A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
January 12, 2014.
Psalm 29; Matthew 3:13-17
When you were growing up, have you ever noticed how you can tell you were in trouble by the sound of your mom or dad’s voice? There’s just something about that change in tone or inflection that clues you in: “MichAEL . . .” Sometimes, it’s what they say and how they say it: “You. Get. Over here. Right. Now!” Other times, perhaps it’s like what Bill Cosby’s father once told him when Bill got into trouble: “My dad looked at me and said, ‘You know, I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!’” Then there’s the voice parents use when they are really happy and proud: “Michael, you did great!” The voices of our parents and others have a great power over us. Their messages can build up or tear down, and those voices stay with us the rest of our lives.
The voice has great power. The biblical writers knew that, and in Genesis, we read that God created the universe by voicing a command that separated the waters of chaos in order to make space for the sky and for dry ground. In our Call to Worship taken from Psalm 29, we heard: “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.” Furthermore, this psalm vividly paints an image of the power of God by describing the voice of the Lord as having the strength to break cedar trees and shatter oak trees. The voice of the Lord has the power unleash fiery flames and shake the wilderness. The Lord’s voice carries great power.
The voice of the Lord is not something one takes lightly or trifles with. When the voice of the Lord speaks, it is important that we hear and believe it. As we will hear, the Lord spoke in a powerful way in our New Testament Lesson from Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Now, as Matthew was careful to point out, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized by John. Jesus was the sinless Son of God, and if anything, it was John who needed to be baptized by Jesus. But Jesus freely chose to be baptized in order to fulfill what His heavenly Father wanted Him to do. Jesus, as Matthew told us in chapter one, was “Emmanuel,” “God with us.” And in allowing himself to be immersed in “the waters” symbolizing chaos and death, Jesus freely chose to be vulnerable, to identify fully with the frailty and the chaos of the human condition even unto death. This was no detached deity saving us from afar. This was “God with us,” fully, intimately, completely.
So, one day, Jesus showed up at the Jordan River to be baptized by John. When Jesus arose out of that water, immediately, heaven was opened, the Spirit of God descended like a dove upon him, and a voice of truth proclaimed: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Notice the way Matthew recorded these words. The voice didn’t say, “YOU are my Son”; it was not a private conversation between a father and son. The voice publicly pronounced, “THIS is my Son” for all the world to hear. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” In this voice of truth, God the Father once again confirmed Jesus’ identity. In these words, God offers encouragement and commissions Jesus to begin his earthly mission. And in this statement, God transformed the waters of chaos into waters of cleansing. After his baptism, Jesus began his earthly ministry and dared greatly to embark on a mission to save the world.
Oh, how we need to hear this voice of truth today! For the ancient Hebrews, water symbolized the powers of chaos and of death. For some of us, we can relate to this way of thinking. For some of us, the waters of chaos are tearing us apart. The storms of life are raging and we are battered from every side. Or we feel like we are drowning in our sorrow, in our grief, and in our despair. Perhaps we are in way over our head and sinking ever deeper. For some of us, there are voices in our heads and voices from others crying out telling us that we don’t measure up, that we’re no good, that no one loves us, that we’re all alone. And it’s gotten to the point that we’ve begun to believe in those voices.
But on this Sunday, don’t let those voices have the last word. Listen instead to the divine voice of truth that declared so long ago at Jesus’ baptism and still proclaims publicly for those who are baptized into Christ: “This is my son. This is my daughter. These are my children, whom I love, with them I am well pleased.” When we are baptized into Christ, the voice of truth declares that each of us is a child of God. The voice of truth proclaims that God is well pleased with us. If we believe in this voice of truth, chances are, our lives will be transformed.
During the Christmas holiday, I read a wonderful book by Brené Brown called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. In the book, she shared a story of her daughter Ellen who was distraught and crying when Brené picked her up from swim practice one day. The girl’s coach had assigned her to swim the 100 meter breaststroke for the weekend’s meet.
Ellen told her mother: “I can’t swim breaststroke. I’m terrible. I begged Coach not to put me in that event.” Ellen looked Brené right in the eyes: “Please, Mom. Please help me. I’m still going to be swimming when the other girls are getting out of the pool and the next heat is getting on the blocks. I’m really that slow.”
As parents, don’t we want to rescue our kids from difficult and embarrassing situations? Growing up, Brené had her share of doing poorly on the swim team, so she totally understood her daughter’s worries. As they talked about the situation, the daughter begged, “Mom, will you help me? Will you talk to the coach and see if he’ll put me in another race?”
Like so many parents, Brené wanted to say, “Yes! Of course you don’t have to swim any event that you don’t want to swim. EVER!” But she didn’t. Brené took a deep breath, counted to five, and said, “Let me talk to your dad.”
After the kids went to bed, Brené and her husband Steve spent an hour debating the issue and finally agreed that Ellen would have to take it up with her coach. If he wanted her to swim that race, she needed to swim it. As right as the decision felt, Brené hated every minute of it.
Ellen was upset when her parents told her their decision, and even more upset when she came home from practice to report that her coach still wanted her to swim the event. Ellen folded her arms on the table, put her head down, and cried. At one point she lifted up her head and said, “I could just scratch the event. A lot of people miss their heats.” She then said, “I won’t win. I’m not even good enough to get second or third place. Everyone is going to be watching.”
Brené realized that this was the opportunity to redefine what was important. She figured it was a chance to make their family culture of daring greatly more influential than the swim meet, her friends, and the ultracompetitive sports culture that is rampant in our community.
Brené said, “You can scratch that event. If I were you, I’d probably consider that option. But what if your goal for that race isn’t to win or even to get out of the water at the same time as the other girls? What if your goal is to show up and get wet?”
Ellen looked at her mom as if she was crazy. “Just show up and get in the water?”
Brené explained that she herself had spent many years never trying anything that she wasn’t already good at doing, and how those years of playing it safe almost made her forget how to be brave.
Brené said, “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”
On the day of the meet, when it was time for the girls to get on the blocks, Ellen stood in her lane and looked right at her parents across the pool. Then she nodded her head and snapped her goggles into place.
It’s true. Ellen did not win. In fact, she was the last one out of the pool. The other swimmers had already left the deck, and there were girls standing on the blocks ready for the next heat. Brené and Steve cheered the entire time. When Ellen got out of the pool, she walked over to her coach, who gave her a hug and then made a suggestion about her kick. When she finally made her way to her parents, she was smiling and a little tearful. She announced, “That was pretty bad, but I did it. I showed up and I got wet. I was brave.”
Brené and Steve Brown wrote a parenting manifesto that begins with this sentence, “Above all else, I want to you to know that you are loved and lovable.” That’s the voice of truth that every child needs to hear, and out of that love a child gains the faith to show up and be brave.
Kelley, I know that you were anxious about being baptized today. You were concerned about the chaos of losing your bearings while under the water. It wasn’t easy for you to be in baptistery, with everyone watching you being dunked into the water. But you showed up. You got wet. You were brave. We love you and we are proud of you for wanting to follow Jesus. But most of all, God loves you, and today, God’s voice of truth is telling everyone that you are God’s beloved child, and in Christ, God is well pleased with you.
To the rest of us, let this baptism be a reminder to you that God’s voice of truth is more powerful than the chaotic waters that are tormenting our fallen world. God’s voice of truth is beckoning to give you the strength to push back those voices of despair. God’s voice of truth is ringing forth to tell everyone that you are God’s beloved child, and in Christ, God is well pleased with you. May you hear and believe this voice of truth so that you’ll have the faith to show up and to get wet in the messiness of life and to dare greatly for the Kingdom of God. Amen.