A God Like That
Text: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Suppose we were to switch roles with God for just one day. On that day, it would be within our power to create everything, including God. What would your God look like? Would your God look like the 19th century Orthodox God – omnipotent, omniscient, immortal, invisible, God only wise? Would your God have carte blanche to do anything in the natural world or be limited only to extend sincere condolence and heartfelt compassion?
The God of my creating would enter the world with a bang. This God would teach us to live without the need to maim and maul the good earth or each other. This God would not permit the few to have so much while the great many have so little. This God would put an end to AIDS, ALS, MS, MD, CF, every variety of cancer, every form of heart disease, and would never permit the good to die way too young.
The God I created would unscramble our linguistic confusion and would unravel our social, gender, racial, and sexuality prejudice. This God would not allow any child to watch her parent be abused only next to be abused herself, nor would this God stand idly by while couples treated each other with rancor and malice.
Suppose the divine creative role were reversed for just one day. What would your God look like? I found myself asking this question as I read Luke’s Gospel this week and watched God’s Son take a baptism dip in the Jordan.
In Luke’s Gospel, though, we do not understand God’s Son, much less God, until we pay attention to John the Baptist. Early on in Luke, John kicks in his mother’s womb and later on Luke tells us of John’s peculiar diet. The adult John rails against abusing the poor and criticizes religious leaders for separating spirituality from service.
John’s colorful language alone draws a crowd. He warns the religiously curious: “Vipers brood! Who warned you to escape from the wrath that is to come?” Some are so taken with John that they nominate him as Messiah, the promised One from God to inaugurate God’s brave new world.
John will have none of this misdirected enthusiasm. In his typically dramatic fashion, he refuses the Messiah’s mantle and stirs the crowd into an absolute frenzy when he preaches: “I baptize you with water, but there is one coming who is mightier than I am. I am not worthy to unfasten the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Flannery O’Connor’s preacher in her short story, “The River” also speaks in colorful language that draws quite a crowd. “’Maybe I know why you come’, he said in the twangy voice, ‘maybe I don’t’. ‘If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me. If you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river, you ain’t come for Jesus. You can’t leave your pain in the river’, he said, ‘I never told nobody that’. He stopped and looked down at his knees.
“’I seen you cure a woman oncet!’ a sudden high voice shouted from the hump of people. ‘Seen that woman git up and walk straight where she had limped in!’ The preacher lifted one foot and then the other. He seemed almost but not quite to smile, ‘You might as well go home if that’s what you come for’, he said.
“Then he lifted his head and arms and shouted, ‘Listen to what I got to say, you people! There ain’t but one river and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’ Blood. That’s the river you have to lay your pain in, in the River of Faith, in the River of Life, in the River of Love, in the rich red river of Jesus’ Blood!”
John the Baptist and later O’Connor’s preacher agitates crowds, stirring them to look for a Mighty, action-packed, Messiah, a human flame thrower who will burn away the evil that clings to the good. So, what does the Mighty Messiah do when he appears on the scene in Luke’s story? Well, actually he does almost nothing.
All this Mighty Messiah does is bow his head and pray. The people are waiting for power and all they get is prayer. They are waiting for miraculous healing and all they get is humble kneeling. Upon his baptism, Luke says, “The heavens opened when Jesus was praying and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove, and there came a voice from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I delight’.”
What does Jesus do that leads God to take such special delight in him? He prays. This is first time, but not the last time that the Mighty Messiah will set aside time to pray. At the height of his popularity, Luke says, “Jesus went out one day into the hill country to pray and spent the night in prayer to God.” After feeding five thousand, Luke says, “When Jesus had been praying by himself in the company of his disciples, he asked them, ‘Who do people say that I am?’” On the road to Jerusalem, Luke says, “At one place after Jesus had been praying, one of his disciples said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’.” At the Last Supper, Luke recalls these words of Jesus, “Simon . . . I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail’.” Later that same evening, Luke says, “Jesus withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and began to pray.” Even hanging from the cross, Luke says, “Jesus prayed, ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do’.”
What mighty, earth-shattering, creation changing announcement comes out of the mouth of the Mighty Messiah as he shakes off the water from his baptism? Not a one, according to Luke. Jesus simply bows before God and prays. Luke says, “If you want to know about power unleashed and might unfurled look at the man down by the River, bowed in prayer.”
Throughout my ministry, I have heard people describe hopeless situations in this way, “Well, all we can do now is pray.” Frustrated by a rebellious teenager, confounded by a crippling disease, overwhelmed by senseless war, breathless before a terminal diagnosis, people have lamented, “Well, all we can do now is pray.”
What an odd expression for followers of the Mighty Messiah. Jesus does not approach prayer as the last, great, rubbing of a rabbit’s foot. If we have absolutely no idea of what to do next, then, why not pray. No, kneeling by the Jordan and later hanging from a piece of wood, the first thing our Mighty Messiah does is pray.
And, for Luke, a praying Messiah is far more than a curiosity that theologians might later debate:
How is it that the Messiah of God should have any need to pray to God?
If Jesus is God then isn’t Jesus simply praying to himself?
Is there any efficacy to prayer anyway?
No, Luke tells us about a Messiah in prayer so that you and I might know that he stood in the same River in which you and I wade and swim. He stood in waters that at times threaten to drown us in our intellectual sophistication, our greed, our cowardice, our denial, our regret. He is the Messiah who prays with us and for us from the glad day of our baptism until the mysterious day of our death.
Just suppose the divine creative role were reversed for one day. I doubt that the God I created would ever get muddy or soiled with the vagaries of human experience, much less associate with the mixed crowd congested at the Jordan or by the James, for that matter. The God I created would never allow a divine child to be crucified by mortal madness. The God of my creation would send a Mighty Messiah with flashes of fury and armed with answers to every difficult theological and ethical question and every moral dilemma. The God I created would grow weary with all our praying when there is so much for us to get off our knees and go do.
Thankfully, that day never comes, no matter how much Marx and Freud would beg to differ. Our roles are never reversed. Thankfully, instead, Luke tells us of a God who surprises even the likes of John the Baptist and especially the likes of you and me, a God who welcomes prayer like a grieving Father welcomes a Prodigal home, a God who somehow finds a way to join you and me in the sinner’s silt and lead us to a promised shore. Shea and Michael, tell Margot and Oliver about that kind of God.
People of Cove, tell your friends and family about that kind of God. Before you go to sleep tonight, get down on your knees with gratitude for that kind of God.
As for me, I am so thankful for a God like that.