Steve Prince is a New Orleans native who received his degree in art from Michigan State University. His preferred medium is printmaking and drawing. He uses the stark distinction between black and white to depict images of struggle that often conclude with celebration. His works have been displayed across the globe. But the beginning to his career started at a very young age and with some controversy. His family had a World Book Encyclopedia set. In browsing through it he saw a picture of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting in the Sistine Chapel. He was so taken by it that he carefully tore that page out of the thick volume. He was punished by his aghast parents who had invested in this costly set. But Prince clung to that page because it called out to him as a defining part of his identity. He knew in that moment that he wanted to paint like this master! Somehow it set him on a course of becoming an artist who mixes his faith with our world.
There are moments when our journey is rerouted and our destiny emerges clearly before us. Baptism is one such moment. When we invite Christ to be Sovereign over all our days, or when our parents choose the Christian faith for us, that commitment supersedes all other defining elements of our lives. God celebrates our desire to walk with Jesus and we learn that the Holy Spirit is available to us always. Epiphany is a fitting season in the church year for baptisms because this is when we focus on how God breaks into our history. We hear of it in the scripture passages that follow Christmas. Our reading from John is one in a string of Sundays in which the Church celebrates God made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth. It is John’s Gospel that begins with the affirmation that “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In other words, God broke into our earthly world in the human form and our devotion to Jesus now claims us.
A distinct feature of John’s Gospel is his ability to help us get to know different individuals at a deep level. When we read John 1: 29-42 we hear of the converging of two worlds in several different ways. First, we meet two men, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. They are linked to each other but have very different job descriptions. Second, we discover that Jesus has two very different identifying features. In the section about His baptism, He is identified as both the Son of God and the Lamb of God. How can He be both the Messiah and the sacrificial lamb for our sin? Finally, we witness two different living settings in Jesus’ world: the quiet countryside of Galilee where Jesus was raised and did much of his ministry. We are also brought into the chaos of Jerusalem where the Jewish elite and Roman authorities dominated the scene.
One of the key narratives to the season of Epiphany is Jesus’ baptism. It was the launching pad for His ministry, full immersion into His sacrifice for the world. John’s version of the story is quite different from that of the synoptic gospel writers: Matthew, Mark and Luke. It’s more of a first person testimony by John the Baptist who speaks about what he witnessed. There is a four-day succession of events described as the prologue or first eighteen verses conclude. The first day describes how the religious leaders from Jerusalem hiked out to the wilderness where John was baptizing to question his identity and authority. John gave the Jews of Jerusalem an alternative expression of the faith that would have threatened the leaders. I’m not sure how contented they were with his answers but they left after confronting him. We stand in awe of John’s courage as he paves the way for Jesus to arrive.
On the second day Jesus comes to be baptized by John. We learn about this marking point through John’s retrospective. The Holy Spirit is given to Jesus and John identifies Him as the Son of God.
On the third day Jesus walks by John who is with some of his followers. John points to Jesus and calls Him “the Lamb of God.” At the Passover celebration every year the Jews sacrifice a lamb that becomes the centerpiece to their Seder meal. There could be no greater gap between two identifying titles. How can the Son of God also be a sacrificial lamb? By calling attention to Jesus, some of John’s disciples transfer their allegiance to Jesus and follow Him. John was doing his job. We would do well to ask ourselves how we call attention to Jesus so that others see God at work in our world and personal lives.
On the fourth day described in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the newly-baptized Jesus travels back to the area of Galilee with some of His new recruits. There, on the shores of the lake He knew so well, Jesus called men to be His disciples. When He invites them, there is something about Him that draws them in. He asks them what they are looking for. When they ask Him where He is staying He issues an invitation that will represent His entire ministry: Come and see. Not only do they go with Jesus to see where He is living. They stay with Him. It must have been a compelling conversation! As the image of Da Vinci’s artwork summoned something deep in Steve Prince’s soul, Jesus’ outreach to ordinary men from His rural home setting led to their devotion. In fact, Jesus renamed Peter. It wasn’t cute nicknames Jesus gave. Simon became Peter, meaning rock. Jesus would count heavily on him during His lifetime and in the establishment of the Church after His resurrection. I don’t know about you but I don’t think I would take too kindly to someone trying to give me a new label, no matter how appealing. Clearly being with Jesus was transformational for a dozen men whose testimony would ultimately change our world.
So what do we know about this Jesus into whose way of life several of our newest church members were baptized on Sunday? He was referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus’ day scholars believe somewhere between 200-400 people called Nazareth home. It was a backwoods town that garnered no respect from outsiders. The region it was located in was Galilee which was viewed as home to rednecks. People would have known each other well, sharing resources to ease hardships. Just like the days when Mrs. Miller would discipline your son, Johnny, for misbehaving in her home, there would be no secrets in a small town like Nazareth. My senior year in high school my family moved to Misawa, Japan. My father had been stationed at the Air Force Academy for four years before that, where I attended the first years of high school in the mountains of Colorado. I would have been part of a graduating class of more than 300 students if we had stayed there. But instead, in this remote air base halfway across the world, I graduated with a class of 23 people! We knew each other well. We knew what bugged us about certain people and we had learned to accept people for who they were. 23 seemed like an impossibly small number for a graduating class. But Jesus came from an even smaller setting. That’s why the folks from His hometown couldn’t believe that Mary and Joseph’s son became so well known as a traveling evangelist. Things like that didn’t happen to folks from Nazareth!
On a trip to the Holy Lands several years ago we started out in Jesus’ home territory of Galilee. It was lush with flowers and pomegranate trees. People would have walked long distances up and down hills with little villages nestled in valleys and along the lakeshore. The Sea of Galilee provided the main livelihood for much of the population. Fishing was an important industry and the lake drew people to it because of its beauty. It’s about thirteen miles long and eight miles wide at its widest point. Nazareth wasn’t on the lake but was set on a hill that gave a grand vista of the lake and offered its cooling breezes. Giving the job description to the disciples as “fishers of people” made complete sense given where they were all from. It was a Jewish community in Nazareth. They were a settled people who would have looked upon a stranger with some suspicion. This makes the broad embrace of so many different people in Jesus’ ministry all the more amazing. The fact that Jesus left home and traveled such distances was highly unusual.
We know from the gospel writers that Jesus made two or three trips to Jerusalem during His ministry, ultimately being crucified there. I want you to understand how foreign of a setting that would have felt to Him and His disciples. They were accustomed to the quiet and open beauty of the countryside. The distance between Galilee and Jerusalem was about 80 miles as the crow flies. But many Jews, because they despised the Samaritan people, would travel significantly out of their way to avoid Samaria that was in the direct path between these two areas. As we traveled in an air-conditioned bus through open country on the way to Jerusalem, we saw shepherds with their flocks. We noticed how many caves are carved into the sides of the hills. Not unlike an approach to Chicago or LA, as we approached the holy city of Jerusalem things changed quickly. The land was clogged with people and buildings. We were on the Temple Mount on one of the Jewish holy days and some 50,000 pilgrims were estimated to be there that day. There was unabashed pushing and shoving in the crowd. There were beautiful sacred buildings and pools where people sought spiritual cleansing. We parked along the road and walked back a distance to wade in the Jordan River along whose shores people had set up tents for the holiday weekend. Children splashed in its shallow waters. In the walled city of Jerusalem there was a hustle and bustle of people and merchants calling out to prospective customers. We stood in a packed crowd for more than an hour, inching our way toward the site believed to be the burial place of Jesus. I’m not normally claustrophobic but this mob scene was intimidating! Personal space in the old city was non-existent and patience wore thin as too many people traveled the same paths each day. While there is excitement in a big city, I imagine Jesus and His disciples felt very much out of their element there. No doubt they were ready to go home after a brief visit.
So as we look in on this baptism from John’s gospel, we recognize that it’s our story. That was certainly evident with the baptism of three children in our worship on Sunday. But it’s always a part of our story. Like the page of the encyclopedia that the fledgling artist carried with him into adulthood, these vows transform us. They call out to us. Jesus lived between two worlds with grace, knowing that His home was with God and not limited to a particular location. Just as the disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus, we shape our daily activities around Him. Imitating John the Baptist, we point others to Jesus through the ways that we pursue holiness each day. When people ask us what keeps us anchored, encouraged, optimistic in tough times, we invite them to “Come and see.” Walking with us, they meet Christ and shift their allegiance from the gods of our culture to faith in Him. In following Him, we will be led away from our favorite security blankets to meet people and experience places that will change us. Church becomes the place where we form friendships that are lasting and deep. We work together to raise our children in the faith. We share how we have experienced the presence of Jesus among us. We grow in our generosity together, showing folks in the neighborhood and across the world that we love and serve Jesus.
Each day we awaken to colliding worlds that call out to us. As believers baptized into faith in Jesus of Nazareth, we are shown how God can enable us to build bridges between the two. This is good news for the American soldiers who shipped out to the Middle East in the past weeks. God is near. It’s reassurance for the U.S. firefighters who flew across the world to Australia to fight fires and bring relief to weary rescue workers there. God is near. It’s a lifesaving support to FEMA and other aid workers who are heading to Puerto Rico to assist them in rebuilding after yet another devastating natural disaster. God is near. It’s the anchor for those of us meeting the needs of our neighbors in the Cedar Springs Mobile Home Estates through City Impact. God is near. It’s our hope as we wade through struggles on a personal, family and national level. It is in the presence of our powerful God that we find our home and not in some geographical spot. Our responsibility and greatest desire is to tell others about Jesus with His invitation, “Come and see.” Together we will figure out how to put worlds together with the promise that God is near.