A joyful, godly life should be our gratitude to God

  • December 30, 2009
Baptism of the Lord (Year C) Jan. 10 (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 104; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22)

It is difficult to read this passage from Isaiah without hearing the strains of Handel’s Messiah. These beautiful verses from Isaiah’s “book of comfort” fell on welcome ears — those of the exiles in Babylon. The suffering is over and done with; all of the negativity is in the past. No “blood and thunder” from God here, only tender speech and the image of a shepherd gathering and caring for the sheep. God has not forgotten them and God is not against them.

But there is also a challenge. Might, power and recompense suggest that God is once again going to be Israel’s champion against her enemies. But the future will hold very few crushing victories and Israel will be battered around by competing superpowers such as Persia, the Greeks and finally the Romans.

God’s comfort is meant for renewal of a people rather than a political entity. Probably the most enduring line of the passage is the command to Israel (under the names Zion and Jerusalem) to act as a herald bearing good tidings. And we could all use some good news for it sometimes seems to be in short supply. But the good news here is something simple and profound: Here is your God!

In a world where belief in God is increasingly difficult for many people, the greatest gift that we can give is to proclaim God in a way that is credible, consoling and joyful. Proclaiming God in our own age must transcend mere words and creeds. It must not divide, exclude or do violence in any way, but offer hope, encouragement and meaning. That was the mission of Jesus and it caused dissension and controversy ultimately led to His death. But that proclamation would be no less contentious and controversial today.

Goodness and loving kindness are in effect names for Jesus, who is the absolute manifestation of God’s grace. His life, death and resurrection were so that all might receive salvation. Best of all, the salvation that He brought for us was not something that we earned or to which we have a right. If it were then we would undoubtedly be arrogant and possessive in our attitude and possibly contemptuous of those deemed to be our spiritual inferiors. But it is a gift and has to be accepted as such by a humble admission of weakness and failure to live up to the image of God in which we were created. This is not a shortcut by any means for Jesus teaches us the proper way to live a godly life. A transformed life is a good indication that we have truly accepted His gift into our hearts and responded to the grace. A joyful and godly life is the best way that we can give back to God in gratitude.

The fact that Jesus was baptized at the hands of John the Baptist was a source of puzzlement and concern for the first Christians. John’s baptism was one of repentance. What need would Jesus, being sinless, have of such a baptism? Each of the four evangelists tells the story in a different way in an attempt to explain it — Luke glosses over the fact that the baptism was at the hands of John and even states that he had already been arrested.

But there are other aspects to baptism, such as initiation and illumination. Jesus shared our human experience and for Him baptism was a turning point in His life — no turning back after this. This point is made clear by the fact that Jesus was praying after the baptism — a point made only by Luke. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is always found in prayer at critical points in His life. The voice of God has made the identity and mission of Jesus clear to Him. From this point forward His eyes will be fixed on Jerusalem, the city of His destiny. And John the Baptist hints at something far greater, for by His baptism, life and death Jesus will unleash the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our own baptism shares in the mission of Jesus and is far more than a way of “being saved.” It is a call to discipleship, service and living in harmony with the will of God.