Our Beloved Rabbi Holds the String of Our Faith

January 13th, 2013

Preacher: The Rev Doyt Conn

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

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.”

I am struck by today’s Psalm.  “The voice of the Lord is above the waters. The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice, a voice of splendor. It breaks the cedars, and splits fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness and makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.”

And the voice of the Lord breaks forth from the heaven and comes down in the form of a dove and lands on Jesus in the river Jordan.  And these words are heard from the voice of God, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

As the voice of the Lord alights on Jesus as he comes up out of the water and enters into prayer, it makes me wonder about the baptism of our Lord, how he got there and what it means to us.

So this morning I thought we’d wander back into Jesus’s history and see what brought him to the river Jordan. Then I thought I’d give you a metaphor for what life with God looks like, and finally wrap it all up into the blessing of baptism.

We’ll start with the history. There is a great gap in Jesus life from age 30 back to age 12 or so. He disappears from the record.  So we will start there by taking a look to see where he’d gone.

In the time that Jesus was growing up in Nazareth it was probably a large enough community to sustain a Rabbi.  The Rabbi had a book, the Torah.  And the Torah was a symbol of his authority, though not a necessity for his work, for he knew the entire Torah by heart.  He wasn’t the only one in Nazareth or even Galilee for that matter. In fact, all of the men in the community knew at least a portion it.

This is why, at age 6, all boys in a town would enter the House of the Book. They would gather each morning, six days a week, at the feet of the Rabbi and memorize the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  They would memorize every word of that text.  It is not dissimilar to the educational regiment that exists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran today.

Boys are gathered in Madrassas’ and they memorize the Koran, every word it. This is a 2000 plus year tradition of learning.  It was the type of learning that Jesus did in Nazareth.  He gathered with the other boys and they memorized the Pentateuch.

When they reached the age of 10 the boys were old enough to begin to work with their families as bakers, blacksmiths, fishermen, or carpenters.  But the Rabbi most certainly pulled aside one or two of the fathers and said, “Your boy is bright. I want him to continue to study with me.”  So they moved to the House of Learning at age ten and remained there until age 13 or 14 or so, memorizing the rest of the Bible.  They moved on from the Pentateuch and memorized the major prophets and the minor prophets, the Book of Wisdom, and the Psalms.

And then at age 14 they went off to be a baker, or a blacksmith, or a fisherman, or a carpenter.  If there was a special child, a child with a particular wisdom and depth and intellect, that boy would then be chosen to walk with the Rabbi.  They called this being “yoked” to the Rabbi, where the student would literally follow the Rabbi around as if he were yoked to him like an oxen.

It was a privilege and a burden to be yoked to a Rabbi. He would move with the Rabbi asking, “Why did you eat this way? Why do you sleep like this? Why do you wear these clothes? Why do you say these prayers?”  And so developed schools of Rabbinical thought that are passed down from one generation to the next.

No doubt Jesus was chosen to be yoked to the Rabbi, to walk with the Rabbi.  Jesus walked with the Rabbi from the age of 13 until he became a man to the age of 30.  When the student, in this case Jesus, was ready to become a Rabbi, he picked up his Torah, walked into his new community, and settled down to teach. Then he was ordained.  Which brings us back to the river Jordan.

In the river Jordan we see the ordination of our God and our teacher.  As the tradition dictates, he needs the hands of two Rabbis laid upon his head.  And that is what we see at the river Jordan: Jesus in the water and his cousin, John the Baptist, standing over him, a Rabbi laying his hands on Jesus’ head and ordaining him in the living waters of the river.

And at the same time the hand of God is reaching down out of the sky, settling upon Jesus, in the form of a dove, and a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Ordained.  God and man.  Divine and human.  Wrapped in one beloved Rabbi with a radical new message. He shifts the paradigm from one where God seems to favor the best and the brightest to one where God’s favor rests equally in the belovedness of all people. Jesus remakes the yoke to be easy and light. Yes, people are still chosen, people still have unique gifts and talents, but all are equally valued in the kingdom of God.  This is the message of Rabbi Jesus.

Baptism celebrates this reality of inclusive, equitable belovedness. Today we promise to raise the newly baptized to be aware of this.  And we promise to remind the older people being baptized to see this belovedness in themselves and in others.

Now I would like to paint a picture, a metaphor if you will, that was given to me recently and I’d like to share it with you. It is a picture that contains God and us and faith and freedom, all of which are honored in the service of baptism.

We start with God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, three in one.  We have a relational God.   All three are in the picture. We see a man standing on a hill. There are a few trees and stones.  The rest is wide open field.  The man is flying many kites. That man is Jesus. The wind keeping the kites aloft is the Holy Spirit. The ground is God.  Jesus, the incarnation of God; the Holy Spirit, the breath of God; and God is the ground of all being.

A man on the hill is flying kites.

Now imagine yourself as the kite made with a sturdy frame that is our soul and a fragile sail that is our body, and the string that is our faith.

Now here is where the metaphor demands imagination. As the kite we hold the string.  This is our freedom. We can choose to unfurl it so we can soar or roll it in so we can rest. If you have ever flown a kite you know how it tugs as if it wants to break free and soar up, up, and away. Now imagine if that is how it feels in the hand of the operator, how much more it feels that way to the kite, which, in this picture, has the power to snip the string.

But the reality is that when the line is cut the kite falls.

Jesus is the steady hand of the operator that moves with the kite, running to keep us aloft on windless days, and standing firm when a storm rolls in. And if we reel ourselves down he is there to gently fold us up and lay us on the ground so we can soar another day.

Now in this picture Jesus is holding many kites and yet some are tied to trees and others to stones. And while the trees grow up out of the ground, can they fold the kite and unfurl it to soar another day? And while the stones are broken from the earth itself, can they run to keep the kite aloft on a windless day?

Where we tie our string is our choice. Or we can snip the line and maybe we’ll float up, or maybe we’ll float down, or maybe we’ll spin perilously to the ground.

It is a metaphor so you can manage the picture however you like. But on this day, we imagine our line held in the hands of the Rabbi, the man baptized by God and man in the river Jordan, ordained human and divine, who changed the world with the words “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Today we celebrate giving our string to Christ and hearing the voice of our teacher calling up to us as we soar through the sky, “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”