Sermon, January 8, 2023

A Sermon
The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ
January 8, 2023

“When is Enough, Enough?”

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Hebrews 2:17[i]

You would think that a dove alighting on the head of Jesus and a voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God would have been enough, that everyone there that day would have become ardent believers.  But the text falls silent.  It speaks of this miraculous epiphany and fails to mention the reaction of the crowd.  It’s almost as if it never happened.

            A good number of biblical scholars think this story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is given such a prominent position in the life of Jesus because Jesus and John were both seen as viable candidates for the title of Messiah.  Indeed, they say that John the Baptist’s disciples didn’t disappear from the historical record until the second century.  So this story serves the purpose of making a clear distinction between John, who is seen as the one who prepares the way, and Jesus, who is proclaimed to be the Son of God.  So the author wasn’t all that concerned with the reaction of the crowd.  That isn’t what Matthew was shooting for.  Thus, we never learn how the crowd responded to the dove and the voice.

            I probably shouldn’t do this — I don’t have the academic credentials to call into question the scholarship I just cited — but what if there is another way to see this?  What if there is an important spiritual point being made about what it means to believe?

            Let’s see if this helps me make my point.  A motion picture came out in 1977 staring John Denver and George Burns entitled, O God.  Denver plays the role of a supermarket assistant manager who was married and had two children.  His life was going well until one day God decided to pay him a visit.  God, played by George Burns, enlists Denver’s help.  God wants him to get the word out, to convince others of God’s existence.  Denver tells others, his wife included, that he has talked with God.  His assertion is meet with universal skepticism.  Even Denver’s wife wonders if he isn’t losing his mind.  As the movie unfolds, Denver becomes a liability to his employer, loses his job and eventually finds himself in court having to defend seeing God.  God, a.k.a. George burns, lends Denver a hand and appears in court as a witness.  God testifies, performs a miracle for all to see, and you might think that Denver has won the day, that God’s existence is now irrefutable.  But in only a few minutes, the entire event is reasoned away and life returns to its predictable normality.  What I take from the film and from this story of a dove alighting on the head of Jesus and a voice from heaven heard by all is that belief is more than a momentary experience.  It is the formation of a life.

            You see, intellectual assent, our ability to accept as real those things that seem to contradict our perceived reality, may be one of the steps in believing in God, but I do not think this where faith begins.  I want to suggest that these words of Dag Hammarskjöld point us in the direction of a deeper truth.

You dare your Yes and experience a meaning.
You repeat your Yes and all things acquire a meaning.
When everything has a meaning,
How can live anything but a Yes?

I believe Kierkegaard got it right.  Faith is leap into 70 fathoms of water.  It is a risk that only those who have been blessed by grace are willing to take.

            When I say it is a risk, I do not mean it is devoid of reason.  One candid glimps of the worded mess humanity has made of the world make the leap reasonable.  Because the truth of the matter is that the way of the world has failed to produce human virtue.  The world lives not by the Golden Rule of doing unto others what you would want done unto you, but by the Silver Rule of “Do it unto others before they have a chance to do it unto you.”  To speak of the meek inheriting the earth, of turning the other check and carrying an oppressors heavy load beyond the required one mile — these seem folly to the world that measures one’s worth by the size of one’s financial holdings.

            Now we all live in this world.  But there are those who have been blessed by grace to see another way and have been granted the courage to take that leap of faith.  It is what you have done.  By your presence here today, you bear witness to a different way.  You have attempted to shape your life around a set of valises that seem like nonsense to the world.  Oh, none of us has done it perfectly, but our failure to be perfect must never stand in the way of what is possible.  So, today we speak of a dove alighting in the head of Jesus, of a voice from heavne proclaiming Jeus to be God’s Son.  You may not be able to see the dove or believe in the voice, but take the leap of faith and cast your life in the mold of Jesus and the dove will be seen and voice heard.  Let us pray….

[i] Matthew 3:13-17

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And 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. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”