Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
January 8, 2023
I once shared the parable of The Prodigal Son with a group of young children at a Vacation Bible School. You may remember that story Jesus tells where the younger son asks his father for his inheritance – a deeply insulting request which the father grants – and then goes and squanders all of the inheritance money in ‘wild living.’
Eventually, the son runs out of all that money at the same time a famine hits the land…and he’s starving. He’s ashamed. And he decides he’s going to turn home and apologize. “Maybe my father will let me be a servant in his house and then at least I could eat.”
And so I decided to have the kids act out this part of the scene. I told the kids to pair up and had the pairs line up across from one another.
To the one line of kids I said, “You all are the younger son. I want you to turn this way and hang your head. And on my cue, I want you to turn around and start heading for your father.”
I took the other half of the kids to the other side of the room. I said, “You all are the Father. When I tell all of the younger sons to turn around and start walking home, I want you to run and hug the “younger son” who is directly across from you.
Now, my original plan was to tell the ‘fathers “look, I know not all of you know the person across from you. Some of you just met yesterday. So hugging might feel like a bit much. You can just run and give them a little side hug or an arm around the shoulder.”
But I never said those words because as soon as I told all of the “fathers” that their job was to run and give a big hug, their eyes lit up. I honestly could not have given them a more exciting assignment.
I walk back toward the younger sons and say, “Ok. You all have made a lot of bad decisions. Spent a bunch of you family’s money. You feel bad. But now you are going to turn around and see if maybe your father might let you back in the door as a servant. Go ahead and start turning home.”
With their heads hung, they began to turn.
And perfectly on cue, those fathers raced across the Fellowship Hall and absolutely squeezed the smithereens out of the younger sons. There was squealing and laughter.
I wanted to get on with the story after a few moments, and it was difficult because, across the board, they seemed so happily content and full, just swaying with this embrace.
Why did these kids readily light up with excitement at the idea of a huge hug? What is it about a human embrace that can be so powerful?
And isn’t it something that the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth in the entire Gospel of Matthew, the very first words have to do with insisting upon his own baptism, insisting upon this divine embrace… of grace?
Scholars will tell you that the Gospel of Matthew is written in the form of an ancient biography with Jesus as the protagonist. And in this genre of ancient biography, the first words that the protagonist speaks are critical. They are tone-setting; they name the priority, the focus.
And so, you recall the scene begins with John the Baptist trying to tell Jesus that Jesus does not need a baptism: “In fact, if anything,” John tells Jesus, “You should be baptizing me.”
And then Jesus speaks those first words in the Gospel of Matthew – tone-setting, priority:
“Let it be so now (let the baptism happen to me).”
Before Jesus calls disciples, before Jesus delivers the famous sermon on the mount, before any healings or miracles or challenging the hypocrites or feeding the hungry or meeting any of the million pressing needs of this world… …Jesus is insistent that he not just ‘get on with the story’ but that he know the gift of God’s abundant favor and love.
The gift of baptism as of first importance. Why?
As he explains…
“it is proper for us to do this (in order) to fulfill all righteousness.”
That’s maybe a confusing statement, but I think it helps to know that in the Gospel of Matthew, the word “righteousness” refers to the will of God.
So, the sense of Jesus’ statement is this: “Let this baptism happen so that I can fulfill the will of God. I can do the will of God. Let this baptism happen so that I can live the way God desires.”
As one walks through the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes it clear in his teachings what is meant by “the will of God.” The will of God includes things like…
- Let your yes be yes and your no be no
- Give to the needy
- Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth but treasures in heaven
- Do not worry
- Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
Some hard things. Some courageous things. Things, quite frankly, we undoubtedly need more of in this world ache to see more frequently in ourselves. These are the things that comprise the will of God lived on earth as it is in heaven.
And Jesus says that to do those things he does not need an extra measure of willpower or an extra measure of resolve or an extra class on how to really get it right.
Of all the things in the world, he claims that what he needs to do the will of God is baptism.
And, goodness, when Jesus is baptized in our story – it’s abundant. The heavens open as a declaration of wide, generous divine favor. The Holy Spirit descends like a dove – the very power of God resting on and filling Jesus. And God speaks a word of wonderful favor: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The heavens, a dove, a voice – it is a threefold showering of favor, of grace. It’s a full-on running hug.
And it’s the central priority as Jesus steps into ministry.
The downbeat the anchors and fuels all the work that is to come.
As we step into this new year, how might be we be anchored in that downbeat? Fueled by that downbeat?
Is there a hug running our way this new year?
That same Vacation Bible School from a few years ago… I the next day after teaching on the prodigal son, and I and was telling another story. About halfway through the story time I ask a somewhat off-handed question that I really just wanted the kids to raise their hands for.
“Have you ever known someone who is not always liked at your school or in your neighborhood? Maybe they are different or sometimes their mean or they don’t fit in well?” I was looking for hands so I could continue my point.
Instead, I got a couple urgent hands wanting to be called on. “I have known someone who was mean.”
And then she starts sharing about a specific classmate and a specific instance when this classmate did not share. And you see her hurt on her face because children have not learned to hide.
The next one shared of a friend who called this person a really mean name. More hands went up. I had been standing to tell my story since there was movement in it, but I realized at this point that I needed to sit. I needed to lean in and listen.
One after another wanted a chance to share about a hurt, a pain, a meanness they’d known – just right there wearing the soul on their sleeve.
And I realized that they though may not have put it this way, what they were looking for in that moment was another hug. This time from me.
Implicitly, each of their stories asked: “Will you listen to our stories in a way that offers an embrace of love amid this pain? Will grace run to us and hold us in this, too? Will you hold a space of grace that ministers like the heavens opening upon Jesus? Or will this pain find no grace and so become a festering wound or a hardened callous?”
Theologian Dale Bruner says about Jesus’s baptism: “I consider this Jesus’ first miracle: “the miracle of humility.”
Jesus humbles himself to the reality of humanity and joins us in water submersion. And in humility knows grace.
That is the promise the children themselves intuited – that humility is often the primary conduit of a fresh embrace of grace.
Which is to say, if we – the body of Christ on earth stepping into a new year…
If we, the soon to be ordained and installed officers…
If we, the church, are to know a fresh embrace of grace to ground and fuel God’s will in our lives – we must humble ourselves and become like children.
- Do we, before God and one another, do we risk a wear-your-soul-on-your-sleeve vulnerability about our failings and hurts (and dreams and misgivings)?
- Do we risk, before God and one another, letting go of masks and pretense, gossip and finger-pointing, our certain plans and our certain convictions… do we risk an open humbleness?
- And if another offers their heart to us this day – if another opens with vulnerability or pain or raw honesty – do we risk dropping our judgments and corrections and told-you-sos and hold space to honor the ache?
The church that freely admits the ways in which they are uncertain and fearful, pained and searching, the ways they feel like children in profound need of a love and power and direction born not of themselves…
…that church is discovering just how fully they are already held in embrace of God; discovering – even with all that we have done and said and known – that by the grace of God this is truest word about them:
“This is my people, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Amen.