Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I heard a fire-y baptist preacher say once (I wish I could say it with the intonation he had!), “He went into the muddy water a carpenter, and came out in God’s light as the Messiah.”
It’s a great line. But I’m not sure that’s right theologically. I think the preacher was stretching his point, trying to convince some people who weren’t yet baptized of the value of the sacrament.
I’ve never thought of John’s baptizing Jesus as having immediate, change of status or substance effect. As I told the kids this morning, it does mark the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. But that was just one of many fresh starts in his life and ministry. Jesus knew grace well enough to believe in and practice new beginnings.
But did he his dunk in the Jordan really change who he was? Or was it more of a milestone along life’s way where God was constantly working with him?
Wasn’t John’s baptism with water about repentance? What would Jesus be repenting? Anyway, it is baptism in Jesus’ name that is of fire and water and new life. Promises to make us into new creatures.
I sort of doubt this in the wink of an eye metamorphosis from woodworker to wonderworker. I don’t think of baptism as a flip of some existential switch. No miracle moment in or through which that condemned is — by some “change of substance” — redeemed and saved.
That’s sort of the catholic understanding… that the person destined for no good end is with a ritual of the church somehow materially changed… placed in the express lane to heaven and promised admittance at the pearly gates.
For protestants, the efficaciousness of church sacraments are more humble, limited. Baptism is our visible sign of God’s inward working. …Not some once and forever “voila’,” so much as a reminder God’s walking with us down the road… that life itself is a process by which we can get where we’re supposed to end up.
Jesus’ baptism by John was dramatic for sure. How many of us have the heavens open, and a dove come down to roost on us. How many of us hear God’s voice audibly, much less receive the reassurance, “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”
To be sure, no one there that day, least of all Jesus, could fail to note something significant had happened!
But isn’t that one of the promises of faith, God looking down up us with a smile, reassuring us that we are loved? …Like any parent, letting the children know how they are a pleasure?
But, reading the Gospels, Jesus’ understanding of his calling and his sense of himself, they formed over time, developed and matured as he lived his life out. I suspect that’s true for most of us, even in our more humble lives.
I have always loved, however, that Jesus was out there by the Jordan with everyone else. Not some elite religious group. But the people. La Gente. Some random, ragtag group of folks. I picture John at the Jordan almost as an ancient, albeit religious Woodstock — and without all the amplified music.
A getaway to the country, on the banks of the river, a day’s walk down the Jericho Road from Jerusalem. A little longer from Bethlehem or other parts in the small distances of the country at his time.
Everyone needs to get away some time. So it was one of those crowds, the “public” at its best. People of all sorts and conditions headed out there for a hundred different reasons.
A few truly were on a pilgrimage. Perhaps they had been for years. Some people’s whole life is a spiritual quest. For others, this religious hopefulness or endeavor was fresher, maybe a New Year’s resolution they were working on.
People had heard of this man John, maybe heard him preach this about-face of a radical repentance, and they longed to try it.
Among those were probably the desperate, people so far out on a limb or at wits end that they would have tried anything.
Others, well, they might have been there more like spiritual tourists, casual sightseers hoping to witness a miracle. They’d heard of a holy commotion happening out in the desert, and, well a few days out of town might not hurt, and, who knows, it might be kind of interesting…
Or a friend wanted go, but not alone, so they were sort of half-heartedly tagging along for company.
We got the deep ones and the zealots on one side. And the uncommitted, maybe even disinterested on the other. And the majority of people, they would have been somewhere between these two extremes.
Of faith, but not without doubts.
Not folks you’d call “full-time religious.”
Or maybe they were just the more practical one — people who could compartmentalized their faith as one of the many areas of their crowded and busy lives. They relied on it for some aspects of their lives, but in others, well, they were so busy with the work of living that neither their eyes nor their minds nor their hearts rose much above the mundane toward heaven.
You know how you can even even surprise yourself with your level of faithfulness, all of a sudden, you are thinking to yourself, “Who is this who is loving an enemy or forgiving when you’d rather hold a grudge, or walking the second mile, or turning the other cheek?” (Some of you are actually blushing, so I must be hitting close to home!) Well, if we can surprise ourselves with our faithfulness, doesn’t that indicate that we’re not always at quite that spiritual pitch?
My point is simply that the people who came out to John were there for a host of different, and sometimes conflicting reasons. Yes, some deeply wanted help, were looking to turn over a new leaf. Others were curious. Or company. Or sightseeing. A few may have just stumbled on the event by accident. In that sense, they were like us here today!
In our big square brick building and our services at 11 am on Sundays, in establishment church life, it may not be so obvious. Here we tend to pretend we’re all “reasonably religious,” no extremes of piety or disbelief, not zealot and no atheists, more like a whole bunch of people who are comfortably middle of the road when it comes to the spirit. And in some sense, that’s mostly true.
But if we could see in one another’s hearts — thank God we can’t! — wouldn’t we find all sorts of different motivations and hopes:
~ Some desperate to figure things out, make a life that works, a way to live that makes sense, a use of one’s time and effort that makes a difference.
~ Others are panicked and frightened. Just plain scared.
~ Others are bored, wishing their life had some more excitement. Even if it were something negative to get them out of their rut or the long stillnesses of midlife.
~ Some just aren’t sure what they believe. Or that they believe. But are comfortable coming and sharing in the old, old words…
~ And yet others are pretty comfortable, with or without what religion means to add to our lives. Still with room for some church attendance, maybe even a committee or two. As long as it doesn’t mess too much with the other parts of life!
~ And some folks just curious. Or checking the whole thing out. Maybe because they don’t get it at all. What this whole faith thing is about. Their questions are more trying to understand what church is talking about, what Christians are experiencing, what faith offers.
And right in the middle of us all, there’s this One, who is different. Who doesn’t need it quite like the rest of us. Who we might not even notice is here. Jesus.
Before his baptism, most of the people on the Jordan’s bank to meet John had no idea of one to come after the Baptist, one who was already among them… one who John said he was not even worthy to untie the laces of his sandals.
Church, whether or not we recognize him, Jesus is here with us.
And whatever brought you here, profound or superficial, the burning desire to know new life or a place to get a cup of coffee and a snack at coffee hour, Jesus’ presence means something amazing is happening, and promises more to come.
Beloved, whatever is happening in your life… Or maybe it’s what’s not happening in your life… have you asked yourself, “Could — somehow — God work in my life,
move me along towards where I’m supposed to getting going to?”
It may not make sense. Or feel believable. Anymore than a crowd of people getting dunked in a muddy river to get clean. Or the heavens opened up for the Spirit to come down like a dove. Or the Messiah participating in a ritual of repentance.
And it may not have the visible effect you expect or want. In the short run, it might not even make that much difference. But, somehow, you will remember the strange words that were spoken. Words you aren’t quite sure of the meaning of, or where they’re coming from or where they could lead you.
Or it might be something all together different. Nothing of the church. Or even overtly religious. Or seemingly significant.
It could be something much more private and personal. Something difficult that you’re going through. Or that which you can’t figure out how you are going to get through.
Church, I don’t really see John’s baptism as anything Jesus would have been nervous about. Or a difficult moment for him. But I know that a lot of us are in such places in our lives. Like some of the crowd that was back there with John and Jesus.
There are those among us with incredible burdens, or fears or trials or suffering. Enemies within and enemies without.
Some of us are stuck. Overwhelmed. Facing what we can’t understand and would never wish for. Worried how we’re going to get through, even survive.
And so as I think about Jesus’ baptism this morning, I’m reminded of why those other people who’d gone out to see John, and how they found the good grace to rub wet, river-dirty shoulders with Jesus.
I’m also thinking of a friend from high school with whom I spoke this week. The last time I spoke with him was 17 years ago, when we were 34, at the funeral of another friend from high school.
“12 years ago,” he told me, “my father took his own life.”
No one had any idea of any pain his father was facing that might make dying less painful than continuing to live. Or, afterwards, any way to understand his father’s suicide.
But my friend went on to say, “all these years later, never having wanted to go through this, I can say that my journey after my dad’s death, there’s been grace in it that has made me stronger and helped me with other relationships.
Church, there can even be God’s grace working in the worst of circumstances.
And as I think of Jesus’ baptism this morning,
I’m also thinking of one of us, who can’t seem to get past his troubles. All wound up and stuck, blaming everyone else for what he won’t take responsibility for,
what, he insists, is not really of his own making, but what only he can take charge of…
Addiction is a terrible thing, you know?
And it’s my prayer, that some day, this friend too, will look back and say,
“Lord, the way I was walking was not of your making, I know YOU didn’t need to take me through all that hurt and hurting other people to get me where you wanted me to be.
But I’m glad you were with me. I didn’t always see it, so caught up I was in myself, but you never left me.
And, wonderworker, somehow — I guess that’s what they call grace — you even brought some good from all the mess I was making, showed yourself and your power admidst all the nonsense I was about.”
Martin Luther used to remind people: “Remember your baptisms.”
That’s easier for Jillian who was baptized a few weeks ago, than most of us baptized as children.
But you are smart people, church. You get the point. Remember your baptisms.
Let us pray…