Affirmation and assurance

December 1st, 2020

Mark 1:4-11

Did Jesus come into the world with full knowledge of his identity and destiny from the very beginning? The idealized image of Jesus with which I grew up saved him from the human struggle of not knowing everything from the outset. This early orientation in the faith was heavy on the divinity of Jesus and light on his humanity.

The Bible clearly tells us that “because we don't have a high priest who can't sympathize with our weaknesses but instead one who was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Since all of us can recount a journey of struggle with identity and destiny, we can assume that Jesus struggled with “not knowing” everything about his identity and destiny.

We know practically nothing of what he was thinking or doing from early infancy to age thirty. Only Luke saves us from knowing absolutely nothing of the first thirty years of his life. Luke tells us that Jesus “The child grew up and became strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God's favor was on him.” (Luke 2:40). Luke also tells us that Jesus’ family went every year to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. He then recites the lovely story of how Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover with his family when he was twelve. When they were a day out of Jerusalem on the way back home, they discovered that Jesus was not with them. Jesus’ parents then retraced their steps and after three days found him in the temple “He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:46- 47). After his parents chided him for treating them with such disregard, he said to them: “Why were you looking for me? Didn't you know that It was necessary for me to be in my my Father's house?” (Luke 2:49). They did not understand what he meant. Jesus went home with his family where Luke tells us “Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people” (Luke 2:52). We know nothing more about his life until he emerges from obscurity at age thirty and is baptized by his cousin John the Baptist.

We do not know what other affirmations or signs he received during those hidden years, but on the occasion of his baptism he received a divine affirmation that must have given him strength and courage for the rest of his life.

All four Gospels give essentially the same account. “While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.'” (Mark 1:10-11). The three Synoptic Gospels give the distinct impression that this was not an experience seen and heard by present observers, but that it was private to Jesus. The Gospel of John says that John the Baptist saw the Spirit coming down and resting on him as a dove from heaven, and it rested on him (John 1:32). This sign certified to John that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.

We do not know what other signs of role and identity came to Jesus as he withdrew (as he often did) to pray alone, but Jesus seemed to have a great need for this means of communing with “the Father.” The next notable affirmation came in the Transfiguration experience, which was attended by Peter, James, and John. Here the voice from the cloud addresses the three: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, 'This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!'” (Mark 9:7). At Jesus’ baptism the voice of God addresses Jesus. At the Transfiguration the voice of God affirms Jesus’ identity to the three disciples. We do not know at what point Jesus’ identity became clear to him, but apparently it was already clear before the Transfiguration. Jesus has a firm grasp on his identity and he moves with increasing confidence in his unfolding destiny.

In the garden of Gethsemane he was deeply distressed over the direction in which his destiny was unfolding. He prayed to God: “Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want.” (Mark 14:36). We are not privy to any additional dialogue between Jesus and “the Father” on that occasion, but he leaves the garden with his commitment intact and walks into the control of his enemies.

What manner of person is this Messiah, whose earthly life is freighted with a full dose of humanity, and yet who is so obviously equally divine? Here is an individual who is plagued by the struggles such as are common to us all, yet he remains without sin. Jesus’ questions and hesitations are not counted as sin, but as a legitimate process by which Jesus lives out, and dies with loyalty to God intact.

We each struggle with our identity. We all want to know God’s will for our lives, and we pray for faith and courage to fulfill it. We want to know more than we need to know, more than is in our best interest to know. Perhaps we want to know more than it was ever intended in the scheme of things that we should know. We want to know before it is timely for us to know. We lust after knowledge, when the best we can do is trust.

No one describes our dilemma more graphically than the writer of Ecclesiastes: “I have observed the task that God has given human beings. God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in their hearts, without enabling them to discover what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:10-11).

I do not know of any person of great spiritual stature who has not experienced periods of frustration and depression from not having a clear sense of direction. How should we deal with the pain of this inevitable struggle? We had best remember Jesus who has already been down our road. Jesus knows what the landscape looks like when we are caught up in the struggle for identity and destiny. Jesus is the pioneer who has gone before us and is therefore not only our Savior but also our model for coping.

Martin Luther was plagued by depression all of his life. When conflicts and doubts assailed him, he would say to himself over and over, “I am baptized.” Remembering the spiritual high points in our lives can give us strength to go on. God does not come by every day to reassure us. Faith is the bridge between God’s reassuring visits. Remember what God last said to you and hold on to that until once again God speaks.

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