BLESSINGS FIRST
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
January 11, 2015; Baptism of the Lord, Year B
Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are
my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
Mark 1:11

Have you ever been tempted to eat dessert first?

It never happened in the house I grew up in. No, an ironclad rule of the dinner table was: dessert comes last.

If you’ve sat at the table like a good little boy…. If you’ve resisted kicking your brother in the shins… If you’ve cleaned your plate, even the peas and the broccoli…. Then, and only then, may you have dessert.

Anyone who violates that sacred rule comes across as some kind of subversive. Just imagine sitting down in a fancy restaurant. The server comes over with the menu — and, if it’s an upscale place, the wine list. All the options are laid out in conventional order: appetizers, salads, entrees. Now, imagine saying in a loud voice, so everyone can hear you: “Thank you, but I’m not ready for these yet. I shall start my meal with your famous death-by-chocolate cake — and after that, the appetizer.”

Chances are, the server would conclude you’re one fork short of a place-setting: because in life there’s that one incontrovertible rule: You don’t eat dessert first.

Which is why today’s Gospel lesson — the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan — seems a bit off. Jesus climbs down the riverbank, wades out to the middle of the stream, submits himself to baptism by his cousin John — and, when he comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn open, the dove descends, and God’s voice booms out, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

It’s so familiar a story, you may not have noticed what’s truly strange about it. God delivers that blessing before Jesus has done anything. Up till now, Mark has recorded not a single healing, not a single teaching, no miracles, no parables: nothing. Jesus has only just appeared on the scene, preaching repentance, and already he’s clinched the big prize: divine endorsement! God’s “well pleased” with him. And why? Who can say? It’s God. Why ask why?

Not only that, the Bible scholars tell us the Greek verb in the expression “I am well-pleased,” is an unusual tense we don’t have in English, called the aorist tense. In English, we have past, present and future tenses. The ancient Greek language has another verbal tense that means something like, “I am well pleased and I have always been well pleased.” God’s approval of Jesus the Son is not conditional at all. It just is.

Now, doesn’t that fly in the face of every rule for living you’ve ever been taught? Isn’t approval supposed to be conditional? Don’t we have to earn it? This sounds subversive: almost as bad as eating dessert first!

This sounds a lot like…. baptism! (Or, at least, infant baptism.) These children we’ve baptized here today have done nothing to deserve it. They’re way too young for that. Yes, their parents have done a beautiful thing — a loving thing, a holy thing — in bringing them to the church to receive this sacramental blessing, but they’re not receiving the sacrament today! These little ones don’t deserve the blessing of God at all.

The truth of the matter is, there’s not a one of us who does. If you or I had our lives to live over again — if we could turn back the clock and devote ourselves with fierce intensity, every single day, to avoiding doing anything wrong — we’d still find some way to mess it up! “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” as the Bible says (Romans 3:23).

And so, we need this thing called grace — “amazing grace, how sweet the sound” — even though it sounds too good to be true (a little like dessert first!). Because it sounds too good to be true, most of us aren’t ready to let go of the idea that, if we just step back and have another crack at it, we’ll get it right this time. We try, and we fail. Again and again. Eventually, we lost track of the idea that there is such a thing as grace.

You and I then start to pay way too much attention to the little voices in our heads that are telling us we’re no good, that we’re failures. The late Henri Nouwen, one of the wisest spiritual guides of our time, absolutely nails this diagnosis in his book, Bread for the Journey. He writes:

Many voices ask for our attention. There is a voice that says, “Prove that you are a good person.” Another voice    says, “You’d better be ashamed of yourself.” There also is a voice that says, “Nobody really cares about you,” and one that says, “Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful.” But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, “You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.” That’s the voice we need most of all to hear. To hear that voice, however, requires special effort; it requires solitude, silence, and a strong determination to listen. That’s what prayer is. It is listening to the voice that calls us “my Beloved.” [Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, (Harper Collins, 1997).

It’s a voice a great many of us could stand to hear more often — because we tend to give all those other voices so much credit! Whatever voice we may have heard, as children — from a parent, a teacher, other kids on the playground — saying “You’re no good,” we dutifully repeat to ourselves at every opportunity. We do it out of a sort of broken logic, by which we convince ourselves “If I just punish myself it will be infinitely better on me than if somebody else does it. Do this often enough, and your whole life becomes a sort of echo chamber of low self-esteem.

There’s a part of us that actually enjoys it that way. It seems easier, somehow. Set the bar so high you could never possibly get over it, and you never have to try! You just sink back into that safe, familiar, self-blaming insecurity.

The Christian novelist Anne Lamott is a very wise woman. She’s a survivor of drug and alcohol abuse. She got out of that lifestyle only because Jesus showed her the way. The reason she got into those difficulties was because she was walking around with a whole raft of insecurities that came from her earliest days, growing up the daughter of two parents who were perfectionists. As she told an interviewer:

You’re taught at an early age, especially if you’re being raised by high-achieving perfectionist parents… you get on the tightrope and you hold your breath.

I was in my mid-thirties when I discovered that if you fall off the tightrope, it’s about a foot and a half to the ground. And that there’s always someone around to help you get up and dust off your butt and help you get started again. [Anne Lamott, interviewed on Beliefnet.com, http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2006/06/Anne-Lamott-Falling-Off-The-Tightrope.aspx?p=2 ]

The Christian psychologist M. Scott Peck has a book called People of the Lie. In that book, one of the types of people of the lie he identifies is “the perfectionist.” Listen to how Scott Peck describes this type of person:

Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them…. They intensely desire to appear good. Their “goodness” is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie…. They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self-reproach. The decorum with which they lead their lives is maintained as a mirror in which they can see themselves reflected righteously. Jesus himself had some memorable encounters with such perfectionists.

These religious perfectionists were called, in his day, “pharisees.” In a memorable image, he lets them have it:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. [Matthew 23:27]

A vivid and macabre image, that strikes way too close to home for a lot of us, especially the high-achieving types! It doesn’t matter how many times you go back to a tomb and coat the outside with whitewash, until it gleams in the sun. It doesn’t change what’s inside it: death and decay. The feelings of insecurity that never go away, because we never expose them to the life-giving sunlight of God’s grace.

What needs to happen is a kind of transformation. It’s not something we can do for ourselves. It’s only something Jesus Christ can do for us.

Here’s a story of how such a transformation happened for one person, a woman by the name of Joanna Slan. There’s nothing overtly religious about her story, but I think you’ll see, underneath the details, how God was at work.

In her case, the perfectionist tendencies came from a flaw in her physical appearance. When Joanne was in the fourth grade, a boy on the school playground threw a chunk of concrete that caught her on the cheek. After a trip to the emergency room, many stitches, and a bandage that stayed on her face for the rest of the school year, Joanna was left with a very pronounced scar. She came to see herself as an ugly duckling.

Years later, as an adult engaged to be married, she found herself seated across from a plastic surgeon. As she describes the encounter:

His thumb softly rubbed the twisted flesh on my cheek. The plastic surgeon, a good fifteen years my senior, was a very attractive man. His masculinity and the intensity of his gaze seemed almost overpowering.

“Hmmm,” he said quietly. “Are you a model?”

Is this a joke? Is he kidding? I asked myself, and I searched his handsome face for signs of mockery. No way would anyone ever confuse me with a fashion model. I was ugly. My mother casually referred to my sister as her pretty child. Anyone could see I was homely. After all, I had the scar to prove it….“Of course, I’m not a model,” I replied with a small amount of indignation.
The plastic surgeon crossed his arms over his chest and looked at me appraisingly. “Then why are you concerned about this scar? If there is no professional reason to have it removed, what brought you here today?”

Suddenly he represented all the men I’d ever known. The eight boys who turned me down when I invited them to the girls-ask-boys dance. The sporadic dates I’d had in college. The parade of men who had ignored me since then. The man whose ring I wore on my left hand. My hand rose to my face. The scar confirmed it; I was ugly. The room swam before me as my eyes filled with tears.

The doctor pulled a rolling stool up next to me and sat down. His knees almost touched mine. His voice was low and soft.

“Let me tell you what I see. I see a beautiful woman. Not a perfect woman, but a beautiful woman. Lauren Hutton has a gap between her front teeth. Elizabeth Taylor has a tiny, tiny scar on her forehead”….Then he paused and handed me a mirror. “I think to myself how every remarkable woman has an imperfection, and I believe that imperfection makes her beauty more remarkable because it assures us she is human.”

He pushed back the stool and stood up. “I won’t touch it. Don’t let anyone fool with your face. You are delightful just the way you are. Beauty really does come from within a woman. Believe me. It is my business to know.”

Then he left.

I turned to the face in the mirror. He was right. Somehow over the years, that ugly child had become a beautiful woman. Since that day in his office, as a woman who makes her living speaking before hundreds of people, I have been told many times by people of both sexes that I am beautiful. And, I know I am. [Joanna Slan, from A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul, ed. Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Jennifer Read Hawthorne and Marci Shimoff (Health Communications, 1998).

What is it about us — woman and men alike — that makes it so hard for us to affirm the true beauty within us — the beauty that comes of being created in the image of God?

Yes, our Lord Jesus Christ — on the day of his baptism — was a very special and unique human being. He was the Son of God. Yet, I don’t think God’s words to him that day were unique. I believe God speaks them to each of us, at our own baptism: “This is my beloved Son; this is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”

My prayer for each one of you today is that you will live into the truth of those words: remembering that with God, it’s blessings first — a blessing that’s your very own. It doesn’t mean you’ll never fall. It doesn’t mean you’ll never sin. What it means is that, when you do what’s only human — and when you repent — God’s grace and forgiveness are already there, waiting for you to claim.

Our next hymn, “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” is one of the special treasures in our new hymnal. It traces the blessing of God through all the days of our lives.

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.