In the down time I took after Christmas, I watched a couple of Netflix movies about the Obamas. The first is titled “Barry” and it chronicles Barack Obama’s college years at Columbia University in New York City, delving into his struggles to define himself – to find his identity. The second movie is titled “Southside with You” which hones in on the first date that Barack and Michelle had when they are both young professionals working for a law firm in Chicago. I so enjoyed both movies because they gave me a window into imagining what went into the making of a couple I so admire.
I liked the movie Selma, which came out a few years ago , for the same reasons – because it allowed me to see how the civil rights movement and Dr. King developed over time. It showed the important decision points, and the risk and uncertainty of taking each step along their journey. It showed that Dr. King and his partners in that movement lived life one frame at a time, with a developing sense of who they were and what they were being called to by a higher purpose. They were human, bound by the same ambiguities and uncertainties that we each face daily, and yet through prayer and community discernment they reached for that higher purpose.
I have to think that the same was true for our Lord and Savior. If he was truly human he was living life one frame at a time as we do. The Gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus’ formative years. The Gospel of Luke offers only one scant story of Jesus at age 12 staying behind in the Jerusalem Temple as his parents and the group they are traveling with head back to Nazareth, thinking he is with them. Upon discovering he is not, his parents return to Jerusalem and search frantically for him, until they find him deep in conversation with the rabbis in the temple. Mary and Joseph expressed their distress, but the almost adolescent Jesus in nonchalant and unrepentant. I wonder if the story was put there just to comfort parents of budding teens – the message being, you’re not alone, even the holy family had to negotiate the turbulent waters of adolescence! But that is it – that is all the Gospels tell us about Jesus from the time he was born to his baptism in the River Jordan by his cousin John.
This lack of Biblical witness has not stopped people of faith from thinking and wondering what Jesus was like as a child, and adolescent and a young adult. In her book, Loving the Questions, author Marianne Micks describes a painting that resulted from just such wonderings. She writes:
“The title of one of my favorite twentieth-century paintings is ‘The Virgin Spanking Jesus as a Child, Before Three Witnesses.’ Painted by Max Ernst in 1926… The little boy lies across his mother’s lap. Her hand is raised high ready to descent on the small bottom with a resounding thwack, while three witnesses are peering through a small window at the back of the room. A delicious detail is the hallo on the floor, slipped and fallen from the curly head.”(p.97)
Now while many of us in this day and age don’t use spanking to deal with our children’s misbehavior, and might not imagine Mary doing so either, this painting does raise an interesting question – did Jesus do things as a child that would have required discipline or even punishment?
Another artist who wondered extensively about the pre-baptism Jesus was Nikos Kazantzakis, who in 1960 wrote the novel The Last Temptation of Christ, which was later made into a very controversial movie. In that portrayal, Jesus grows up wanting nothing more out of life than to continue in Joseph’s line of work – carpentry. Yet he is tortured by mystical experiences that he cannot understand and that even his rabbi is unable to explain. One scene in the movie that so captured my imagination about what Jesus went through to understand and accept his identity as the Son of God, was one in which Jesus, tortured by a sense that he is being called to something larger, makes a final attempt to resist by physically running from the force that is pursuing him. He runs out along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but his flight is futile. Every hundred yards or so, the invisible force that pursues him knocks him to the ground. After several such body slams he gives in – he lies prostrate, surrendered, ready to be guided rather than pursued by the hand of God.
Now neither of these 20th century imaginings about the young Jesus would fit very well into the popular view of Jesus as the God-Man who knew what and who he was from the beginning, and who was like us in every way except that he did not sin. But then again, if Jesus was fully human, he was not untouched by the corporate or systemic sin that is woven into the fabric of our communal human existence. Here I want to quote Marianne Micks again – she writes:
“Jesus lived in an occupied country. He was aware of Roman oppression. He was part of a culture that knew as much about governmental corruption as our own, as well as about hunger, poverty and disease. In his public ministry Jesus worked against all of these sins of his culture, but he hadn’t been unaffected by them as he was growing up and trying to figure out what he was meant to do with his life. He may indeed have increased in wisdom and stature and in divine and human favor, as Luke’s Gospel puts it, but not without struggle.” (Ibid. p.98)
To imagine the ways in which Jesus might have struggled with the corporate sin of the world he was living and moving in, is to connect with him on a visceral level, because that is the world we live and move in also. To imagine that Jesus did not simply and easily rise above the sin of the world can draw us to him in our own contexts of struggle. And from that point of connection we can often draw inspiration to more fully follow him. The Gospels are silent on the details of his formative struggles, but the Gospels do make clear that Jesus chose the path he did in order to follow God’s call to free the world from the bondage of sin.
And the first step on that path of liberation was for Jesus to step down into the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John. And that is where our Gospel Lesson for this morning, from Mark’s Gospel, comes in. Interestingly Mark, the earliest written of the 4 canonical Gospels, is the only one that makes absolutely no attempt to suggest anything about Jesus’ life before baptism. Mark gives not stories or words about Jesus’ background, family lineage, or origin as the Word of God incarnate as the other three Gospels do. Mark just starts off with John and Jesus in their early 30’s on the banks of the Jordan. What are we to make of this absolute silence about all that had gone before in their lives? By telling us nothing of Jesus life before he came to the banks of the Jordan, Mark might be silently communicating that those details are not important in the light of what is about to occur. The one who steps into the water brings with him some 30 years of life lived, but the details of that life for not the issue here. The newness that will occur through this sacred act is what he wants up to hone in on. This is not to say that all that has gone before is obliterated. On the contrary, the message I hear is that all that has gone before this moment in life is taken into the hands of God, who wastes nothing, and is redeemed as the building blocks of the new relationship that is being forged. In God’s naming of Jesus as his beloved Son in this moment, the eternal hold of the corporate sin system, which every person is born into, is broken and a new path of life is emerging.
With the washing of baptism the context of life is enlarged, and grace enters the picture – the grace of God and Child reaching toward each other in cosmic embrace. And God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is not just some sort of cosmic pat on the back. This statement of God’s pleasure with Jesus, and all who have followed him into the waters of baptism, is a commission. It signals that God’s pleasure now resides with and empowers Jesus in all that lies ahead of him.
Today in place of the Nicene Creed we will share in the words of our baptismal covenant, as a reminder that the same is true for us. No matter what has gone before – no matter how our hallo has slipped, or how we have attempted to run from God, in the waters of baptism – as was true in the Spirit hovering over the waters in the opening verses of the book of Genesis – God seeks to bring something new out of the chaos of sin. God seeks to bestow upon us grace to turn things around. God seeks to give us the power to raise our arms and be swept into the cosmic embrace which is offered us each time we open our hearts to the power of our baptismal covenant.
The temptation here is to say, ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ But the Gospel is no fairy tale. As our recitation of the Baptismal Covenant will remind us today, this is a daily returning to God and a living of life by challenging moral precepts. And if Jesus’ life is a reflection of and pattern for our own, temptations and suffering are and will be part of the path we walk – there is no getting around that. But baptism does change the context for us – not by being a holy zap that magically transforms life, but by being a starting point for a lifelong partnership with God, who promises us that through thick and thin we will never be alone. God is with us and we are with each other in the Beloved Community we call church.
It is reported that whenever Martin Luther was assailed by temptation or suffering in his struggle to be true to the call he heard from God, he would sit in his study and say over and over, almost as a mantra, “I am baptized, I am baptized, I am baptized…” May we keep those words close to our hearts as well. Amen+