Epiphany 1a, January 8, 2017

January 9, 2017

The Backstory

Matthew 3:13-17


13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 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. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


It’s interesting to think about the way Matthew begins his account of Jesus. He wants us to know where Jesus came from, so he begins the story by tracing his genealogy back to Abraham. Those begats don’t make for particularly compelling reading, but it’s an amazing thing to cover 42 generations of Jesus’ heritage in 15 verses. In the second half of the first chapter, Matthew describes the particular events that led up to Jesus’ birth, and then he takes an entire chapter to document the first couple of years of Jesus’ life. During those first two years Joseph was moving the family around quite a bit to escape the evil intentions of Herod and his son Archelaus. We get a good amount of information about that, and at the end of Chapter 2, Jesus was about the age of a toddler and they were living in the region of Galilee.


It’s an interesting pace of storytelling. In the first half of the first chapter, Matthew covers about two thousand years leading up to the introduction of Mary and Joseph, and the second half of the chapter takes us through the months leading up to Jesus’ birth. He documents the first two years of Jesus’ life in the second chapter, and then there’s about a 30-year gap between the end of Chapter 2 and the beginning of Chapter 3.


I don’t know exactly what to make of this, but one thing Matthew seems to be doing is pointing to a lot of history without getting bogged down in the details. This probably isn’t the way I would have done it. I have a hard time not sharing the background details of why I need to go to Walmart. But Matthew didn’t have that kind of trouble. He didn’t get caught up in the details of what led to the birth of Jesus, but he did point out that a lot had gone on prior to his birth. He didn’t tell the backstory, but he let us know that there is a backstory – a really long and significant backstory.


Matthew does share some significant details about the time of Jesus’ birth. He wanted us to know that Jesus was born in to a world that was full of political strife. I think that’s why he told us the business about Herod and Archelaus, but that’s all we know until Matthew begins telling us about John the Baptist at the beginning of Chapter 3. And that’s when we learn about the religious strife that was going on at the time. There was this tension that existed between the way the executives of the Jewish faith were managing God’s affairs and the way John the Baptist understood the need for faith to be more urgently exercised. We don’t know what prompted Jesus to show up at the Jordan River to be baptized by John, but from the way that John reacted to Jesus we know that there’s a story. We don’t know what that story is, but it serves as an invitation for us to imagine what may have gone on with Jesus over the course of those years.


Last week I mentioned the way my revered professor, Dr. Herzog, interpreted the nature of sin, which was the abuse of power. But the other most memorable thing about Dr. Herzog was the way he described the nature of Jesus Christ.


Jesus is understood in a lot of different ways. Many books have been written in hope of defining who Jesus was. There’s this ongoing effort to define the proper relationship between his divinity and his humanity. I haven’t read enough of those books to elaborate on the various ways in which Jesus is defined, but Dr. Herzog had a line that was very meaningful to me about Jesus. Dr. Herzog said: Jesus was the man nobody knew.


This is not to say that we can’t know anything about Jesus, but it is to say that Jesus has the capacity to surprise all of us, because on some level Jesus isn’t who we think he is. If you think about it, I don’t think there’s a story in any of the gospels where Jesus reacted to someone in a predictable manner – especially when someone thought they knew what they were going to get from Jesus.


This is the very case with Jesus showing up to be baptized by John. John thought he should be the one getting baptized by Jesus, but Jesus insisted that John baptize him, and that turned out to be what needed to happen. The Holy Spirit came down like a dove and confirmed the righteousness of the moment.


Matthew begins his gospel with some clear information about Jesus’ heritage, but he also includes this 30 year gap in the early life of Jesus. We don’t know what went on during those years, and I think this confirms the fact that we don’t exactly know who Jesus was.


We know a lot about the backstory of Jesus Christ. In fact every one of those begats that Matthew mentions is a whole series of stories that somehow reveal God’s way of thinking and God’s intention for our world, but there’s a limit to what we can know about the backstory to Jesus.


As I mentioned to the kids this morning, I recently went to see the movie: Rogue One. I like the Star Wars saga, and I think I’ve seen all of the films that have come out over the years, but I’m not really familiar with the way in which one episode fits in to the whole picture. By the end of any given movie I sort of understand how it fits in the grand scheme of things, but I’m usually the last person in the theater to get it, and I quickly forget it. Of course the movies make a lot more sense if you know going in what’s going on, so I don’t fully appreciate how clever the writing and the scenarios really are, but I can testify that you can be pretty entertained by the movies without keen awareness of the backstory.


It’s good to know the backstory, but it can get in your way as well. I’m not saying that a true Star Wars fan can’t enjoy a new episode as much as I can, but I’m probably not as critical of the films as an avid fan. I don’t have as many expectations, and expectations can get in the way.


What you already know can overshadow what you can learn. And I think this is particularly true about Jesus. It’s good to study Jesus, and it’s really helpful to know the history of Israel and what was going on when Jesus came along. We can never learn too much about who Jesus was and where came from so to speak, but we can never allow what we know about Jesus to fully define who he is and what he can do for us.


There is this problem of creating Jesus in our own image and of using Jesus to justify what we already believe and what we want him to do for us. You might say this was the main problem Jesus faced as he went about in Israel. Jesus didn’t meet the expectations that many people had for the savior of Israel, and this was so problematic for some people they were motivated to kill him. They were too attached to what they believed to be able to see what was true.


It’s good to know the old stories of our faith community, but we can never allow what we think we know to define what we are sure we need. Jesus knows what we need and it’s rarely what we think we want. Jesus is not necessarily who we think he is. I’m not saying that we don’t think highly enough of him. In fact some people think too highly of him. They think so highly of him they can’t relate to him.


It’s my understanding that the Catholic tradition of praying to Mary developed because people thought Jesus was too holy to hear their lowly prayers – they could relate to Mary easier than they could to Jesus. I’m not saying that Mary wasn’t a fine and compassionate person, but Jesus didn’t want to be seen as someone too important to be bothered by our petty needs. The elevation of Jesus as a distant deity is a distortion of who he is. Jesus Christ is in our midst, but his presence is illusive and particularly hard to find when we aren’t open to who he is and where we might find him.


It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want to be known. I believe the living Christ wants us to seek him and to follow him. Jesus has something to offer each of us, but we won’t know what that is until we make the effort to get near to him.


As surely as we are all dealing with our own set of challenges and obstacles, we are all in need of a different encounter with Christ. Some of us probably need to get near enough to him to hear him tell us to get off the sofa and go do something. Some of us probably just need to see that he’s sitting on the sofa with us and trying to provide us with the assurance that things are going to be ok.


I believe Jesus showed up to be baptized by John because he fully understood what it means to be a human being. I don’t believe Jesus was just like us because unlike us, I believe he was a human being with a perfect understanding of God. But I don’t believe he was so perfect that he couldn’t understand how flawed we can be. Jesus was the embodiment of the perfect love of God, and it’s that perfect love that enables Jesus to embrace our imperfect selves. I believe Jesus chose to be baptized because he wanted us to know that he is with us in every way. He is immersed in this world and he will be with us to the very end. The power of Baptism is a mysterious thing, but on some level it symbolizes the way in which the grace of God can have power over our lives.


The grace of God isn’t the only thing that shapes our lives. There are many different forces that have had impacts upon us – some of which we understand and some of which we don’t. We’ve all got our own backstories, and Jesus understands those stories better than we understand them ourselves. It’s often the pain of those experiences that moves us to seek closer encounters with Christ, and by the grace of God we can grow in our relationship with our living lord. We may not fully understand what we need from Christ, but I believe Christ knows how to touch us in the ways that we need.


The good news is that we don’t just have a backstory. There’s an ongoing story that we are each a part of, and our challenge is to allow the living Christ to be the director of that story. God only knows what that story may become, and that’s what makes this so exciting. We are invited to become incorporated in to the most epic saga of all time.


Thanks be to God for this opportunity to become evermore integrated in to this ongoing story of the way in which God is redeeming this world through the grace of Jesus Christ – the one who meets us where we are and guides us to where we need to be.


Thanks be to God.



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