Stepping Into God's Pleasure
A sermon on Matt. 3:13-17
(for an audio recording of the sermon, click here)
When I was a little girl my favorite movie, which I watched over and over again, was Chariots of Fire.
For any of you who have seen the film, you might be thinking: “that’s an unusual favorite movie for an 8-year-old girl.” And, you would be right, but I was an unusual 8-year-old girl so, there you have it.
For any of you who have not seen the movie, I encourage you to do so. It is an academy-award-winning depiction of the Olympic running team from Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics. It has all the compelling drama of a sports biopic with the bonus of a romantic side story. It engages - in nuanced and thought-provoking ways - with questions of identity & ambition, the lasting impacts of war, antisemitism, and the conflict between national and religious loyalty. And it has a truly stirring musical theme.
Of course, most of that was lost on me, when I was 8-years old. But I still loved the movie, because of the way that it depicts the committed, joyful faith of Eric Liddell.
Liddell was a naturally gifted runner who was selected for the British Olympic team. He was also a man of deep faith preparing to serve as a Christian missionary in China.
As the movie tells his story, Liddell’s sister, Jennie, worried that his running was a distraction from his true calling, and wanted him to give it up. It was this conflict which generated the scene that made me love this movie so much: In the scene, Eric is explaining to Jennie why he can’t give up running. He tells her:
“I believe God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”
I still get shivers thinking of that scene, hearing those words: “I feel God’s pleasure.” I think they affect me this way because I hear them as an invitation to imagine that feeling. What is it like to “feel God’s pleasure”?
Do you know? Have you ever felt God’s pleasure in you? Has God’s pleasure in you ever changed your life? And I wonder – was God’s pleasure part of what changed Jesus’ life?
In Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus we hear a public profession of that pleasure: “A voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matt. 3:17)
I think it’s easy for us to miss the power of this profession, because we know the whole story.
We know the life of miracles and wisdom that Jesus will lead, and the self-sacrificing death he will die for all of humanity.
We have our (perhaps clear, or perhaps fuzzy) Christologies about how his divinity is not erased by his humanity.
We have Jesus in a special category of perfection and connection to God.
It’s not a surprise to us that God is pleased with Jesus.
But God makes this proclamation of pleasure BEFORE Jesus has done anything particularly noteworthy in his human life. He’s been born, honored as a baby by mysterious foreigners, fled as a refugee to Egypt, and returned to Nazareth to grown up. That’s all the detail Matthew has given us before Jesus shows up at the Jordan to receive the baptism of John – the baptism of repentance given by a fanatical prophet who gives impassioned speeches about fire and winnowing forks. John is the one who has really made an impression for God’s kingdom at this point!
But after John baptizes Jesus, the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends on Jesus, and a voice from heaven declares God’s pleasure.
So, with what is God pleased?
When Eric Liddell speaks of God’s pleasure, he is speaking of the sense that God delights in Liddell’s use of the natural gifts God gave him. But Jesus hasn’t used any gifts yet… Unless it might be the gift of his humanity…
Jesus has ALWAYS been God… been the Word that spoke creation into being… been the Power that will perform the miracles in his coming ministry, and the Wisdom that will answer every challenge. But in his baptism, Jesus is embracing his humanity. He is, in the poetic words of Debie Thomas, “wad(ing) into the murky waters of the Jordan, aligning himself with the great unwashed who teemed into the wilderness, reeking of sin….Jesus’s first public act was an act of stepping into his humanity in the fullest, most embodied way.”
It is after Jesus unites himself with humanity, after he JOINS with us through water and word in an act that confesses dependence, confesses the need for God’s benediction and for the hands of another human being to pour the water over his head – it is after this act of SURRENDER that God announces: “This is my Son, The Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The pleasure expressed by God is not about the separateness of Jesus – not about what sets him apart… it’s about his willingness to step in…
to step into the water…
to step into a position of humility and be baptized by another…
to step into a life defined by solidarity with the neediness of humanity.
Jesus had no sin from which to repent and turn away, but he still told John that his baptism was necessary… necessary to fulfill all righteousness.
Now, righteousness in an important word in Matthew’s gospel, perhaps the most important word for understanding the good news that he is telling us about Jesus. Because, for Matthew, righteousness is not primarily about sin, and its certainly not about morality. What Matthew learned from the life of Jesus is that righteousness is something we participate in. It’s what happens when God’s kingdom, God’s way of doing things breaks into our world, and disrupts our way of doing things, revealing to us a different way of being… a better way.
The righteousness revealed in Jesus’ baptism is that God’s response to the neediness of humanity is to step in and join us. To unite with us in our brokenness, so that we can be united to Jesus in God’s kingdom work of righteousness... and, I think, to be united to Jesus in knowing God’s good pleasure.
Now, the baptism by which Christians are inducted into the family of faith is a different baptism than that depicted in today’s gospel – Jesus wasn’t united with his own future death and resurrection in the waters of the Jordan. But, nevertheless, Christian baptism is a baptism that calls us into the same surrender, the same stepping in, the same posture of neediness and the same uniting with the needs of “the great unwashed… reeking of sin.” When we affirm our baptismal covenant, our “yes” is not only to personal practices of faith. It is also to the commitment to participate in the community of faith, and to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
Jesus’s baptism was NOT just a personal moment between himself and the person of God who spoke from Heaven…it was a moment of solidarity with all of humanity… a moment of being united with the need of the world.
And so it is for us. Through baptism we are drawn into the righteousness of Christ, and that righteousness is about far more than our own personal cleansing from sin.
It’s about uniting us with the breaking in of God’s kingdom, into our messed-up world, and participating in the work of setting things to rights.
And, lest that feel like an impossibly heavy burden, remember this: the voice from heaven that spoke of God’s pleasure came BEFORE Jesus did any of the kingdom-building work. Because the pleasure of God wasn’t Jesus’s REWARD for righteousness… it was his empowerment.
Which brings us back to Eric Liddell, and Chariots of Fire. The words I quoted to you a few minutes ago – the words that sang to my faith as a young child - are actually heard twice in the movie. The first time is in the confrontation with Liddell’s sister. But they are echoed again in a voiceover during his gold-medal-winning race. As he runs like the wind, head thrown back in exaltation, shining with the glow of feeling God’s pleasure.
I wonder, how it might change our lives if we could feel God’s pleasure in that way? If we could see in the life of faith not the pain and demanding discipline of the race set before us, but rather the joy of running it?...the awesome awareness of God’s pleasure in us? Could our lives be changed… could we have the strength to run a joyful race if we first heard the voice from heaven speaking to us?
Let us have ears to hear the voice that says to each and every one of us:
“You are my child. My beloved. In you I am well pleased.”
Thanks be to God.
 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Rite of the Affirmation of Baptism, p. 236.