Jesus is unavoidable. Tens of millions call him “Lord” and do their best to follow him. Countless others, including some who try to ignore him, find that he pops up all over the place—a line in a song, an image in a movie, a cross on a distant skyline or tacked on the side of the road. Most of the world uses a dating system based upon his birth. He tops nearly every list of the most influential and significant figures in history. Depending on who you talk to and how creative your eyesight is, he has even shown up on a grilled cheese sandwich. He is unavoidable, but who is he?
We live in a world which the average news cycle can now be measured in minutes rather than hours. Greg Miller, a national correspondent of the Washington Post, says reporting today is the task of distilling, on a daily basis, the same amount of chaos that used to fill an entire year. And yet, in this fast-paced world, Jesus, who died over 2,000 years ago, continues to catch—and keep—our attention.
Resurrection is surely a big part of the reason why. But resurrection comes only after Jesus’ death, and his death comes about because of the way he lived his life. We’re going to spend the next several weeks looking at exactly that—what it was about the way he lived and breathed and moved throughout the world. Honestly, sometimes we manage to skip over that part. Our most traditional creeds, the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed, both take us immediately from his being born of the virgin Mary to his suffering under Pontius Pilate. But, the truth of the matter is we Christ-followers cannot afford to miss everything that happens in between.
The renowned theologian Shirley Guthrie says, “Everything else about what Christians believe stands or falls with what they believe about Jesus.”
And, if you remember, the only theological question we ask new members—the only one!—is this: “Do you trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?”
“Who do you say that I am?” It’s the question Jesus asks his disciples. They give him all sorts of answers—answers reporting what others have had to say about that. Some say you are John the Baptist, they offer. Others say you are Elijah. But Jesus persists. Who do you say that I am? He asks again. He wants the disciples to answer for themselves, and I believe that, ultimately,
he wants us to do the same. Their answers come from observing him, following him, listening to him. We can’t do that—not in the same way.
But we can read the scriptures that tell us the story, like this morning’s gospel reading that tells us of Jesus’ baptism and the moments right after his baptism. He joins in with a crowd of people all clamoring to be baptized, all curious if John might in fact be the Messiah. John says, no, not even close—someone else is coming who is more powerful, someone who baptizes with spirit and fire, someone who will sort out the righteous from the unrighteous. Jesus, of course, now he’s the one John is talking about, but he is baptized just like everyone else.
After his baptism, scripture tells us, Jesus is praying, heaven is opened, and the Holy Spirit descends, as a voice declares, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Two observations that may be helpful here: First, for all the grammarians and English majors out there, the text says that when Jesus was praying, “the heaven was opened.” Any copy editor worth his or her salt can tell you “the heaven opened” is the better construction of that sentence. In writing, we’re taught to avoid passive voice as much as possible. In biblical interpretation, however, we’re taught to pay careful attention when passive voice appears, because more often than not, it’s not sloppy grammar, it’s a way of telling us “God is the one making this happen.” It’s called The Divine Passive.
Here’s what this means: If this sentence read, “And when Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the heaven opened,” it would be entirely possible to assume that Jesus’ prayers are what split the sky. The author, instead, structures the sentence with the Divine Passive, to emphasize that, yes, Jesus was praying, but God, and only God, was opening heaven.
The best-known example of the Divine Passive is the resurrection. Look at any of the gospel accounts, and you’ll read that Jesus was raised up. Not that Jesus raised up. Jesus was raised up. Jesus doesn’t—Jesus can’t—raise himself. The subject of that resurrection activity is God, and the subject of the heaven-opening activity is also God.
Here’s why this matters: This is how we know that the voice from heaven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is God. God is the one who says, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Hang on to that while we move to the second observation.
If you read carefully, you’ll notice it’s not clear from the text whether Jesus prays with other people around, or if he is off on his own. Most scholars conclude, and I am inclined to agree, that he is alone. Jesus prays a lot, but he tends not to do so in public. Moreover, the crowd that gathers to be baptized clamors all over John with excitement and expectation. It is hard to imagine that same crowd hearing a voice from the sky and having no reaction whatsoever. I’m not saying this conclusion would stand up in court; I’m just saying it seems to make the most logical sense.
So, two things to remember so far: We are confident that God is the one who calls Jesus “my Son, the beloved.” And we are reasonably confident that no one else is around when it happens. These are equally important, and they go hand in hand.
All on its own, the title “Son of God” was nothing particularly special. It’s a title meant to confer majesty and authority, but it was an incredibly common title in the Ancient Near East around Jesus’ time. All sorts of rulers, including Caesar, called themselves the Son of God. They claimed divine and miraculous powers, too. It was a way of claiming further influence and importance. A way of stretching the reach of one’s rule. It was a way of saying, “I am very different from you. I am better than you. I matter more than you.”
You see now how important it is that God is one who calls Jesus “son.” And that it happens quickly, privately, without any pomp and circumstance. It happens in such an intimate way we can’t help but wonder if Jesus needed to hear those words as much as we do.
Anyone else who claims to be the son of God shouts it from the mountaintops and lauds their own strength and superiority. Jesus, on the other hand, never calls himself the son of God. He calls God Abba, an intimate word akin to Daddy, and he calls him Father, but God is the one who claims Jesus as son. And as the rest of the gospel tells us, from the beginning, when he was born in a barn, to the ending, when he was left on a cross to die, what sets Jesus apart from all others who claim the title Son of God is not his strength, but his weakness, not his power, but his suffering, not his authority and rule, but his obedience and service, not his high opinion of himself, but his complete humility.
This makes him the Son of God who is God with us, the only God willing to be made less that we might be made more.
Calvin summarized the complexity this way: “It is a wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, the Son of God has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself, he has clothed us with is righteousness.”
Ultimately, what we believe about Jesus impacts what we believe about salvation. To understand Jesus as the Son of God—the one and only true Son of God—is to trust that God is, now and forever, with us—and that—God’s ever-present, never-ending love—is what saves us.
And so, we declare that Jesus is entirely human: a human just like us, who experiences all that we experience. And, in so doing, he offers us a new humanity, one in which we can see and experience God’s kingdom now, one in which we can see and share it with neighbors and enemies alike, today. Jesus, as fully human, is just like us. He is actually more human than us. He is the fullest version of humanity as God always intended it to be. He knows what it is to be like us, and, at the same time, he sets an example such that we can aspire to be like him in ways that are genuinely achievable.
At the same time, we also declare that Jesus is entirely divine: for no human being alone can save us. If Jesus is not God with us, if the life and forgiveness he offers us is not God’s own life and forgiveness, if his love poured out is not God’s own love poured out, then he cannot save us. But it is, and he does.
In the end, it is that love that carries the day. In sending us his Son, God sends us the most personal expression of God-self possible. God never says, “I love you so much that I’m going to send someone else.” God always says, “I love you so much that I’m going to be with you, all of you, people of every nation, the wheat and the chaff alike, I will be with you until the end of the age.”
No matter who you are or what you have done, what you believe or what you struggle to believe—Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Because the reality of Christ is that while he delights in us, he does not depend upon us. He is who he is and he will be who he will be.
In that sense, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, really is unavoidable. And, no matter what else the week ahead holds for you, I promise you, that’s the best news you’re going to hear.