It seems unlikely, from reading Scripture, that God is going to win any parenting awards. By the time of the New Testament, it is several hundred years since God has said anything nice to Israel. According to tradition, it was several hundred years since God had said anything at all to Israel. But if you’re familiar with Scripture, it is extremely difficult to find instances of God saying something nice about the nation he refers to as his own child.
As a parent – we’re constantly told – affirmation is a crucial part of bringing a child up. For the child’s sake as much as anyone else’s. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot in the way of fatherly affirmation when you read Scripture… Yes – there are occasional examples in the Old Testament, of God expressing his love for Israel. His commitment to Israel. His promise to bless Israel. His pain at what Israel – his own son – has done to him. So in Hosea, a broken hearted God splutters out the words, “how can I give you up?” But none of this – none of this counts as affirmation – a simple, “well done.”
And then, one day – beyond all imagining – a voice is heard, not from an angry, bearded prophet, not on the words of a scroll, but directly– straight from heaven – the Father who is impossible to please, speaks. “This one man is my son, and I am well-pleased with him.” Where did that come from? When Homer Simpson one day decides to start being nice to his son, Bart – poor Bart is terrified and runs a mile because he assumes it’s all some elaborate ploy to exert an even more abusive form of discipline…
If we are honest with a text like this, it raises serious questions about the identity of God and about the identity of his children. And to answer that question – we have to hear the context.
Peasants,priests, a king, and even a devil, referred to Jesus as the 'Son of God'. And lots of people then and now, mean lots of different things by the title ‘Son of God’. But there was one meaning the phrase certainly did not have in first centuryPalestine: the idea that the Son of God was literally, the second person of theTrinity, the pre-existing divinity who had parachuted into human existence for a generation or so.
If there is anything universal about the title, it would be the belief that the Son of God is God’s representative on earth. For the Romans, the Son of God was a title reserved for the emperor himself. So, when people say Jesus is the son of God,there is likely to be trouble from Rome.
But for Jewish people the Son of God was a phrase from their own cultural history. Not least, it was their own name. From the earliest days, through the prophets of Israel and up to the present time,the descendants of Abraham were often called, as a people, 'the Son of God'. For Jewish people as well, the King –in his representative role – would sometimes be called the ‘Son of God’. In the nation of Israel, under Roman occupancy, anyone claiming to be the Son of God will soon find themselves attracting a lot of attention.
So – imagine again, the scene of the baptism: the river Jordan. One man is ducked below the surface ofthe water – and when he comes up again – the voice from heaven says, “This one man is my Son.” In other words –this one man – not an entire nation – but now, all that is left of faithful Israel is this sole, individual figure. This one man is my son! Not Israel. Not Caesar. But this lowly peasant.
In a time when Son of God was a controversial title for which Israel and Rome were competing – into the middle of it all a young builder from up north arrives, and down comes this affirmation of fatherly pride from heaven. It would be like me, when I take my boys to a football match– announcing to the parents of the home team and the away team: ‘Don’t worry –the footballer has arrived. The one true footballer – who’s going to put the rest of you to shame!” … (Shshsh). Oh dear – once again it’s hardly a picture of good parenting. In the Simpsons narrative … at this point (translated into church-english), Bart is saying “No offence dad, but your half-baked under-parenting was a lot more fun than your half-baked over parenting.”
So, the spotlight has fallen well and truly upon Jesus asthe Son of God. You notice that, as the Gospel unfolds, when the demons call him the Son of God, Jesus silences them… But here, God has announced it from the heavens. Still – there is good reason. The crowd who are present are all supporters of Jesus.
Still – this was a crowd that was not armed with guitars, bibles and Christian smiles. This was a crowd armed with AK47s and a hunger for justice – for liberty from the Roman empire. The last time Israel as a whole came through the River Jordan, it was to conquer the promised land. And that – if you read the narrative – was an extremely violent affair… How else could you be the Son of God in the world? The whole expectation that is placed upon Jesus at his baptism is a long way from what we today, would expect to see at a baptismal crowd:
There were no people bristling with pride that this individual has now ticked the box of becoming a fully rounded adult who was going to get on well in the world: By being Baptised – Jesus has declared war upon the Romans, and he has declared that Israel – as it currently stands – is no longer the true Israel. By being baptised in the river Jordan – Jesus – as all of Israel in one man – is announcing a new era, a new way of being Israel. What kind of a future is he going to have when he has declared war upon Rome, and denounced Israel?
And there were no people thinking that this is a pointless, spiritual act for people who have performed the necessary mental gymnastics to make themselves believe in a non-existent god. That thought would be a long way from their mind… This is not a pointless, toothless spirituality. This is a radical act of political defiance – that commits you to a life that will bring you into conflict with the powers that be as you fight for justice.
That is the context for the baptism of Jesus… and it relates to our own context in fairly straightforward ways. Today’s baptism is not a spiritual transaction that God requires in order for you to get the ink on a contract guaranteeing your place in heaven when you die. To major on that valid aspect of baptism, is to distort it altogether. To be baptised, is to commit yourself to become a part of that son of God – part of the Body of Christ – to become an active limb in seeking to bring justice to a world that lacks it.
Christians would not be so obnoxious as to think this is the only way of seeking justice. But it is a very particular way of working for justice. The Romans tried to bring justice and fairness and light to the world in their own particular way: by using power. The Jewish resistance movements –expected justice to come by other means, taking up arms against their oppressors – another means of seeking justice.
But in Jesus, the way of seeking to change the world – is by worshipping this God who is in the business of changing people’s lives. This is not the attempt to change the world by seizing power (although the church has tried to do this). It is not the attempt to change the world by simply opposing power. No - This is the attempt to bring justice by powerlessness. By bringing all that we are and have and hope for – to spill out into the presence of the God of Israel. And that is what Christians mean by worship.
To be baptised, is to commit your way of life to this God. But the question then resurfaces: what kind of God is it that we commit ourselves to in Baptism? The under-parenting, distant, disapproving and dis-affirming father? Like we see in the Old Testament? Or the over-parenting, all-too-proud, my kids-are-always-in-the-right God of the New Testament?
It is worth, once again, looking at the crowd present at the Baptism. As Israel-in-one-person – Jesus brings a whole nation through a baptismal act. Even for jesus, baptism was a communal act. Those who are baptised, says Paul, are baptised into the body of Christ. Baptised to become an active limb in that body – which is why baptism is followed up with membership…
And this – is how Christians encounter the word and the will and the love of God. If we want to believe that the only word that God speaks, is the word we find in Scripture – then we are left with a pretty unpleasant picture of God. But according to Scripture, God speaks in many and various ways. In scripture – we read that the Word Became Flesh. And it is in the body of Christ, that the word becomes flesh – that God’s word becomes real to us.
This is how God has created us to live with one another. It is not Good for Adam to be alone, says God in the creation story. We were not created to live in isolation from one another – but to find ourselves in relationship with other people.
So within this body of people, if we function well – then we do affirm one another, we do seek to encourage each other and build one another up. In this body of people, we discover something of who we are. Sometimes we will discover things about ourselves we don’t want to hear or know. But sometimes, we will receive the affirmation that builds us up. Not simply to feed our ego.
When we are baptised into the body of Christ, we are baptised into Christ’s way of being. That is – one that is anointed to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release captives and to proclaim the time of God’s favour.
To be baptised then, is to become part of a community of relationships. And the kind of community that hungers and thirsts for justice. The kind of community that – like Jesus - does not lust after power in order to bring justice. And the kind of community that – like Jesus – does not become obsessed with fighting against injustice.
But the kind of community that seeks to bring justice as a consequence of worshipping God. A community that – if it worships well – will often find itself in conflict with the powers that be. And – if it worships well – will often find itself in deep harmony with the longings and thirst for justice common to all people.
But above all, a community who seeks to reflect ever more clearly, the image of a Father whose identity is revealed in self-giving love. All too often, we – embody the kind of God who is highly unlikely to win any parenting awards. The challenge, and the promise of Baptism - is the call love others in a life-changing, world-changing and self-changing way.
If, by God’s grace, we manage that – then the God we proclaim with our lips might just be a parent worth listening to.