*Preached on 12 January 2020, on the Sunday that the Baptism of our Lord is honored. at First Christian Church of Hampton, Virginia. We all have our stories and are truly a people of “THE Story,” all of which in the sharing we grow stronger in our faith. Short sermon and your thoughts are welcomed!
Gospel of Matthew 3:13-17 (Contemporary English Version)
Jesus left Galilee and went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John kept objecting and said, “I ought to be baptized by you. Why have you come to me?” Jesus answered, “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.” Then John agreed. So Jesus was baptized. And as soon as he came out of the water, the sky opened, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down on him like a dove. Then a voice from heaven said, “This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with him.”
Do you remember the day?
The day you went to the baptismal water, or for some you, when you claimed those waters your parents had taken you to as an infant – now as your own choice?
I suspect our own stories of acceptance and of baptism vary across the scale with some on one end more like Timothy’s experience of being raised by two women of faith and coming to claim that faith as his own, while on the other end that is Paul, formerly Saul, encountering the risen Lord on the road to Damascus that he could finally see the Truth. Some folk are somewhere in between, but I would submit all are equally valid because one way or another – we each come to claim our relationship with Jesus Christ.
As for me, it was Lent 1971 and I had been through the “Pastor’s Class” over those Sundays, classes led by my father – the pastor. No problem with the classes, as one might guess. However, if on the one hand I felt the calling, on the other hand it can be a bit confusing when it is your Dad and one worries that any decision might reflect well or poorly upon him, and certainly could positively or negatively impact our relationship. That is often how pastor’s family members do feel, no matter the congregation.
Palm Sunday came. I was nervous and yet made my confession, with Easter Sunday being the baptismal service. But here’s the thing. Every day I questioned myself: Was I really ready? Unknown to my Dad, I came up with a solution…
I asked God for a sign. I was pretty specific, because, hey, that’s how I would be sure it was a sign, right? A couple days passed. No sign.
I asked God again, saying maybe I had asked a bit much, so how about a smaller sign, one which I named. Days passed. No sign.
Friday came, and I wasn’t sure whether to go ahead or back out. I needed a sign, after all, to assure me. So, now I asked God for a really small sign, just enough for me to be assured that my baptism was done for the right reasons, and not merely because my Dad was the pastor or that I wanted him to be approving of me. Just enough from God to give me the go-ahead. The sun rose and it was Easter morning. Once more, there was no sign.
It would have made it so much easier for me, I remember thinking, before finally, little more an hour before morning worship, as I walked into the church, I said to God that I was going ahead without a sign.
I would be my own sign to myself, I said. It was then I felt echoing through me: “Now you understand!”
WHY I BRING THIS UP
It doesn’t come easy and this path of obedience can surprise us.
For instance, what can, after all, seems a good thing to offer amid a challenging situation, would turn out to be something of a temptation, as John urged Jesus to baptize him instead – Jesus thereby NOT doing all that God required of him: Jesus will not be jammed into a box that would constrain God’s will for him and thus limit the hope that the Gospel offers to you and I. Jesus will resist efforts from people of faith who think power is the pathway to salvation… because it isn’t. Many in our own age resist with this prophetic word and damage the witness. Against this, Jesus invites us, by way of his example, into considering what God requires of us, instead of the other way around.
So, even if our Bibles’ don’t helpfully give a title to today’s reading from Matthew as the “Temptation by John,” it’s there. In Matthew 2:11, which was read last week, John had said: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
This certainly created an expectation when Jesus made his entrance: Jesus would assume his proper position NOW, reflecting John’s own view of Christ’s path. This quickly ran into the reality of Jesus, and like the devil’s temptations in the desert, as recorded in Matthew 4:1-11, in both instances it called upon Jesus to use his power now, for his own glory; and to avoid his emptying of self with the eventually of the pain and suffering of the cross.
When our Lord came to the river, as the Gospel of Matthew 3:14 reminds us, John said: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” “John would have prevented him,” we are told. That very verb for “prevented” (diakoluo) is in the imperfect tense and thus implies a continuous resistance to Jesus’s direction, with John pretty much saying “But I won’t do it,” while Jesus says “I’ve come to be baptized.” So, I find myself wondering if John pushed back three times, even though the text does not say, foreshadowing how three years later Peter would three times deny Jesus, as the Lord stood trial. This is the only time this specific word makes its appearance in all of the New Testament, and the only other word that comes close, is in Matthew 19:14, when the disciples are seen to be “preventing” little children from coming to Jesus; something Jesus quickly squashed and directed his disciples to send the kids his way.
Learned teachers didn’t associate with kids, the disciples thought, much as an elder of my first church attempted in vain to prohibit me from playing with the little ones.
Learned teachers also didn’t baptize their superiors, John thought, believing he knows what’s the right thing to do by Jesus – that he is the one who should be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around – but this isn’t what God wants.
In both instances, whether of keeping the kids at bay or pushing back against baptizing Jesus because he thought that the stronger one had no need
I’ll also point out that in both instances, the opposite word in the Greek which means “letting it happen” – the same word commonly used as “forgiving. NOW is the time “to fulfill all righteousness” and “to do all that God requires.”
Jesus demonstrated that…
he is obedient to God – doing all that God requires,
he ushers in baptism into himself as opposed to John’s baptism for
he identifies with sinners and like sinners needed this sign of assurance.
All of this so it is that the One who is sinless is to be baptized for the forgiveness of sin, the One who is sinless will hang out with unholy sinners, and the One who is everlasting will one day die upon a cross a physical example of identifying with us.
So what do we make of all this, as those who follow “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” as Paul puts it?
In each act of obedience, there is the great emptying of himself and setting aside power for humility, when God becomes truly human in Jesus – for our sakes. If we would be that sign, which is obedience in humility, we would draw nearer to our Lord and come to be the hope Paul expressed in his Letter to the Philippians [2:1-11], writing:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.