First Congregational Church
January 8, 2017
First Sunday after the Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord
"Jesus' Baptism – Again…."
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
After a hardy rainstorm filled all the potholes in the streets and alleys, a young mother watched her two little boys playing in the puddle through her kitchen window. The older of the two, a five year old lad, grabbed his sibling by the back of his head and shoved his face into the water hole. As the boy recovered and stood laughing and dripping, the mother ran to the yard in a panic.
"Why on earth did you do that to your little brother?!" she said as she shook the older boy in anger. "We were just playing 'church' mommy," he said "And I was just baptizing him..... in the name of the Father, the Son and in...the hole-he-goes.” It’s been done before, but it’s still good.
Seeing as how the twelve days of Christmas concluded on Wednesday of this week, that made Thursday, January 6 the Day of Epiphany. There was an idea for a sermon weeks ago on that topic, but it fell flat after some time on a slow bake in the mental oven. So back to the lectionary for today’s message.
I don’t specifically recall if it was audible, but I’m sure there was a mental “sigh” when I read the passage from Matthew; Jesus’ baptism - again. It’s predictable as whiskers on cats that the first Sunday after Epiphany, the lectionary gospel passage will be about Jesus’ baptism - in any one of the four gospels. With last week’s sermon about truth still rolling around in my head, and the idea that we need to explore more before making our personal “decrees,” I figured I’d better be a little more patient with what God may be trying to tell all of us.
So just to get off on the right foot, if it’s been a while since you’ve looked over the book of Matthew, it starts off with Jesus’ lineage going all the way back to Abraham. Incidentally, that lineage mentions Ruth and Boaz, for those of you who were here for any part of the Advent sermon series on the book of Ruth. Matthew 1 also includes the story about Joseph and his dream about an angel, telling him to marry Mary and announcing the Messiah’s birth.
The second chapter of Matthew describes the visit of the Magi and the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt, after Herod’s order to kill the infant threats to his rule. The end of Matthew 2 recounts the return of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to Nazareth in Galilee, rather than to Bethlehem in Judea, to avoid the notorious Archelaus this time, who was reigning there. And just like that, we get to Matthew 3.
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, 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, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Thank you, Al. After the Baptism of his baby brother in church, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, "That priest said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”
I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, that it is easier to talk about baptism without an actual baptism being done during the service. You can come at the topic without as much emotionality as when there is a beautiful baby in your midst, stealing all the preaching thunder that might be rumbling below the cooing of the bambino. And then there are the debates that surround the subject of baptism: adult or infant, sprinkling or immersion, inside or outside.
Brett Younger, at Ministry Matters, said, “Some of us were baptized because we turned ten years old and decided that we were sick and tired of not getting to drink the grape juice. Some of us went to a worship service where the minister made us cry and invited us to be baptized. Some of us have never been baptized because we’ve never seen any reason why we should be. Some of us haven’t been baptized, but we’ve had to work hard to avoid seriously considering it.” So here we are, with Jesus and John and this crowd of witnesses, compelled, once again, to see what it has in store for us.
I asked Al to read this morning’s passage with a little more energy when it came to John’s parts because I was hoping you might see, as Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary pointed out, that Jesus’ asking to be baptized was not the public appearance of Jesus that John had set everyone up to see. John knew that the Messiah was coming, and perhaps part of his weird dress and diet were to help the Messiah shine all the brighter when Jesus showed up, even though John’s lifestyle was decreed before his birth. However John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, when he shows up, he’s just like the other people going to John for baptizing.
By the way, I, for one, tend to forget that baptizing is not something that started with Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” which is the last thing he says in the book of Matthew. People of Babylon and Egypt and other places practiced water baptism for various different reasons, and like so many things in life, Christians took up the practice, almost as if we were the ones who invented it. And for those wondering, yes, there were baptisms done with other things, like blood. But we won’t got there today.
One of the things that strikes me in this passage is John’s reaction to Jesus’ request to be baptized. John’s like, “Who, me? Baptizing the Messiah isn’t in my job description.” But after a little conversation, John gave Jesus the big dunk. Perhaps it was because John realized that Jesus’ baptism wasn’t so much about him - John - but more about Jesus - what Jesus needed from it - for whatever reasons. Sometimes when we are afraid of something, the fear is more about us than about what God needs. So the next time you feel God asking you to do something, and you feel out of your league, try to see beyond your fears to the possibilities of what God might have up God’s sleeve. Perhaps, ironically, you will see how minute your fear was to God’s greater purpose.
In his waiting in line for his baptism, as if he were in line at the grocery store, Jesus shows us that all of us - no matter how great or how humble - need to put forth effort in our relationship with God. Granted, John the Baptist wasn’t God, but perhaps to Jesus, he represented God. Sometimes we need to get off our horses and approach God, because there is something pure and holy about standing - sitting or kneeling - before God. That’s why we sometimes have communion by intinction, where we have to get out of our pews and go up to God - represented by the bread and the cup. It may seem a small thing, but it is the conquering of our fears or reluctance or even laziness, to approach the holiness that lies before us, often so very plainly before us.
Almost on the coattails of this very ordinary, human activity of standing in line, and being baptized, God comes to Jesus, bestowing a deeply individual, personal and holy blessing. (Which is why we, at other times, celebrate communion with individual cups, and where we are sitting, to remind us that God also seeks to bless us, right where we are in this life, right in the midst of the millions of people that surround us.)
We don’t know if God’s words to Jesus were heard by those around him or not. I guess I’d always envisioned the scene with God’s voice sounding remarkably like Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman. But maybe God’s voice sounded only in Jesus’ head, and he shared that “moment” with the disciples at a later time.
For whatever reason, maybe Jesus needed to hear those words, to remember them when the disciples failed him in their sleep at the Garden of Gethsemane, when he wondered about the insanity of it all while he was standing in front of Pilate, when he was hanging on the cross. Maybe Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, needed this proclamation of being God’s beloved, so he could make it through what was to come.
I know we need to hear about us being God’s beloved, because of the paths that our life have taken, are taking and will take. In those moments, when we stand before God, wondering what this life is all about, we need this picture of Jesus to remind us that it is our picture, too.
I don’t know why or what it’s all about, but for whatever reasons, it seems that God has been bringing a lot to me lately about mental illness and addiction; the incredible magnitude of those two problems, the incredible dimensions to them, the ways we humans try to deal with them, and the many, slow and painful steps that we must take to deal with them. I don’t have a degree in psychology or psychiatry or any other degree than theology, but it seems to me, in my experiences, that we all need to know how much God looks on us as “beloveds.”
In the New International Version, it says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” In the old King James, it says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The NIV is good, but the King James’ “beloved” seems to reach deeper, more intimately.
You, (say your name in your mind right now) are God’s beloved. However you envision God, imagine yourself in front of or wrapped up in or sitting next to God, and God says (say your name in your mind right now), in you I am well pleased.
This place, where you are right now, is not about what you’ve done, what you’ve said, how old or young you are, what color your skin is, or anything else you feel. This is what God says - about you.
That’s what we need to remember when we’re scared or lonely or feeling inadequate or adrift. No matter what happens in your life, there is nothing you can do that will take away God’s bestowing of “beloved” on you. God is always going to be “well pleased” with you, (say your name in your mind right now), even if you do or say things that are less than God’s vision of you.
That’s a part of the Good News that we need to share with people - in action or word - that can change lives. That’s what can reach into the hardest of scarred hearts and begin to heal from the God-side out. And that’s the message I think God needs us to remember, at least once a year. So let us pray.
Beloved and Loving God, we come to worship you, to give you thanks and praise for who you are. And that is right and good. But it is who you are - to each of us - that gives us the greatest reason to give you our worship. So we thank you and praise you for the love that you have had for each one of us, long before time even began, that will continue - for each one of us - long after our time on this side of eternity will end. Help us, dear God, to embrace your love more deeply, that we may share it more freely, that others may heal more completely. For all the ways that you love us and care for us, all your people are deeply grateful, as in our final Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.