The late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donahue told a story a few years ago:
He went from his home in Connemara to visit his brother in County Clare. His brother worked the family farm there. In the evening, after supper, he noticed his brother seemed a bit preoccupied, and asked what was the matter. It turned out that there was a cow that was due to calf soon, and he thought he should go out and help the cow deliver. John offered to go and help.They put on their rubber boots and warm coats and headed out into the night.
Now, calving is hard work. Often the cow needs help from the farmer, who will grab the calf’s legs and pull to deliver the calf.
So John and his brother went out in the cold, dark night, with only the stars and a half-moon lighting the way over the mountaintop. They found that the cow had already calved. The newborn was on the ground, still in its birth sac, as John said, "a sodden lump of calfness." They knew the cow would get the calf up and suckling soon, so they walked back to the farmhouse. A few hours later, they went back out to check on the calf. Its mother had licked off the birth sac, cleaned it up, and it had nursed. It was standing up, close to its mother.
John thought, “I wonder if this little calf, born in the dead of night, has any idea what is going to happen in a few hours?” What would go on in that calf’s little brain when the dawn came?
A remarkable thought – what happens when something so wonderful, so unexpected, so transformative comes and shines a light into our lives?
In the gospel today, we have leapt from the story of Jesus’ beginnings on Christmas to the story of his recognition when he was taken to the temple for his circumcision on January 1st, to the visit of wise men from the East on Wednesday for the Feast of the Epiphany. All these stories at the start of Jesus’ life, but suddenly, today, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we hear the story of the beginning of his active ministry, as an adult, when he is baptized by John.
In Luke’s version of the story, it is clear that John knows someone special is coming – he tells the people that he – John – is not the Messiah, but that someone is coming after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Then, quickly, the story mentions that everybody is being baptized by John, and Jesus also. It doesn’t include the part that we hear in Matthew, about John questioning why Jesus wants to be baptized. No, it is taken as a given here, that Jesus would also be baptized. And then Jesus prays.
It is important to the story as Luke tells it that Jesus prays. He responds to John baptizing him by praying to his heavenly father.
And then his heavenly father responds back, the Holy Spirit coming down on him in the “bodily form of a dove” and a loud voice saying “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God ordains Jesus as the Messiah in those words.
Now John may have anticipated Jesus coming, that Jesus was the Messiah they all had been waiting for. I doubt, though, that he could have anticipated the holy dove coming down, and the voice making the proclamation.
That’s the interesting thing about how God interacts with us: no matter how much we think we can look ahead and figure out God’s plan for us, God always has something bigger in mind. We cannot anticipate it. We’re like the calf – we don’t know there is such a thing as sunrise, and when it happens, we’re utterly blown away by it. And when it happens, it is God ordaining us, telling us we are beloved, telling us he is proud of us.
And it happens in two ways. The first is in baptism. It is no mistake that Jesus gets baptized, even though he is without sin, and it is no mistake that it is the start of Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus is so named, it affirms his role in the great flow of human history. God’s words affirm Jesus’ role and give him the strength to face the work ahead. Those words establish Jesus’authority to do what he came to do. They also are a mark of love and caring. Clarence Jordan, in the Cotton Patch Gospel, paraphrases God’s words as “You are my dear son; I’m proud of you.” How better to step into a new ministry than to be so blessed by one’s father!
But it is equally telling that it happens as Jesus prays. All God asks of us is to love him and believe in him…and praying is the way that we show God that. Praying – a conversation with God, nothing more and nothing less. Here’s the thing about prayer: just as in baptism we are affirmed and named as beloved of God, in prayer we affirm back our relationship with God and we tell God that we love him. It is the perfectly logical response to that which God has given us when we were baptized. Jesus is modeling the behavior we all should do, praying words of love and gratitude.
So what does this have to do with surprises? Is there going to be some sort of magical, incredibly surprising event in our lives, a grand show with a holy dove and a loud voice from above?
Perhaps…and perhaps not. But the surprises happen in little ways every day.
I’m thinking of the multiple kidney transplants that occurred this summer at Johns Hopkins. These so-called domino kidney transplants occur when several people who need transplants have friends or relatives who are willing to donate organs but aren't compatible. A chain of surgeries is arranged in which each donor is matched with a transplant candidate they don't know but who is compatible with the kidney being donated. Chain transplants typically also involve an altruistic donor, who is willing to donate a kidney to anyone and is located through a database.
Who could imagine that such a phenomenon could occur, as surprising as the first sunrise you’ve ever seen? The affirmation of the skill of the doctors, the prayers to find a donor, the timing of those who register and are tested for possible donations….yes, it’s science, but it’s God, too, showing his love, responding to prayers.
Sometimes it is so much smaller, a teacher telling a student who has been the butt of teasing that she is wonderful, and that the teacher is so proud of her for standing up to the bullies. Yes, it’s the teacher, but it is God working through that teacher, giving her the perception to see what was going on and how this student needed a kind word, and it is the prayer of that student that someone, anyone, could understand what she is going through.
Sometimes it’s just a momentary feeling of being not alone in the midst of hard times. It may be a sense that there is one who hears your prayers, even if there are no easy answers.
So it is when John baptizes Jesus. It is a small moment, a phrase that seems almost an afterthought in the story this morning: “…all the people were baptized, and … Jesus also was baptized and was praying…” It is in that small moment that the surprise comes, one that John the Baptist couldn’t have predicted, one that may also have been a little bit surprising to Jesus himself…a blessing of the Messiah and of his prayers, an affirmation of his work.
The small moments sometimes carry the deepest truths about who we are, and how we are shaped in our relationship with our heavenly father. So we keep our ears open, our hearts at the ready, and our voices ever lifted in prayer, even in the small moments. God is there in those small moments, and works in them in large ways.