Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Usual Way (Reflections on the Baptism of Our Lord, Year A)

“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.” (Matthew 3:17)

There was this old guy in my congregation named Bob, now, alas, numbered among the saints in glory, who always liked the old Ferlin Husky country/gospel song, “On the Wings of a Dove.” If memory serves, we played that song at Bob’s funeral. It’s a really sweet song set in ¾ time or waltz tempo. It was a big hit for Husky in 1960[i], and it’s been covered over the years by many country and Christian artists. When the famous duo of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton recorded it, they added a verse which recounts the gospel lesson appointed for the Baptism of Our Lord in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 3: 13-17). The verse goes like this:

When Jesus went down to the river that day
He was baptized in the usual way;
When it was done,
God blessed his son.
He sent down his love
On the wings of a dove.

If you ask me, the Spirit of God alighting like a bird—and a particularly peaceful bird at that—seems rather anti-climactic when compared to the hoopla that went on the night Jesus was born. A dove seems pretty puny next to the multitude of the Heavenly Hosts praising God and singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” don’t you think? The whole event seems a bit too normal. Shouldn’t the beloved Son of God get a slightly more miraculous baptism? But the Bible suggests (as Dolly Parton sang) that Jesus was, indeed, baptized “in the usual way.”

Granted, John very modestly—and modesty is not a real big thing for John—suggests that Jesus should be baptizing him. But Jesus shows respect for the senior prophet on the scene and does things the usual way. I always figured that this was Jesus’ way of showing us that he’s willing to be just like the rest of us. In doing so, he’s practicing a becoming modesty just like John does. The event seems to be a little lesson in Christian courtesy.

Still, it’s not very spectacular. Even the Father God is somewhat laid back. Not only does he decide to let his Holy Spirit float down in a very calm and unobtrusive manner, but his pronouncement over the whole things seems a bit tepid. He says he is “well pleased” with Jesus. That’s nice, but don’t you expect that there’d be a little more effusive praise of Jesus? The word in Greek is eudokasa (eudokhsa for you Greek-reading folks[ii]) which basically means that God made a good choice or that he approves of Jesus. This isn’t exactly a stellar endorsement.

But then, does it really have to be? Maybe there’s something more divine in the quiet, gentleness of Jesus’ baptism. Not every encounter with the Holy Spirit has to be the rushing wind of Pentecost. We don’t always need the heavens to rip open and a chorus of angels to appear. A few sprinkles of cleansing water and the sedate reminder that God approves of us is really all we need. God speaks most profoundly at times in quiet whispers, in gentle moments of reflection, and in simple people.

It might be a good idea this week—when the world seems to be going crazy again—to take a break, sit quietly, and reflect that you are baptized. God loves you and God approves of you. Let the Spirit alight on you gently like a slow, soothing gospel song sung in ¾ time.

Be still. It works. Really.

PS-If you don’t know “Wings of a Dove,” listen to it by clicking here.

[i] I should mention that old Ferlin didn’t write the song. It was composed by a fellow named Bob Ferguson.
[ii] There probably aren’t many of you. I just dig that my computer has a program that lets me write in Greek. It makes me feel smart!

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