January 7, 2024Preached by Tim Hughes Williams at Light Street Church, Baltimore, MDSermon: We Trust Our BelovednessThe Hebrew Scripture Reading: Psalm 29:1-111Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.2Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name;worship the LORD in holy splendor.3The voice of the LORD is over the waters;the God of glory thunders,the LORD, over mighty waters.4The voice of the LORD is powerful;the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.5The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.6He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,and Sirion like a young wild ox.7The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.8The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.9The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl,and strips the forest bare;and in his temple all say, “Glory!”10The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;the LORD sits enthroned as king for ever.11May the LORD give strength to his people!May the LORD bless his people with peace!The New Testament Scripture Reading: Luke 3:21-2221 Now when all the people were baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized andwas praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him inbodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, theBeloved;[a] with you I am well pleased.”[b]
Sermon:Every year, The New York Times runs a selection of outstanding college applicationessays. 1 They run the pictures of the high schoolers who wrote the essays and providea little background information.In 2021, the Times ran an essay written by an Indian American high schooler namedZoya Garg. The essay begins by explaining that Zoya’s mother - a woman whoimmigrated to the United States from India at the age of 16 – is obsessed with fancyglass water dispensers, the kind that you would see in a hotel or a convention centerwith fruit or cucumbers floating inside of it. “Even when three-day-old lemon rindsfloat in stale water,” Garg writes, “drinking from the dispenser remains luxurious. Lastyear for her birthday, I saved enough to buy a water dispenser for our kitchencounter.” Look - I’m only three sentences into this essay and it’s already hooked me.First – the water dispenser as a symbol of a fancy American lifestyle, so appealing andunattainable from certain vantage points. Garg doesn’t have to even explain what itsymbolizes. She just sees her mom and understands what it represents for her. Andtwo – in spite of the fact that she doesn’t relate to her first-generation mother’s desire,she goes out and finds a hotel-grade water dispenser to give her for her birthday. Asecond-generation daughter, a first-generation mother, and the cucumber water thatconnects them. I’m in. And we haven’t even gotten to the best part yet.
Welcome to the first Sunday of 2024, a Sunday on which we traditionally celebrateEpiphany. Because there are twelve days of Christmas, because the Magi visited thebaby later than the shepherds, because the light of the star represents the light ofEpiphany. There are many reasons for this festival day, and last year we actually
marked it with a little Epiphany pageant. If you weren’t here to see Carole Norris-Shortle and her sister Nancy as the front and back of a camel, well, then I’m sorry for
your loss. I love Epiphany. I love the Magi, but this year we are glossing over them tofocus on an alternate text, the baptism of Jesus. We jump from baby Jesus to grown-upJesus, and actually the Gospels make more or less the same jump. There’s only oneprecious story from Jesus’ childhood and otherwise we are off to the races, thebaptism of a grown man on the verge of beginning his ministry.There’s actually a good reason to stick with the baptism today. Because the wholeseason of Advent, we’ve paid extra attention to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Mary wasn’t1“From The Heart To Higher Education: The 2021 College Essays On Money,” by Ron Lieber, TheNew York Times, June 18, 2021.
3the only one with a miraculous pregnancy and a visit from an angel. Her cousinElizabeth was also carrying a highly unlikely child, a child with a given name and aprophetic vision. For a time, Mary and Elizabeth sequestered from the world togetheras baby Jesus and baby John grew in their wombs.John was born first, and he was weirder and wilder than his establishment parents mighthave imagined. He wore animal skins and ate bugs. He preached these angry,confrontational sermons calling people to repentance.But most provocatively, he rejected the Temple structure and moved outside the city.Most Jews – especially Jews around Jerusalem – relied upon the Temple for theirworship. But John was attracting crowds of people in the desert. And rather than usingfancy, ceremonial pools – he was baptizing them in the muddy waters of the river.That’s where Jesus makes his first public appearance as an adult.And of course, these were not Christian baptisms, but Jewish. They were opportunitiesfor forgiveness but they didn’t signify a conversion experience."I baptize you with water,” he says to the people, “but one who is more powerfulthan I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptizeyou with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). Of course, John was talking aboutJesus so no one expected Jesus himself to step out of the crowd and join the line ofpeople waiting to be baptized. If I were John, I would have found this a littleannoying, rhetorically. But Jesus never missed a chance to subvert the definition of aMessiah.See, the people would have been expecting a someone more in line with Psalm 29.“Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength,” the Psalmist writes:3The voice of the LORD is over the waters;the God of glory thunders,the LORD, over mighty waters.4The voice of the LORD is powerful;the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. (Psalm 29:2-4)Surely the Messiah will be over the waters, not under them! Surely the Messiah willarrive in glory, not repentance. You can’t blame them for being confused when Jesussteps into the queue of sinners and then into the water.In Matthew’s account, John actually protests the baptism. “Shouldn’t you be baptizingme?”
4Three Gospels recount Jesus’ baptism, suggesting that it was a widely shared memoryin the early church. But the Gospels are also squeamish about the baptism, because itbegs the question of why he would need one. From what exactly would Jesus need torepent or be cleansed? Like John, we would like to see the roles reversed. But we haveto deal with the story as we receive it.
Zoya Garg’s mom is named Zarna. Zarna and Zoya Garg. One thing that everyonesays about Zarna Garg is that she’s an amazing storyteller. She’s the sort of womanwho lights up a room with her energy, who has everyone leaning forward at thedinner table, hanging on every word. She makes people cackle with laughter.One day Zoya asked her mom a question: “Mom, have you ever thought about beinga stand-up comedian?” Zarna laughed. She couldn’t name a single female Indiancomic, much less a middle-aged mom. But the question nagged at her and she foundherself Googling tips about stand-up comedy and figuring out where the local showshappened.When she looked at the late hours and the general age of the comics, her reality as astay-at-home mom set in. “She began to cry and told me it was too late for her,” Zoyawrote in her essay. “I could not bear to watch her struggle between ambition anddoubt.”So she began to formulate a plan.
All misgivings aside, John invites his cousin Jesus into the water. He puts an armaround Jesus’ shoulders and another on his chest and submerges him. As Jesusemerges from the water, the heavens do open in an earth-rattling display befitting ofPsalm 29. The Spirit descends in the form of a dove and a loud voice says:“You are my Son, the Beloved. In you I am well-pleased.”The various Gospels remember the exact wording here a little differently. Mark andLuke say, “You are my Son, the Beloved. In you I am well-pleased.” Matthew says,“This is my Son, the Beloved. In him I am well-pleased.”This may seem like a minor difference but to me it means the world.
5In Matthew, God is talking about Jesus. In Luke and Mark, God is talking to Jesus.Matthew would suggest that the gathered crowd needed to know how much Jesus wasloved. But Luke and Mark suggest that Jesus himself needs the affirmation. And that is amoving – if surprising, idea to me.We think of Jesus as a mysterious concoction of divinity and humanity. “Fully humanand fully divine” is the classical formulation. Okay.But I prefer to say that Jesus, being a damn person, needed to take his place in thecrowd. He needed to be one of the people and do the thing. He needed to feel John’srough hands on his back and heart. He needed the rush of water in his ears as he wentbelow.Above all, he needed to hear the words. It didn’t matter if he had heard them before.Or already knew them. Or “was God.” The human part of Jesus needed to know thatGod loved him and more – was proud of him. That’s relatable content, as they say.I know this story expresses something true about who I am. But if it also expressessomething true about who God is - than I am in the right religious tradition, andmaybe so are you.
On her birthday, Zarna Garg was surrounded by her family. Her daughter presentedher with a large, awkwardly wrapped gift. Zarna wasn’t surprised to realize that it wasa hotel-grade glass water dispenser – she had been dropping very unsubtle hints thatthis is exactly what she wanted.But then she realized that the dispenser was packed full of hand-written notes. See,Zoya had reached out to everyone she could think of who knew her mom – friends,family, and associates. She’d asked for notes of encouragement and affirmation andthen had transcribed each of them in her own handwriting.Zoya’s essay is so beautiful so I’ll just read it directly:“Eventually I had grown a network of supporters who emailed me their admirationfor my mom. From these emails, I hand wrote 146 notes, crediting all of thesesupporters that also believed in my mom. Some provided me with sentences, otherswith five-paragraph-long essays. Yet, each note was an iteration of the samesentiment: “You are hilarious, full of life, and ready to take on the stage.”
6As she kept picking out and reading the notes, I could tell she was starting to believewhat they said. She started to weep with her hands full of notes. She could not believethe support was real, that everyone knew she had a special gift and believed in her.Within two months, my mom performed her first set in a New York comedy club.Within a year, my mom booked a monthly headlining show at the nation’s premiercomedy club.I am not sure what happened to the water dispenser. But I have read the notes withmy mom countless times. They are framed and line the walls of her new office spacethat she rented with the profits she made from working as a professional comedian.For many parents, their children’s careers are their greatest accomplishment, but forme my mom’s is mine.”
See, it turns out we need that love and affirmation like we need water. And we needwater an embarrassing lot. Not the fancy, pretentious dispenser, not the floating fruit.
Just the nourishing, life-giving truth that you are so deeply loved. In you, God is well-pleased. Let that simple fact wash over you like the slow and steady movement of the
Jordan River.It’s not a matter of obtaining it. It’s already there, like the stars in the sky which shinewhether we see them or not. It’s not a matter of obtaining it, but believing it. And that’swhy it’s so helpful that we’re each created in the divine image – reflecting back to eachother, when we can summon the nerve to do so, the beautiful and irrevocable truth.