C: The Baptism of the Lord

The New Retirement

 January 11, 2004

Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

At Jesus’ baptism the heavens opened and the spirit descended. A voice proclaimed, “You are my beloved son.” At Jesus’ baptism his vocation was revealed to him. God made clear to Jesus how he should live and what was the purpose of his life.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God could deal that clearly with us? As we are trying to decide what should we do with our lives, or who we should marry or whether we should make a change in our career, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the skies would open and God would say, “Do this” or “Don’t do that”? We know that God usually does not speak to us in this way. Nevertheless, even if the skies never open or the spirit never descends, we still believe that God is directing us. We are called to examine the patterns in our society. We believe that what we discover there is God’s way of directing and guiding us. That is why today I want to direct your attention to a dramatic new pattern that is developing in our culture. I want to speak about this pattern from the perspective of faith, because I believe this development is a significant opportunity that God is offering to many of us.

Today our society is radically redefining the meaning of retirement. That’s right. This homily addresses retirement from the perspective of faith. And before all of you in your teens and 20’s and 40’s tune me out, I want to promise that what I say applies to everyone in this church today. Because the development of retirement is changing the shape of all our lives. Today because of better nutrition and medicine Americans are living longer and better than any other people in the history of the world. Over the last fifty years the average American has gained ten years of productive life. That is an unheard of advancement in the length and quality of living. It changes the shape of what all of us are moving towards and how we need to prepare for it. The old pattern used to be this: You grew up; you raised a family; you worked hard; you retired; you played a little golf and perhaps moved to Florida; and it was over. Today, people retiring in their 60’s are facing 20 to 30 years of productive life. Now that is too long simply to play golf. (For some people! I don’t want any emails on this!)

So what are we to do with all that time? How can it be made productive? Much research is being done on this new retirement. Already a few conclusions are coming into focus. I would like to highlight three qualities that research has shown typify people who are satisfied and happy in the new retirement. Those three qualities are: expansion, service and relationships.

Those who study retirement insist that those who are happy in these years are those who are willing to expand. Success in the new retirement involves developing new interests and abilities. Before retirement the task of life is to grow up and become productive. After retirement life’s task is not to grow up but to grow out. When you are busy earning a living, your life by necessity has a narrow focus. After retirement there is more freedom to do things that are not tied to income. There is time to expand. And those who are happiest in retirement seem to be those who expand in a number of different areas and often in ways that are very different from what they used to do for a living. So you have brain surgeons learning to play the trumpet, and history teachers studying astronomy and homemakers starting businesses. The ability to stretch oneself, to broaden oneself, to enlarge oneself is the first quality for those who live the new retirement well.

The second quality is service. Those who are happy in retirement are people who have found someway of giving back. This orientation to service seems to be an essential component in assembling a new pattern of living. Spending some time volunteering in a hospital or teaching a child to read contributes to long-term satisfaction. Serving is the second quality of a happy new retirement.

The third quality is relationships. For those facing 20 to 30 years of retirement, nothing is more important than friendship. Because loss through death is a clear reality in the latter years of life, living the new retirement with one spouse or one friend is often not enough. People need a network of relationships, a group of people with whom life can be shared and sorrows carried. Good and varied relationships are crucial to retirement.

Now everything we are talking about pertains to the average American. It is tragically true that there are people here today who will never reach retirement and others who might not be able to retire at the normal time because of financial reasons. But for most of us the pattern of our society indicates that we will have 20 to 30 years of retired life. To live that retirement well, we must be willing to enlarge ourselves, to serve, to build relationships.

So here’s the point. If the new retirement is as we have described, why not begin today? Even if you are in your 20’s or 30’s and certainly if you are in your 40’s or 50’s, now is the time to think ahead. What new interests, what new abilities should I develop? How can I serve and begin to discern what kind of service might benefit me and others when retirement gives me more freedom? How can I build a network of relationships. How can I connect with people who have similar interests, people with whom I can share life?

Although this may sound a little like a commercial, I need to point out to you that a parish community is a perfect place to develop such qualities. In a parish community you have the opportunity of Adult Enrichment which can expand your thinking and your interests beyond your work and your responsibilities. In a parish community you have opportunities to serve and to learn what kind of service would most compliment your future. In a parish community you can reach out to people beyond your family and form relationships that will last the rest of your life.

We should not wait for the heavens to open and the Holy Spirit to come down to tell us what to do. God is speaking to us today in the patterns of our society. The shape of our life is changing and God is preparing us for what lies ahead. Now is the time to enlarge our thinking, to serve others, to develop relationships so that God’s gift of retirement will not be a burden to be endured, but a blessing to be lived.

Waiting for the Final Gift

January 13, 2013

Luke 3: 15–16, 21-22

At the beginning of today’s gospel we are told the crowds around John the Baptist were filled with expectation. Things were tough in first century Palestine. The Romans ruled with an iron fist. People were poor. Things needed to change. Because the Jews were a people of faith, they were expecting that God would send an anointed one to set things right. Then John the Baptist appeared. His preaching was so powerful, his presence was so dramatic, his vision was so clear, surely he was the one that God was sending. The people’s hearts were filled, asking, “It’s John! It’s John! We know it’s John, the one to inaugurate the kingdom.” So you can imagine their disappointment when John set them straight. “I’m not the one,” he said, “There’s one who’s coming after me.” The people groaned. “Who could be better than John? Why doesn’t God make him the messiah? We’re tired of waiting. We’re so close. Why do we have to wait for another?”

This complaint and this pattern is something we recognize in our own lives. Often times when we are looking for something we want or something that we need, it seems that we are so close. “Finally, I’m getting a direction to my life, in my education, in my career. At long last I have found someone that I can date who is generous and good and genuine. It seems so right. Here is a business opportunity that looks like it will never fail. Disagreements in my family are suddenly beginning to thaw and people are talking to one another.” When these things begin to happen our hearts fill with expectation. We are so close. Maybe this is the time. Surely this is the way that God will gift us. Then, something happens and it becomes clear that it is not going to work, that the things we were hoping for are not going to happen, that what seemed so close is no longer a possibility. Like the crowds around the Baptist, we groan, “Why couldn’t this have been it? What is God up to? Why do we still have to wait?”

These are all honest and good questions. But here is the way a person of faith answers them: What is God up to? God is up to something good, although it might not be the good we are expecting. Why do we have to wait? Because God is preparing to give us a good thing, perhaps a better thing. When our career search comes to a dead end, we still need to believe that God has a plan for us. When the person we are dating walks away, we still need to trust that God is preparing for us someone to love. When the growth in our family comes to a standstill, we still need to believe that there is healing, and that God is preparing to offer it.

Sometimes it is only when we receive the final gift that it becomes clear how all the earlier hoping and expecting was merely opening our hearts to the gift that God was planning to give. When Jesus finally appeared, then the crowds around the Baptist understood what all their hoping and excitement was about. The Baptist was only preparing the way for Jesus.

If we can trust and believe in the final gift that God is preparing to give us, we will not be disappointed. Our God will not be outdone in generosity. Often the gift we finally receive is more than we were expecting. After all, the crowds around John the Baptist were expecting a messiah, but what they received was God’s beloved son.

Signs of Life

January 10, 2016

Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

We cannot see the Holy Spirit. Spirits have no bodily form so they are invisible. Because of this, over the centuries the Church has developed images to point to who the Holy Spirit is. One of the most common images is that of a dove, and that image derives from today’s gospel. Luke tells us that after Jesus was baptized the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove. Now of course the Holy Spirit is not a dove. A dove is only an image that points to the presence of the Spirit and how the Spirit works in our lives. But what is the truth to which this image points? This is not an easy question to answer because doves occur only infrequently in the Bible and in a variety of different contexts. So the best we can do is pick one of those contexts and ask how it can reveal something about the Holy Spirit.

The passage I would like to consider is the first time that a dove appears in the bible. It occurs in the Book of Genesis, in the story of Noah. Noah is in the ark, and the entire world is covered with the waters of the flood. There is no hope for Noah, his family, or the animals in the ark unless the waters of the flood recede. So Noah sends out a dove. In the evening the dove returns with an olive leaf in its beak. The leaf is a sign that dry land is appearing, an assurance to Noah and those who are with him in the ark that they have a future.

The dove from the Book of Genesis suggests that the Holy Spirit is the one who brings us signs of life in hopeless situations. The Holy Spirit is the one who assures us that we have a future, even in a hostile world. This is a true action of God’s spirit because our inclination is to focus on what is wrong, what is dangerous, what is fearful. That focus can over time can lessen and stunt our lives.

Some of the people we love, family members and friends, have made disastrous choices or are dealing with sickness or financial stress. It is easy for us to give up and say, “They will never be happy.” The Holy Spirit is the one who reminds us that there is still goodness in their lives and in our relationship with them, and that goodness can have an effect. When we look at what is wrong with our country—how many of our elected officials seem to be more interested in grandstanding than in service, how little progress our government seems to be making—it is easy for us to say that things are falling apart and there will never again be a time when we can work together as a nation. The Holy Spirit is the one who reminds us that many of our elected officials work hard and effectively, that there are still aspects of our democracy that we should admire, and that we can still be proud to live in this country. When we look at what is dangerous in our world, dangerous because of poverty, pollution, or terrorism, it is easy for us to be afraid. The Holy Spirit is the one who reminds us that we can still work together and make a difference. We can move towards security as a country without compromising our deepest values.

We all received the Holy Spirit at our baptism, and so it is our right and our duty to call upon the Spirit to show us what is positive around us. Like Noah sending out a dove over troubled waters, we can send out God’s Spirit to find goodness, peace, and hope. We can ask God’s Spirit to bring us signs of life, so that we can believe that all is not lost and that we still have a future.

Jesus Always Understands

January 13, 2019

Luke 3: 15–16, 21-22

When I was growing up at Saint Paul’s Parish in Euclid, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord always confused me. Then, as today, the feast ends the Christmas season. Then, as today, the church was still decorated with poinsettias and the Christmas crèche. But as a ten-year old boy, I could not figure out what the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord had to do with Christmas. The readings do not mention Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, or the Magi. They describe Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan River. Jesus is no longer a child. He is an adult, beginning his public ministry.

So what does the Baptism of the Lord have to do with Christmas? Everything. Because what we celebrate at Christmas is not simply the birth of a baby, but God’s decision to become human like us. What we celebrate at Christmas is the beginning of a life that will continue into adulthood, when Jesus will heal and teach, when he will give his life for our salvation and be raised up as Lord. And in all of this, Jesus is fully human like us.

This is clear in today’s gospel, when Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. We know that John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So why would Jesus be baptized by John? Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. As the son of the Father, Jesus was without sin. And yet, in today’s gospel we see Jesus standing in line with sinners, waiting for John’s baptism. Jesus is there because he wants to make it clear that he does not intend to save us from a distance. He chooses to be a part of us, to mingle and identify with sinners. Beginning at his birth and continuing out throughout his entire life, Jesus was like us in all things but sin.

This is good news for us, because it means that whatever we experience in life, good or bad, is something that Jesus also experiences as one of us. We love children. The gospel shows us Jesus blessing and embracing children. We love nature. The gospel tells us that Jesus extolls the beauty of the lilies of the field. We love to celebrate with family and friends and the gospel shows us Jesus celebrating with his family at the wedding feast of Cana. We grieve the loss of the people we love. Jesus grieved the loss of his foster father, Joseph and his friend Lazarus. We fear the future and our coming death. Jesus feared his death as he struggled in Gethsemane. We are disappointed when family and friends let us down. Jesus was disappointed when his disciples did not understand him and when they abandoned him and fled during his passion.

Jesus knows everything that happens to us, all that we experience. Even though he is without sin, he stands with us in our human condition. That gives us confidence and hope. Jesus always knows what we feel. Jesus always knows what we fear. Whatever happens to us, Jesus always understands.

1 thought on “C: The Baptism of the Lord”

Leave a Comment