Fierce but infinitely tender

I sometimes think that we religious people use words like God – Immortal – Eternal – rather lightly, with no awareness of what we are actually talking about.  How can we ever have even an inkling, even a tiny understanding, of what the creative power underlying the Universe is like? Yet whatever we call it, this immense, unimaginable power that creates and sustains millions upon millions of galaxies and stars, and has produced here on Earth a myriad of life forms, is something we can imagine – we can almost feel – and know, and be aware, that somehow we are part of it. Perhaps the reason some modern people reject our notion of God is because they cannot see beyond the words and stories we use to express this – the inexpressible?

Isaiah in our 1st reading today (Isaiah 40:1-11) uses images of valleys being filled in, and mountains laid low as his way of describing this that he calls “the glory of the Lord” – not least because “glory” in the Bible means something that cannot really be seen – like light that is so bright that our eyes cannot look at it without being blinded. But notice where Isaiah takes us with this? Suddenly , at the end, he describes this immense, terrifying, blinding power in a different way. “He is like a shepherd …. gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast” An amazing leap from immense power to extreme gentleness.

Yes God should frighten us sometimes! But our Christian faith always takes us beyond such holy fear, and assures us that what is so immense is also very close and very gentle – like a young strong fierce father holding his new baby gently in his arms, and looking upon the child with tender awestruck love. Yes, I meant to use the image of a father rather than a mother at this point, not just because it is traditional, but because it conveys best that strange contrast between a young male’s dangerous strength and his tenderness at the sight of a tiny helpless baby. Those of you who have seen hardened male soldiers meeting their children on return from fighting in Afghanistan will know what I mean, as shown well by the story of the Military Wives shown on TV recently. But remember, whether you saw it or not,  that when we call God “Father”, we should think of a young father as I have described him, not an old grandfather with a beard!

Now what has all this got to do with the Baptism of Jesus? (Luke 3:15-22) Well one of the things that gets Jesus killed is his teaching that God is not just like a Father but IS his Father in a special and unique way. This is our Christian belief – that in some way, beyond our understanding, this man Jesus is “the Son of God”. We need to be careful with this claim, to know what it means and does not mean, and not to take it too far. We are not saying that Jesus is like Superman – an alien from out of space with super-human powers. No, he is just another helpless human baby like any other that could so easily have died or been killed then. Like all of us, it was only as he grew older that he began to be conscious of himself, and to examine and explore his identity. Who am I and what am I, and what am I to do with my life, are often agonising questions for people in their teens and early twenties.. and often beyond that when particular crises occur in our lives.

Surely it was the same for Jesus, which is why what he experienced when John baptised him, and then afterwards during his Temptations, was so important for him. For 30 years he had lived quietly in Nazareth. He was clearly intelligent, as we see from the one story we have of him at 12, staying behind in the Temple and questioning the Teachers there. He clearly read, studied and prayed through his Bible, learning much of it by heart, as devout people did in those days.  Perhaps he explored more than we know in his 20’s, of how some of his fellow Jews were trying to get close to God. Perhaps he visited the Qumran Community that we know of because of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Then, finally, he chooses to be baptised by John. And clearly at that point for him, as we say, the heavens opened, and he began to realise fully his destiny, his unique relationship with this immense power, this immortal and eternal God, that he already called “Father”.

This is a mystery for each one of us. For all of us, whether we believe or not, are in some way linked to this Creative Power, this Spiritual Energy, that Jesus teaches us to call “Our Father”. What we Christians know is that because of Jesus this power is close to us. As St Paul says “When the kindness and love of God…. was revealed..He did this so we should become heirs… to eternal life.”(Titus 3:4-7)

Thus, in and through Jesus, we are drawn into a close relationship with the eternal and immortal power that is God. That is a mystery worth a lifetime’s meditation.

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