God’s Masterpieces: January 7, 2023

January 11, 2024

Year B, Epiphany

About ten years ago, I became enthralled with Vincent van Gogh.  It
started with a general appreciation of his art and then evolved into an interest
in his life.  I ended up reading a book of his letters, which told a great
deal more about Van Gogh than any biography really could.  They talked
about his family, his romantic attachments, his friends, his faith, and of
course, his art.  A common theme in these letters was his inability to
fully appreciate how gifted he was. 

There was one letter in particular that
fascinated me. It was to an art critic who had reviewed one of his paintings,
quite generously.  Van Gogh started by thanking the critic for what he
said, but then went on to describe in detail the faults in the painting, going
to great pains to tell the critic why it wasn’t really as good as he thought it
was.  At one point he said that his painting was only worth more than a
blank canvas. That was the best he could say about his art.
 Unfortunately, that was how he saw himself as well.  He looked at
himself, and all he saw were flaws.  Where other people saw a great
master, he saw an incompetent fool.

Gospel reading starts with, “John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” 
Christians did not invent baptism. John the Baptist did not invent it. The
Hebrew people had been doing something very similar for centuries. They too
were immersed in water in a ritual cleansing.  Their cleansing was
primarily focused on repentance.  This cleansing ritual had been part of
the Jewish faith for many years.

Yet John changed things a little.  For
one thing, the Jewish ritual had always been one of self-immersion.  
The person essentially baptized themselves.  It was an effective sign of
repentance.  But John baptized other people, which no doubt felt a little
awkward to the Jewish people, as it was an act of submission.  John was
also very clear that what he was doing was a poor substitution to the baptism
that was to come, a baptism of the Holy Spirit, by one who was more powerful
than he.

Considering that baptism was about repentance and submission, one might ask why
Jesus needed to be baptized.  He was perfect in every way.  He had no
sin, and therefore no need of repentance. The meaning of repentance is to turn
away from your sins.  He had no sins to turn from.  So why did he
need to be baptized by John? John even said that he was not worthy to untie his
sandals, yet here he was baptizing the one who was infinitely more powerful. 

In the Gospel of Matthew, we see another
version of this same story.  But in that
gospel, the baptism is a moment of recognition.  The heavens tear open and
God announces in a booming voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am
well pleased.”[1]
The crowd hears it.  John the Baptist hears it.  Everyone who is
present hears that Jesus is the Son of God. It was an important moment when the
true identity of Jesus was revealed.

But in the story we heard today from the
Gospel of Mark, it seems that only Jesus heard the voice.  Only he
witnessed the heavens tear open. “And just as he was coming out of the water,
he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on
him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you
I am well pleased.”  While I am sure it was comforting for Jesus to hear
the affirming words of his Father, my guess is it would have been a little more
helpful, had everyone heard those words.  I have this image of Jesus
coming out of the water, looking around, asking the crowd, “Did anyone else see
or hear that?  I swear the heavens just tore open and God announced that I
am the Son of God.”

So back to my original question, why did Jesus need to be baptized?  He
didn’t need to be baptized, but he chose to be baptized.  He chose to be
associated with humankind.  He wanted to experience all that humans
experienced.  Even though he did not sin, he committed an act of
repentance in front of everyone.  People often wonder, how could Jesus
truly be human if he did not sin.  Humans are sinful creatures.  We
can’t help it.  Haven’t you ever heard someone make a mistake and then
dismiss it with this excuse, “I’m only human”—as if that is what it is to be

When we describe Jesus in the church, we
describe him as fully human, and fully divine.  Jesus wasn’t just human,
he was fully human, perhaps more so than any of us. What if sin is not the
thing that makes us human, but what if sin is actually the rejection of our
full humanity? [2]After
all, God created us in the image of God, the untarnished image of God. 
Jesus came into the world not to show us how perfect he was and how sinful we
were, but who we could be. 

Now you might be thinking, that’s too much
pressure.  We can’t be perfect, everyone sins.  That’s true. 
However, we should not define ourselves by sin. Jesus was baptized for the same
reason he was born, for the same reason he died, and for the same reason he was
resurrected. He did all that so we could be saved. Do you know another translation
of the Greek word that is translated to saved, is also–to be made whole?  Jesus was baptized, died and resurrected so
that the burden of our own sins could no longer weigh us down—no longer keep us
from being fully human.

For some reason, we have a tendency to look at
ourselves and see our faults (our incompleteness), instead of our gifts. 
Van Gogh looked at his paintings as worthless. He only saw defect. Now his
paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars.  I wonder what he would
think if he knew that his paintings would one day be virtually priceless. While
he did not think much of himself, Van Gogh described Jesus as the greatest
artist of all, because he worked with living flesh.[3]
One has to wonder, with that perspective, why Van Gogh could not see the art in
himself, the beauty of himself—one of God’s beloved. If Jesus is the greatest
artist, then we are all masterpieces.  If we could see ourselves as
masterpieces of a great artist, then perhaps we would be less likely to see sin
and flaws and more likely to see beauty.  To be fully human is to hear those words that
came from a torn apart heaven that were heard by Jesus as not merely words
spoken long ago to a divine creature, but as words meant for us….God’s
children: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


[1] Matthew 3:17

[2] John Kavanaugh, p. 16

[3] The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, p. 369