, voice…
And the different folks witnessing to this truth have told the story in their own voices.
Isn’t it true that sitting around a table together, we all experience a moment differently? Do you recall listening to someone else tell a story and wanting to correct them or add to the story, because you experienced it differently?
We are each unique. We hear and see and experience the very same things in different ways. It is no wonder, these Biblical accounts differ and vary – with each story teller, weaving events in the order and to communicate the messages THEY remember.
Most often I think we see our differences with annoyance. We can’t fathom how someone could see something some way. We cannot imagine how someone reaches the conclusions they have or why they vote the way they do… But our Biblical witness is itself a celebration of our diversity.
Each voice in the Bible,
different as it is,
from different status or means,
different education or background,
in different seasons of life,
whether writing a series of events,
theologizing about those events,
or ministering to the needs of those around them,
whether imparting wisdom on the young,
or poetically waxing on about love…
…each of these voices witnesses to God.
Like Jesus and these Biblical witnesses, we too are called to bear witness to God.
Our rich diversity is part of the wealth we bring to the stories. And it is in the sharing and hearing of these stories, across all our lines and divisions, that we more accurately discern the work and will of God. For our God is not constrained! Our God is out and about! Our God is reaching across oceans and borders; without internet, satellite, or phone line, the Spirit is moving.
May we listen for God everywhere. May we listen to how God is moving and shaking and calling, even those we might otherwise dismiss, whether we think them on the wrong side of the aisle or perhaps the wrong side of the tracks… And may we too witness to God’s incredible work in our own lives. For God is doing a work in and through us, and it’s light and life – not something to be hidden – but something to be shared and multiplied.
God is indeed doing a new thing. It springs forth!
Can we see it?
May we listen and follow, joining in the creative, redemptive work of our God, carrying the torch and shining a light for all those to come.
May it be!