Toorak Uniting Church

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God is with us

Isaiah 42: 1 – 9     Matthew 3: 13 – 17
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10:15am, 9 January 2005

There has been a lot of talk about God in the last two weeks and a lot of talk about charity, aid, compassion and servant-hood too. Even the papers were full of God talk and we were kept posted on the amount of aid pledged by nations all over the world on a daily basis.

In a way I found it awesome to see what happens when the global village is collectively moved to do something about the hurt and suffering of some of its citizens. The amount of funds made available in just over a week mind boggling. I’ve felt moved to tears by some of the reports about what people went through, about heroic efforts and smaller but life changing actions of people.

However, at the same time to me there was an uncomfortable side to it too. A side I still haven’t completely figured out for myself.

Was it the media coverage? Hour to hour reports on too much devastation and heartbreak to take in? Was it the competition element that seemed to slip into the aid effort to drive up the amount of aid pledged? Was it the cynic in me that suspects others will go without aid now there is such a visible and obvious cause to put our efforts into? Won’t funds just be redirected? Away from other hotspots where the hurt and suffering has not become less because elsewhere there is now more? Was it because I don’t completely trust sudden outbursts of compassion and wonder what will happen when the hype has died down? What will happen when the television crews have found another disaster to report on and our papers will once again be filled with more local news?

In a way I feel I shouldn’t even be thinking this! Let alone say it! It is however, I think, pertinent to the passages we read from scripture today. So I hope you’re prepared to bear with me…..

And then there was the question of God and where he was in all this. Addressed by several prominent and less prominent theologians of different religious persuasions, on the discussion pages of the Age and even in our local rag I noticed on Wednesday. Everybody suddenly seemed to be talking about God! And that, as I said in the nine o’clock service last week, made me uncomfortable too. Because God to me is not the answer to a philosophical question. He is a very personal, intimate and living reality and for me there is no question as to "where God was". I know God is with me when I suffer, so I trust God is with those who suffered in the Tsunami, or in any other time or place when things get tough for that matter. I know God as a loving God, so it is inconceivable for me that he would have anything to do with causing so much grief. I know Gods power as something that is beyond comprehension, but I also know it is a power that works in small rather inconspicuous ways rather than spectacular interventions and that it lets nature usually run its course.

Something a colleague of mine wrote on the internet this week stuck, and I would like to share it with you.
He said: When I lost my wife and my son a couple of years ago I discovered to my surprise that everybody was asking the why question except me. I was in there and I knew God was with me. He was with me, around me, inside me, carrying me, holding me, keeping me all at the same time. I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that God was there and hurt even more than I did. And that’s why I came through.
And because there were people that were prepared to stay with me, support me and hear me out.
I hope he said, that it may be the same for the people that have been hit by the Tsunami. That there will be people to support them, stay with them and hear them out and I know God will be there with them, and God will suffer with them and God will pull them through.
Not that there are no questions, but I know that somehow, there is something beyond questioning that is able to carry us through.

A statement of faith.

I thought back to Christmas where another statement of faith came to us about a God who came down from high heaven to be with his people, who became part of human life from the very beginning right until past the very end, sharing human life in all its frailness and fragility.

A statement of faith that is repeated today when we come to the river Jordan to hear of Jesus’ baptism.

Up till now in Matthew, Jesus has been pictured as the new Moses, who has come to fulfil the prophecies of old, who has come as the suffering servant Isaiah longingly looked forward to, called by God to lead his people to his Kingdom.

Born in Bethlehem as was foresaid by the prophet Micah, Kings from the east have come to worship him. As Moses he is saved from the murderous intentions of a cruel King. And as Moses he starts his journey as servant of God from Egypt. He comes to the banks of the river Jordan to be baptised, the story of Moses leading the people of Israel through the waters of the red sea echoing in the background.

But there is more here than Moses. Heaven opens; indicating that for a moment in this man the distance between heaven and earth is brought back to zero. The dove coming down from heaven reminding us of Noah and the big flood, the dove indicating that finally, here, in this man, the Holy Spirit has found dry ground in a world that is drowning. The voice claiming him for God as his beloved resonating with prophecies of Isaiah about the servant King that was promised.

There is a wealth here of references and implications, of symbolism and layers and layers of meaning, all coming together in that one moment where the Son of God lets himself be submerged in the waters of the river of repentance and rises again to receive Gods affirmation of his calling. "This is my son, my beloved……" and trained ears would have heard immediately the words of Isaiah 42 in that statement: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights, he will bring forth justice for the nations, he will not lift his voice, he will not break the bruised reed or quench the dimly burning wick, he will not grow faint or be crushed until justice has been established in all the earth."

I can’t baptise you!

John the Baptist, portrayed by Matthew as the last of the prophets, wearing their dress, eating their food and repeating their penetrating call for repentance only takes one look at Jesus and knows what the voice from heaven will later on confirm: Here is one that is more than me…..

Jesus then gives him a very intriguing answer: You and me, we have to fulfil righteousness he says. Now how would Jesus be able to fulfil righteousness, to put things right, by submitting himself to John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance in the river Jordan? There is pretty much a consensus among interpreters that Jesus never sinned. So he didn’t need to repent nor did he need to be cleansed. He was more than John could ever be, so why ask for baptism?

I think, reading this story against the background of the story of Christmas where Luke and Matthew both told us about a God who chooses to be with people on the margins, where life is tough and under threat, this, once again is about that same mind boggling concept: The right thing for the Son of God is to humiliate himself and submit himself to treatment he does not need or deserve. The right thing for the Son of God is to come to the river of repentance and go under in it together with those who he has come to save, to die and rise again. Jesus does not shy away from any of the difficult bits of life, he’s right there, in the middle of them, nearly drowning like most of us.

Scripture tells us that that is the right way for the servant whom is upheld by God, and in whom he will delight. Here is somebody that will not crush the bruised reed or quench the burning wick, here is somebody that will live justice and be a light to all the nations.

The Son of God comes down to the river and asks for baptism. He doesn’t need a change in lifestyle, nor does he need a new start in life, although this baptism does herald the beginning of his ministry. It is something else that happens here. Jesus descends in solidarity to the place where others have come with a burden, the place where the frailty and fallibility of people come to the surface and are taken off them, to a place where they are healed. And he identifies with them, with the people who know there are things in their lives that perhaps aren’t quite right, that maybe not all is as good as it may seem, that life in all its ambiguity has not left them unscathed. And he steps into the water with them, is washed, dunked under, and hauled up to the surface spluttering.

Then there is the dove, and the voice. Showing that this is where the Holy Spirit wants to take up permanent residency, that this is the man after God’s heart. A blameless man who is prepared to descend into the depths with others and share their fate and face their shortcomings with them.

Now, you may ask, what has all that to do with the Tsunami and the question of God we started with?

For me the story connects in two places there:

In the first place there is that mixed response that kept bothering me and may be bothering you too. The disappointing and quite unsettling feeling that nothing is straightforward in this world, not even charity. There are the real compassion, the generous sharing and deep felt distress of many in the face of so much suffering and loss. At the same time however there are all the other agendas that have swung into action the minute the disaster struck: Economic, politic, egoistic, egocentric aspects of it that make it a mixed bag at best. I think we would be kidding ourselves if we pretended all of that isn’t part of it too.

It is there that I see Jesus, the servant God is proud of and pleased with, Gods Son, come to the waters of Jordan with us to wash off all that is impure, unreal, and not quite straight. Coming with us to look at our imperfection realistically. Sort out with us which is which and offering us a new start. Telling us that God is there with us when we come to the river Jordan and face our shortcomings and our guilt; God is there when our failures come to light, and is prepared to stand with us when we face up to them and help us to turn around and change our lifestyle with the help and support of the Holy Spirit.

Then I see Jesus as he goes under.
God is with us where the going gets tough. God in Jesus Christ is prepared to descend even into the depths of death itself to pull us through. God is also there with us when we feel we might drown in misery and grief, be it of our own making or through the hands of others, nature or illness and will carry us through to the surface, to light and life and love as he did Jesus.

God is there, not in thunder and lightning and spectacular intervention, but where we need him most and life is at its toughest. When we have to face our shortcomings and imperfections we find him next to us, when life gets tough and we feel as if we are drowning we find him carrying us through, when death comes near and every hope seems to be lost we find him on the other side of grief. That’s where God is, that’s what God is, a power for justice, a bringer of light, a giver of new life. A personal, intimate and quite considerable force who invites us to become part of his future. A future where there will be no more tears, no more dying and no more guilt. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2005

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