January 11, 2009 - First Sunday after Epiphany
I bought Beth one of those digital frames for Christmas. Before I wrapped it, I loaded it with fifty or sixty photos of our daughters when they were little. When she opened it on Christmas morning, I turned it on and watched Beth just begin to sob as she sat and saw a slide show of her precious babies posing by the Christmas tree, playing at the beach, hanging from trees and blowing out birthday candles. You may know the feeling. Especially at times when we see them growing up healthy and happy and doing well, our children bring us so much pleasure. We’re so pleased with them it’s enough to make us weep.
That experience of human pleasure in a child gives us insight into the divine life of God on that day when Jesus rose up dripping wet out of the Jordan River, water streaming down His beard. Like any parent at a baptism or a birthday or a graduation, God looked down on His Son with love and pleasure.
We recently read the first five verses of our text, on the second Sunday of Advent last month. We remembered how John the Baptist appeared to prepare the way for the One who would come after him, as he says in verse 7. Literally, verse 4, which introduces John begins, “It came to pass that John was in the desert…” Then after we hear John’s message, verse 9 literally begins, “And it came to pass at that time that Jesus came…” First John “came to pass” in this world, then Jesus “came to pass.”
We’re meant in this text to see the contrast between John and Jesus. The Baptist was merely the preparation, the setting of the stage, the warm-up act, as I said last month. He was always looking ahead. John’s message in verse 7 is, “After me will come one more powerful than I.” Then in verse 9 we read, “at that time Jesus came.” John gives the prophecy in the future tense, one “will come,” but then the fulfillment of that prophecy arrives, past tense, “Jesus came!”
In this Gospel the very first appearance of Jesus is at His own baptism. As far as Mark is concerned, that’s when Jesus arrived. Mark skips Christmas, skips the baby scene in the temple and the childhood visit to Jerusalem, and begins right here, with Jesus coming to John to be baptized. For Mark, Jesus’ baptism is the start of the story of the Messiah, the beginning of the good news, the inauguration of our salvation.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all give us the story of the baptism of Jesus. Mark’s version, as it is at other points of the Gospel, is the briefest. Yet the essential elements found in all three gospels are right here in verses 9 and 11. After the baptism, 1) the heavens were opened 2) the Spirit came down on Jesus like a dove 3) a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” Those three elements are the very roots of our salvation, the elements of just how it is that the man known as Jesus Christ saves you and me.
The heavens were opened. From the very first human sin, barriers went up between God and human beings. After Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, an angel guarded the way back. Human beings lived on earth and God in heaven, and they could meet no longer. The door was closed. But when Jesus came, heaven was opened.
Because of our sin, you and I can’t open heaven’s door. We’re like people locked out of an apartment building or some other secure facility, waiting for someone else to come out so that we can catch the open door and go in. That’s exactly what the coming of Jesus did for us. He came down from heaven, deliberately leaving the door swinging open behind Him so that you and I could enter.
So the first aspect of Jesus’ baptism, the opening of heaven, is an image God’s reopening of the door that had been locked by sin. Mark adds the detail that heaven was torn open. Jesus not only opened the door, He broke the lock and ripped it off its hinges. Through Jesus, the way back to God was forever and permanently opened. That’s part of what Jesus’ baptism means for us. But how did that happen? How did Jesus break the lock of sin, opening the door to God for you and me?
Why did Jesus’ arrival on earth reopen the way for us into the joy of heaven? Let’s look at the second crucial element of Jesus’ baptism. The Holy Spirit came down on Jesus like a dove. The Spirit came down upon Jesus to stay. From that moment on, Jesus was filled with and guided by God’s Spirit. And that is different from the way the Spirit came down on people before Jesus.
In the Old Testament we see the Spirit coming and going. When all is well in a person’s life, the Spirit comes. But when sin arises, the Spirit goes away. In Psalm 51 verse 11, after his sin, we hear David praying, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” That’s what sin does. It removes our ability to be in God’s presence, to have His Spirit with us. But for the sinless Son of God, the Spirit was there to stay. Jesus enjoyed divine presence without interruption. By becoming human, Jesus restored what we lost in sin. He restored the capability to be in and enjoy the presence of God.
And Jesus was able to transfer His ability to have the Spirit always with Him to you and me. By becoming one of us, He opened for us the possibility of the continual presence of God, the constant filling of the Holy Spirit and eternal relationship with God in heaven. He did that through the third element of His baptism: He pleased God.
In sin, we fail to please God. Constantly, over and over. O.K., we can still do some good, still manifest some kindness or love or wisdom, please God a little. But it’s mixed. Over and over, we do that which disappoints those we love, even disappoints our own selves. We constantly do that which is displeasing to God. Because of sin, we are a constant disappointment to our holy and perfect Father. So by becoming the first human being ever to completely please God, Jesus made it possible for us to truly and fully please God.
Imagine a few things, please. First, imagine that you have a child you love very much—that will take more or less imagining, depending on your situation, of course.
Second, imagine you dislike lawyers. Again the amount of imagination needed will vary. But suppose that you do pretty much despise the legal profession. You think lawyer jokes are funny, like the one about the devil coming to a lawyer with this offer: “I will arrange a wonderful future for you. Your clients will love you. You will win all your cases. You will make five times what you make now. You will be able to take four months of vacation each year. You will live to be a hundred. All that I need in return is that the souls of your wife and of your children and of your grandchildren will rot in hell for eternity.”
The lawyer thinks about it for a moment and then asks, “Where’s the catch?”
So you think that’s funny. And you think that Shakespeare’s line in Henry VI about how to make the world better is right on, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” You really don’t like lawyers. Imagine it.
Now imagine this. Your beloved, adored, precious child becomes a lawyer. You could turn your back on your child, reject her for taking up a career you utterly disdain. You might never speak to her again. But what’s more likely? It’s more likely that your mind will start to change about lawyers. You will see them in a new light. You will find things to like about them, even to admire. Your love for your child transfers to others in her profession. You feel good not only about her, but a bit better about all attorneys. You might even be willing to have one over for dinner. All because your child is now herself a lawyer.
The Son of God becoming a human being was like your child becoming a lawyer. The eternally beloved, precious child of God the Father became one of those poor, wretched, despicable creatures that you and I are. And in the process, the divine Child changed the whole outlook for humanity in relation to His heavenly Father. God can see us differently because His own Child is now one of us.
When heaven opened and God looked down upon that scene in a little river flowing south through Palestine, God saw for the first time since creation a human being that pleased Him, that totally and completely without reservation pleased Him. That pleasing human being was His own Son. In that moment things changed for everyone. God could be pleased not just with Jesus, but with anyone. By becoming human, Jesus changed us, making us into beings that did not need to offend God, but could actually please Him.
Which all means that Jesus saved us by making possible a wonderful, heavenly, Spirit-filled destiny of pleasing God for eternity and enjoying God’s divine approval.
In his essay, “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis speaks of the joy and blessing of pleasing God. He talks about the joy of the rare and happy opportunity to innocently and sincerely please someone we love. Whether it’s giving that absolutely perfect Christmas gift or cooking a good dinner or saying just the right thing at a difficult time, there is a deep and profound joy in pleasing someone we care about.
Of course, as Lewis notes, those moments of pleasing someone else get mixed up with all sorts of other motives. We may please someone for what we hope to get in return, or with a strong mixture of self-admiration. But at its best, the feeling we get in giving pleasure to a person we love is a clue to our destiny. As Lewis wrote, it is a clue to our glory:
I read in periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important… To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in his son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.
The pleasure of God in His Son at Jesus’ baptism is the sign and promise of the pleasure that God means to have in everyone who becomes His child through faith in Jesus. Imagine how it felt for Jesus to hear those words of love and approval spoken over Him. The great good news is that God means for us all to have that kind of feeling, that kind of joy in knowing the heavenly Father’s love and approval.
All that’s left for me to say is to invite you to live into that glory, that joy which waits for you just through the door Jesus opened into heaven. Instead of all the puny little pleasures and minor triumphs we so often strive for in this world, let’s seek the greater glory, the greater joy, the greatest happiness. Let’s seek to please God.
Remember there is only one way for you and I to please God. Jesus opened heaven’s door for us. Jesus brings down the Holy Spirit to guide us and show us how we can live God-pleasing lives. Jesus made our humanity into something that can finally and truly give pleasure to our Father in heaven. Without Jesus, we’re all as bad as lawyers to God, sinners He can’t bear to be with. But because His Son is one of us, He gladly welcomes us into His presence, and will be pleased with us.
So let’s live to give God the pleasure He means to have in us. Let’s demonstrate the love and kindness to each other which bring Him joy as He observes us. Let’s study and delve into His Word in a way that makes Him happy with how we listen to Him. Let’s learn to believe and rely on Him in difficult times so as to please Him with our trust. And let’s give to Him whatever we have to offer, both of ourselves and of our resources, so as to bless our Father as He always blesses us, with good gifts offered in unselfish love.
God the Father looked down through that open door in heaven, sent down the gift of the Holy Spirit, and was well pleased with His beloved Son. May we live so that He can look down us, send us His Spirit, and be pleased with us. By the grace of His first beloved Child, may you and I also be His beloved children.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj