How many of you here are familiar with the show Undercover Boss? I admit, it was a guilty pleasure of mine. For the uninitiated: Undercover Boss is a show where CEOs of companies such as 7-11 and Roto-Rooter completely change their appearance (with hair dye, a dashing beard, or temporary tattoos) and, under the guise of a trainee, interact with the hourly workers who keep their corporate machine running. There they hear the struggles and hopes of their workers all while participating, some who are living in homeless shelters, who can’t afford to pay for babysitters and college so they can rise up. After prodding they often say things like ‘if our CEO was here I’d say x’. At the end of every show there are three or four people who get called to the corporate headquarters, where the company bestows on them a gift of some sort; a scholarship, luxurious vacation, franchise opportunities, and in one case, $250k to get a family out of a homeless shelter and into a house! Pretty fantastic, yeah? But what if one of these folks who got a huge college scholarship decided a few days later that though the scholarship would help eventually, really a large cash donation would have been better, and that person became embittered and angry? Kind of crazy, isn’t it?
The story of Christ’s baptism is really a lot like this show, don’t you think? A CEO comes down to mix with his people, dwells among them for years, and boom! The gates of Heaven open, a dove descends down to Christ’s shoulder and what I can only imagine a big voice saying that Christ was God’s son. Woah! The Boss revealed himself to the Jews, who had been in anticipation, hoping to have an opportunity to share their lives, to see wrongs set right again. Well, we know the story, right, the disillusionment and bitterness the Jews felt when they found the gift not to their desires? Thankfully, not us, right? We all rest happily in the resurrection? Of course not! Even as Christians who know the outcome, who hope in the resurrection we can become so bogged down in our day-to-day lives that we forget that God has revealed himself to us and is still present and active in our lives! It’s important that we understand the significance of Christ’s baptism for our faith walk so we can live effectively with the gift our ‘boss’ has given us, and what we can do in the times where we’re not exactly feeling grateful for those gifts.
When Christ was baptized, it wasn’t for his own benefit. Certainly, Christ wasn’t in need of baptism – the Forerunner recognizes this when he says, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’ As St. John Chrysostom says, this baptism wasn’t an action for Christ’s benefit but for those who would witness it. It is Christ, then, who we know took on the sins of the whole world, showing onlookers that the world is renewed again through this washing away of the world’s sins. Then God splits the gates of Heaven, and sends a down a dove to perch on Christ’s shoulder. Why a dove? It may seem insignificant, but it is the very same bird that brought to Noah good tidings of peace after the floods. There, the dove signaled the death was now done, and it was time to regrow. Here, Christ stands as the True Ark, with the dove heralding peace and renewal among God’s people. There’s another great piece of news we learn from this story – the gates of Heaven are open! It’s not just that the worlds’ sins are washed away, it’s not just that Christ has come heralding peace and renewal, but God is actively inviting us to fully participate in His mission! As St. Paul wrote in in today’s epistle to Titus, “…the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions and live…godly lives in this world, awaiting the blessed hope, the appearing of the Glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
This is the very same grace and hope that we see in Matthew’s baptism narrative. And while that may be the case, we can still fall into a place of grumbling, bitterness, or even simple aloofness. I mean it when I say it can happen to all of us, myself included – on a Saturday, for example, trying to make sure children get to their respective activities, tend to house maintenance, and maybe still having to work after an already non-stop work week. Or it could be something like a death in the family, the loss of a job, a bad injury or illness. There are many, many things that can knock us off our course along The Way, and it’s very easy for us to lose sight of the face of the God, the God who dwelled among us as a man, sharing in our hopes, our dreams, our fears. There are some things we can do to remember that grace, to “snap us back”, so to speak, into that reality.
Here you might say “Ok, Matthew, yes, we should do the Jesus prayer and read the Bible.” Absolutely! Pray! Pray even if it seems dumb, fruitless, useless, awkward. Close your eyes and take a half minute to tell God you love him, and beg for the strength to do his will. Christ says the door is open to all who knock – seek out God and he will respond! And yes, brothers and sisters, read the scriptures! Spend five or six minutes each day reading a Psalm or two. Make a point to sit down and start reading the Gospels. Prayer and reading the Scriptures is a surefire way to either grow or re-orient yourself in the Faith. I challenge you this week to take five minutes each day to read from the book of Psalms and pray to our God. It’s impossible for a person who is praying and studying to not live in grace! And if you’ve ever seen a manual flashlight, how it gets brighter and brighter with each turn of the handle so will you be illuminated as you continue to generate this spiritual friction by seeking God’s will in your life, spending time in the scriptures, and also, to serve and bless others.
Does anyone remember what I’ve said is the most important thing about God fashioning mankind in His image? Every single one of us contains a piece of the Divine Image. Christ reminds us of this, too, when he says ‘you’ve done it to the least of these you’ve done it to me.’ If we ever feel like God is far from us, we can seek to serve the others in our life. The author C.S. Lewis said, “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did.” I’m serving God if I greet Tom with love, or if I console Dino because he’s having a bad morning, or I show the coffee barista true respect. You serve God when you embrace your children, when you tell someone you love why exactly you love them. That kind of love is infectious, and the more you cultivate it in others, the more you cultivate it in yourself.
Beloved in Christ, life is a struggle. It is filled with both great joy and sadness, with leisure and toil. It can be easy to lose sight of what Christ called us to do, but both the prevention of and the solution for this loss is both easy and extremely powerful. Love your God, and love your neighbor. If you can strive to do these two things you will be an effective worker in the kingdom of God, reflecting the gifts of grace and hope that God gave us, in our work, in a our family; through all of our lives.