What is God asking of me?

As we were singing the response after our first lesson this morning, "God blesses God's people with peace," I thought how that could be true if we really listen to God's word. This morning, this is especially the case. This word that we hear today is a word that does show us the way to peace if we listen deeply and follow it. But to get the full meaning of the lessons today, I think it's important to remind ourselves of how this lesson today and this event in the life of Jesus fits in with what we have been celebrating over the past couple of months.

The Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7

Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10

Acts 10:34-38

Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Full text of the readings

We've had the four weeks of Advent in preparation for the birth of Jesus into our world, the coming of God into human history. We celebrated the birth of Jesus and then we remembered some of the events that happened shortly after his birth: how Mary and Joseph took him to the temple to be circumcised; how the Magi came, these extraordinary, unknown people from the East following God's direction somehow and accepting Jesus and being accepted by him. We also remembered how, as Jesus was growing up, he was separated from his parents and they desperately looked for him for three days, only to find him in the temple.

After that, Luke tells us at that point of the gospel, "Jesus returned to Nazareth and he was obedient to Mary and Joseph and he grew in wisdom, age and grace." This reminds us that Jesus was fully human, like every one of us. He did not know ahead of time and he did not know as a youngster, where God was leading him. He had a human mind, a human consciousness, just as we do. He had to learn, he had to grow in wisdom, age and grace, so what is happening now, Jesus, I'm sure over the years that are not recorded in the gospel, had been trying to discover, as we all do as we grow up, "What is God asking of me?"

Then he becomes a disciple of John the Baptist. John comes out of the desert, begins to preach, draws huge crowds of people -- they're anxious to hear a word from God, so they follow John in great numbers and Jesus is one of them. Jesus presents himself for baptism and after he's baptized (and this is only in Luke's gospel; the other gospels don't record it the same way), after he is baptized, he goes apart by himself and he prays. That's when he has this extraordinary experience hearing God speaking to him, "You are my son, my chosen one. In you I am well pleased."

So Jesus is beginning to understand that he has a special role in relationship to God. Those words that he hears, probably we do not immediately remember where they come from, but Jesus would have because he knew the scriptures. He went to the synagogue every week, he studied the Hebrew scriptures, and probably had memorized a good part of them. So when he heard God saying, "You are my son, my chosen one. In you I am well pleased," he would also remember what followed after that because it comes from the 42nd chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah: "You are my chosen one in whom I delight. I have put my spirit upon you. You will bring justice to the nations, and this servant does not shout or raise his voice. Proclamations are not heard in the streets. A bruised reed he will not crush, nor will he snuff out the life of the wavering wick, but he will make true justice appear in truth."

Jesus begins to understand his call. He is to be the servant, the chosen one of God, beloved of God, and he is to bring true justice to the nations, that is to all the world. But it's important to notice, as I'm sure Jesus would have, the way in which he brings that true justice. It's a way of gentleness, a way of nurturing, a way of love, not violence or power or oppression of any kind. The servant does not shout or raise his voice, does not proclaim in the streets. What that is referring to is a call to arms. Most of the time we would think, "Well, we have to change the world. We have to make things better by using force. That's how we're going to bring peace," but that's not how his servant is to act, not a call to arms, but the servant doesn't break the bruised reed.

Think what that means. You have a plant of some sort growing and it's bruised or slightly injured. You want it to come back to fullness of life. You have to nurture it, be gentle, careful, and then it will come back. Or "doesn't snuff out the wavering flame" -- if you have coals and you want to make those coals burst forth into fire again, you blow on them, but very gently and carefully so that the flames break forth. If you do it with too much power or too much force, you snuff out the flame. So this servant of God who is to bring true justice is one who is gentle and loving and nurturing, one who rejects violence for any reason whatsoever, totally rejects that, only acts out of love.

If we turn to our second lesson today, we discover what this means to bring true justice to the nations. In the scriptures in the Bible, when we talk about justice, we're not talking about everyone having a right to what is his or hers, the sharing of gifts. That's part of justice, that everyone has a right to whatever we need in order to live a full human life -- every person has that -- but justice in the sacred scriptures goes beyond that. Justice is about relationships. It's the foundation for how we share our goods. It's how we related, first of all, to God, my relationship with God, a relationship with God pouring forth love upon me, filling me with life, loving me into existence, even sharing divine light with me.

That's my relationship with God, but then further justice is how we relate to one another, with respect, even reverence for everyone in the whole human family. Every person on this planet has been called into life by love, the love of God. Nothing exists without God's love. Our relationship with one another has to be based on that truth. We respect, there's mutuality, there's equality, there's love, and not just for those who love us; even for those who have hurt us. This is the dramatic thing Jesus teaches us. You don't just love those who love you; you love your enemy.

We live in a time when there is much violence in the world. We wonder if there ever can be peace in the world. But as we hear in that passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter told about Jesus: he went about doing good, healing all, restoring love where there was hate because God was with him. Peter was repeating the way Jesus acted when he went into that home. It was Cornelius' part of the Roman occupiers of the Holy Land, one who would be an enemy, but Peter finds himself there because God has guided him and he reaches out in love to Cornelius and Cornelius responds. A relationship of justice is formed. Cornelius and his whole household become followers of Jesus.

I think if God is going to help us to bring peace into our world, we have to follow this way of Jesus. We have to build relationships with those who are different from us by race, by our ethnic background, by our religious background. We have to begin to develop a sense of mutuality, trust and love.

Eight hundred years ago, the Fifth Crusade was happening. The leaders of our church, the pope himself, had begun to wage war against the Muslims. There's a new book that I just received recently called The Saint and the Sultan. It's about Francis of Assisi, and something that happened in his life, something he did, that really would be a model for us today if we would only commit ourselves to the way of Jesus. That war was going on, and Francis determined that this was wrong -- Christians waging war against Muslims -- so on his own, he crossed the line. He went over to the camp of the sultan, unarmed, only bringing the love of God, the love of Jesus.

The sultan, Malik al-Kamil, had never heard of Christianity before. Francis went to him, managed to have an audience, and they carried on conversations over a period of time and the sultan, the Muslims, were ready to make peace, to stop the war that was going on. Tragically at that time, and this is historically true, the papal legate, speaking for the pope, refused to enter into any kind of conversations. He was determined: "We're going to take the Holy Land back by force," so the war went on and it was a dramatic loss for the Christians. There wasn't peace.

But Francis was showing us what we have to do. We can't do it, of course, all at once; we can't actually go and talk to the Muslims in Afghanistan or Pakistan or any of those places where war is going on right now, but we could begin to have a different attitude in our own heart, within our own action, where we wouldn't think of Muslims simply as killers, as those who were out to destroy us, and we would begin to try to understand that religion. They worship the same God we do. They even venerate Mary as the mother of Jesus.

Most of us have a fear and an attitude that these are just violent people. Well, Francis discovered that wasn't true, and if we really made the effort to reach out, to show respect, to try to develop the spirit of mutuality, the spirit of love, I'm sure we would find out the same thing, and we could begin to build a way of peace.

But it has to start within the mind and heart of each one of us. We have to examine our attitudes and see if there isn't too much violence connected with the way we think, how we want to act, and then go back to the way of Jesus, who rejected violence, who nurtured the bruised reed and made burst into flame the wavering wick. We have to try to be like that Jesus, the way Francis followed him.

So this morning as we celebrate our baptism, the moment when each one of us became a son or daughter of God, a disciple of Jesus, we celebrate that today, but we have to recommit ourselves to what that means. It means to follow the way of Jesus faithfully and that will bring us a world where peace will prevail.

[Bishop Gumbleton preached this homily at St. Anne Parish, Frankfort, Mich.]

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