With you I am well pleased
SERMON: 1 Lent B 2 18 18
A voice came down from heaven and said, "You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
There is debate among students of the Gospels about who actually heard this voice from heaven. Today's version was reported in the Gospel of Mark.
In the Gospel of John it was related, "And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'
Luke wrote, "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Finally, Matthew's version was, "And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
It can be argued that in Mark the voice from heaven is heard only by Jesus, since only Jesus saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending like a dove. In Luke there appears to be no exclusion; probably all who were there heard it, and in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist (or Baptizer) relates, "the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And that in Matthew it appears the heavens were opened only to Jesus and therefore what follows, including God's words, were heard only by Jesus.
It may matter; it may not. But think about this: two versions imply Jesus alone heard it; in another there is no reference to limited hearing, so all hear; and in one John the Baptist asserts that God directed the baptism of His Son, meaning Jesus was not the only one who heard God.
As with much Bible study, we learn a lot when we look at how the Gospels approach the same subject differently. When we more closely explore each feature of each version we find some aspects of one appeal more than others. But there is a central truth in all this that really drives home the most important point: this event was confirmed by four sources working with different information. But they all came to the same conclusion: that God established that Jesus was God's son, the Beloved, with whom God was well pleased.
Not that we had any doubts or even reservations, right? Not that any of us ever wondered if he was just a really gentle and pastoral soul who ministered to a really needy people a couple of thousand years ago. Oh, no.
In terms of Biblical confirmation, this is pretty solid. This is like the old Ivory soap ads: "Ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredths per cent pure.
Well that's just great about Jesus, isn't it? Parenthood and parental satisfaction declared. We suspected as much, now it's confirmed.
But wait just a minute. What is it we say about Christians, anyway? What is it we declare every Sunday in our Post-Eucharistic Prayer?
"Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your son our Savior Jesus Christ..." This means we are part of Christ, doesn't it? It means we accept that charge and that we believe God has asserted it. Sooooo.....
While you are left contemplating this matter for a bit, let me relate a story.
Just before Bishop Andy Dietsche was ordained our bishop a few years back the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, led the clergy of the diocese in a day of reflection, meditation and prayer at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In her guidance of our time together the Presiding Bishop asked that we use this morning's Gospel to focus on God's being well pleased with Jesus. She then asked us to reflect on what that meant for us as the church, the Body of Christ.
If God is well pleased with Jesus, what does that suggest God's pleasure quotient with us is?
On page 854 of our Book of Common Prayer in the section of the Catechism titled, "The Church," the question is asked: "How is the Church described in the Bible? The answer is, "The Church is described as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the head and of which all baptized persons are members."
This is a pretty strong clue.
When the clergy of the diocese was sitting with the Presiding Bishop just prior to Bishop Andy's ordination she asked us to meditate on what God was saying about Jesus. We did and we spoke about what we thought it meant for a while. Then she asked us to think about it in a new context: that God was speaking about us, the Body of Christ, the Church. With whom God is well pleased.
You could have heard a pin drop. Or a feather, it seemed, the clergy became so quiet.
But we did think about it. And we thought about it some more. And clergy started to speak about what it meant to them. About being well pleasing to God. Despite our flaws. Despite our shortcomings and our failures. Despite our need to recite the Litany of Penitence every Ash Wednesday. God not only loves us. God is well pleased with us.
What we came away with after that session with the Presiding Bishop was a new understanding of our relationship with God. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori gave us a new way to look at God's relationship with humanity, God's relationship with us. Many of us realized that we spend no insignificant amount of time being mindful of how much we might or must have disappointed God. That is not the point with this exercise, we were told. We are to think of how it is that God is well pleased with us. When we did we were lifted up, refreshed, empowered to live into this new understanding of God. God, who is well pleased with us.
Did you like that? Did you like that idea? That notion that how we look at the Bible can be influenced by multiple sources, or different perspectives?
Now consider this: did you anticipate starting Lent with a notion like this? Or were you expecting starting Lent with a list of all the old things you should give up, all the new behaviors you should adopt? Isn't the idea of Lent, recognized as a season of penitence and fasting, equally susceptible to and capable of giving up an understanding of God that is dissatisfied with us? Assuming the view that God delights in us?
Now we know that the Gospel reading doesn't end with God being well-pleased with Jesus, I mean us. No, it continues with "...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."
That is our charge as well. We are to identify our wilderness and venture forth into it, gladly carrying the Good News to those we encounter on the way. Our wilderness may be the same territory we traverse every day, but carrying the Good News and proclaiming the Gospel into it is not our usual modus operandi. But that is what we are called to do.
We are called to carry the saving news of God's love for us in Jesus to those we know and those we don't, those we meet and those we would ordinarily avoid, and to do it with the conviction and commitment that Noah showed when he built the ark and loaded it with all the species of the earth. This business of saving, of salvation, is God's business, yes. But we are God's agents, we are members of Christ. And we're not talking about members like members of a Rotary or a Yacht Club. We're talking about members like our own members: arms, legs, hands, and feet.
In this light I was reminded the other day of how it is that God's work gets done. I was at the gym and I recognized one of the friends of St. Paul's who was helping an older man on the weight machines. We chatted briefly and I realized that the guy had some kind of cognition problem. It turned out he was an Alzheimer's patient, a gym employee told me.
I was really impressed that someone who is not a health care professional was helping him get his exercise. I asked Pastor Deborah about it and she said that the helper just likes to give the man's wife an afternoon off now and again and takes him to the gym. It reminded me of a poem a rabbi friend in Pensacola Florida once shared with me:
We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that find us even when we are hidden from ourselves.
We are touched by fingers that soothe us even when we are too proud for soothing.
We are counseled by voices that guide us even when we are too embittered to hear.
We are loved by an unending love.
We are supported by hands that uplift us even in the midst of a fall.
We are urged on by eyes that meet us even when we are too weak for meeting.
We are loved by an unending love.
Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled: ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices, ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;
We are loved by an unending love. Amen
A sermon preached Feb. 18, 2018 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector