Matthew 3: 13-17 (NRSVA)
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15 But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
Once, when I was a teenager I remember talking to a friend at a youth group about verse 17 of this reading. It really bothered her. Or at least used to. She struggled to imagine God saying “well pleased”. It sounded all wrong. It wasn’t that the translation didn’t resonate with her, it was that it actively grated. It’s not because she found the phrasing unfamiliar or odd; in fact it was all too familiar, sounding just like any Ayrshire guy of the mid 2000s: “Jesus? I’m well pleased mate.” One could imagine a voice coming from the heavens to declare: “This is my boy…. he’s pure dead brilliant by the way.” Now personally, I love the sound of that — and what’s to say that translation doesn’t capture something? But it didn’t work for her. It didn’t fit with her vision of who God was.
All language comes with baggage. When we think of a word or a phrase we don’t just think of it on its own, our mind sees it in a network with other linked words, thoughts and feelings. It’s a skill that allows us to form fluid sentences. For this girl the intensifier ‘well’ paired with an adjective like ‘pleased’ really jarred. It took her out of the moment. It bothered her but should it bother us?
This doesn’t mean we should go through the Bible and try to rule out any phrasing anyone might find difficult (a Herculean and pointless task) as the Bible is intended to be a dense, rich collection. But, we should be alert to what this experience tells us — that in the middle of a dramatic Biblical sequence our own lives can and do burst in and interrupt us.We can’t hear these words without hearing other associated phrases.
Now as I said, this girl told me that she ‘used’ to find this phrase difficult. She had moved past it because, “God had changed.” I replied cheekily, “Is it God that has changed… or is it you?” I regret saying it. Because you know what — God did change. Of course you can be a right smartypants and say that God is unchanging and that’s not wrong in itself — but it doesn’t capture a living breathing relationship with a creator God who loves you. Who God ‘is’ changes for people in different ages and stages of their life and faith. God had changed for her — from someone who only spoke one way into someone who speaks in many different ways, sometimes comfortingly authoritative and sometimes disturbingly familiar. That journey is a beautiful one. She cared enough about God to let it bother her, let it get under her skin.
Speaker age through age,
Thank you for your words
that we continue to discover
it’s pure dead brilliant.