Describing God is hard. How do you accurately describe the foundation of all being, the beginning and the end, the spark of creation, the source of wisdom and love. Monty Python had a prayer in one of their movies, “Oh God, you are so big, so very huge, gosh, we’re all impressed down here’ I can tell you.” As silly as this prayer is, I’m not sure I can do any better. Anything we can say about God is going to be grossly inadequate and at best metaphoric. Really, one of the ways religion becomes dangerous is when we forget that our beliefs are only drops in a cosmic bucket. Whenever humans have become so arrogant as to believe they can define God, that image invariably resembles the human creator and excludes everyone else.
This is not to say that it’s wrong to invent images of God. A traditional idea has been the old man with the big beard. Maybe a loving mother? Maybe you think of God as a sunset or the ocean. Maybe you see God in the permanence of mountains or the endlessness of the prairie sky. As long as we remember that these are only tools to imagine God and not God itself, these images can help us build a relationship with the unknowable divine.
For me, I love the idea of God as an idealized parent. Someone who loves us without beginning or end, someone who guides us, protects us and wishes wonderful lives for us, but in the end, lets us make our own decisions, suffer our own mistakes and celebrate our own victories.
Jesus is often refereed to as the son of God and from what we can read in the Gospels, Jesus was quite comfortable with this image. Again though, I think this is only a smidgen of the unknowable reality of God’s relationship with Jesus. Often, we read of Jesus praying to his father and in today’s Gospel reading, in one of the very few times we hear of God speaking in the second testament, we hear God calling Jesus his son.
In some ways, it’s a familiar scene. It’s a baptism, something most of us have participated in or at least witnessed. It’s a ritual that represents Jesus dedicating himself in a new way to God – it’s a repentance: not in the way we’ve come to understand the word as a ceasing to be sinful, but in the true meaning of repentance – the altering of one’s mind and life to a new direction. Matthew uses this ritual as a sign to us, his readers, that something is about to change – things are about to get serious.
In some ways though, maybe this isn’t all that familiar. There’s no church or font. John is not a minister ordained by an established Christian denomination. It doesn’t say specifically in the Bible but it doesn’t seem that Joseph or Mary are there and I doubt they’d thought of godparents by this time. Also, at no time in any Baptism that I’ve been a part of, has the roof of the church opened so that God could offer words of approval.
Those words that God speaks? They too remind me of how a parent would speak. Yes, there’s the words, this is my son, but it’s more than this. Often when we read this passage, we imagine the clouds separating and God declaring excitement over what’s happening – this is the proverbial father looking on and saying,”that’s my boy!” But it’s not quite like that. In most Bibles, it says that God’s voice says I am well pleased but it’s not really what we might think. In the Greek that this story was written in, it might be more accurate to say that God is contented or resigned.
Imagine that you’re a parent and your child has lived a life of hardship. While the gospels say little about Jesus’ early life, Matthew tells us that he started off as a refugee fleeing to Egypt to escape political persecution. It’s believed that Jesus is in his early 30’s by now which is not young – he’s had to be pretty luck to live this long, but here he is now, starting a new chapter in his life that is sure to upset many. He’s about to tick off the most powerful empire in the world and the local authorities who are profiting from the empire. If you were watching your child take this step would you be thrilled? Probably not. Maybe God’s reaction here is more like a parent who has to accept that their child’s life is now out of their hands. When I read this I think of my great grandparents watching their son leave Scotland for Canada, knowing that it’s for the best but also that they’re unlikely to see their son again. I think about parents watching their children fleeing their homes to begin life as a refugee – no, there may be no other choice, and a parent might be happy that their children might find a better path but that happiness is tempered will they be safe? Will I see them again?
There’s another way this story illustrates God as a parent. As I said, there’s little that we know about Jesus before his ministry started. He likely spent time learning about the Hebrew scriptures, carried on his father’s carpentry business but as for the life changing work we read about in these stories, that hasn’t yet started. Still, when we hear God’s voice, we’re told that Jesus is loved. Well why? What has Jesus done up until this point to receive such a great endorsement?
For those of you who are a parent, when did you start loving your child? Was it when they showed that they’d be able to support you in your old age? Was it when they started pulling their weight around the house and doing chores? Was it when they proved that they were good people, that treated others with compassion and empathy? Or did you love your child when you first laid your eyes on them? Maybe it was a love sight unseen – you loved them simply because of the promise of what was to come?
Wouldn’t it be the same with God? Jesus didn’t have to prove himself. He didn’t have to cure the sick, tell magnificent parables or stand up to the Empire. He was loved because love is not a reward for living a certain way but instead, love is the incubator from which goodness and holiness are grown.
In our punishment and reward society, this may seem unfamiliar but for us too, God loves us, not because of who we are and what we might have done but instead, God loves us so that we might one day live into that love. It is sight unseen, it is unconditional, it is a promise that feeds potential.
So how do we respond to this amazing gift? Well, we can start by offering this same love to our neighbours. What if, rather than loving as a reciprocal exchange, we set love as our default setting when thinking about all God’s children? I’m of course not telling you that you should go and hug and kiss everyone you meet – I don’t have time to visit you all in jail. Instead, what if, when you’re thinking about people around the world, you think with love rather than indifference. When you think of people chained to sewing machines to make cheap clothing they’ll never afford, we feel anger because greed is causing a loved one to suffer rather than feeling joy at a great deal. What if we think of strangers as potential friends? What if we remember that every bullet fired, every bomb dropped, the lives that are being taken are not unknown enemies but siblings that are loved by God in the same way God loves us?
God loves us. Period. This isn’t a reward for what we’ve done, for the colour of our skin or the country of our birth. God loves us and we are invited to live lives that demonstrate, spread, live into and become worthy of that love.