Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday January 9, 2011 I Epiphany – Baptism of our Lord
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Title: The Beautiful Words of God
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by his cousin Johnny B. It is a familiar story as all of the evangelists tell it in one way or another. The gospel writer of Mark makes Jesus’ baptism the very first thing, skipping the birth narratives of Jesus altogether. Mark tells of Jesus’ baptism in a breathless and fast paced way focusing on the heavens being ripped open and the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove only to drive him out into wilderness for testing.
The Gospel of John is so shy and furtive about Jesus’ baptism that he does not mention the baptism of Jesus at all. It might leave the wrong impression and impinge on Jesus’ purity to have him knee deep in mud, standing in line with the rest of ordinary sinful humanity for a sacred bath by the wild prophet Johnny B. So John tells the story a bit slant, proclaiming that he saw the Spirit alight on Jesus like a dove but he fails to mention that the mud of the Jordon was squishing between his toes at the time.
Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ baptism on the other hand is quite robust. We are told of Johnny B’s ministry among sinners, we are told of his colorful ways, and in a real way we are unsettled by his message. “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 with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
But when Jesus showed up at the river, he didn’t look all that scary. He wasn’t juggling fire or carrying dangerous weapons. He was just a humble gentle carpenter from the backwaters of Judea whom God has chosen and sent as his own beloved Son. He was the one upon whom the Spirit would rest and through whom God would work healing in the world.
But why was Jesus there in the first place? John’s baptism was for the repentance of sins and he attracted some serious riff raff to his baptismal outpost. Oh there thieves and extortionists, religious snobs, cheats of all kinds, violent and shifty sorts, white collar criminals and people who had simply made a lot of bad choices and were hoping for a new start. But, why was Jesus there? By all accounts it was his manner of life, declared to be sinless that set him apart from most everyone. The gospel writers are at pains to point out that Jesus didn’t have any reason to repent and be baptized yet almost all of the gospels, in one way or another, admit that Jesus was in fact baptized by John in the Jordan. It is a bit of scandal really that Jesus was baptized, some feel that he should have just taken over the franchise from Johnny B. saying :cuz, you’ve done a great job with this and I can take it from here.” But no, Jesus got in the same line as every other sorry sinner and submitted to the same cleansing ritual that everyone else was embracing. He wasn’t interested in standing on the sidelines looking holier than thou. He wasn’t interested in taking over the family baptismal business. In fact, he wasn’t really interested in grabbing power or notoriety. He seemed more interested in following God’s way wherever it led, to the muddy waters of the Jordan or to a cross at the city garbage dump outside Jerusalem.
So, when Jesus arrived at the Jordan River to where his cuz Johnny B. was baptizing, they engaged in a friendly but intense theological debate about who should be baptizing whom. “Please you first, no, no after you.” “No really should baptize me, oh well ok” John finally gave in and performed the baptism of Jesus. It was evidently, the absolutely right thing for John to do, because as Jesus emerges from the waters, the heaven seem to open, for a moment. the clouds parted and something beautiful like a white bird, but more importantly something from God anointed Jesus. And a voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
What an affirmation! What beautiful words! What acceptance! If you’re like me these are words you would love to hear personally. Just to hear that you are loved, accepted, that your very person is pleasing to someone, especially God would meet a deep spiritual need. These beautiful words came to Jesus and not just from his cousin but from heaven. What had Jesus done that was so pleasing to God? This was the very beginning of his call to public ministry and the only thing he’d really done was say yes to God, but that is no small thing. Oh, and one more thing, and perhaps the one that holds the biggest importance for us, he had joined humankind in the waters of the Jordan. He did not stay aloof or ask to supervise from the bank, no he joined all of humanity in the mud of the Jordan and the response from heaven was pleasure. “You are my beloved son and I am very pleased.”
Many theologians have pointed out that these beautiful words were not only beautiful but that they proclaimed something powerful about Jesus’ purpose. If you look closely at the words, “You are my beloved son” and “with you I am well pleased,” you discover that both of them are quotes from scripture itself. It is as if God is quoting his own book. The beloved son part which comes right out of psalm 2 was a coronation song for a king. The second part of the beautiful words “with you I am well pleased” come from the prophet Isaiah which we read a few minutes ago in our older testament reading. The words are part of a very important description of God’s suffering servant, who will heal the world not by force but by sacrificial love. The incredible thing is that if you put these two things together a beloved king and a suffering servant you end up with a wonderful description of who Jesus is and of what his purpose is among us. In fact, the whole baptismal scene is a kind of early press conference, a public announcement of what the life and ministry of Jesus is to be all about. Jesus is the servant king.
The baptism of Jesus by John is a window into what God is doing in Jesus. It is a liminal moment in which an ordinary carpenter from Galilee embraces the life of God by entering the muddy waters of the Jordan. When he emerges from those waters, he is no longer just a carpenter, he has become God’s person in a new way. He is, to be sure, the same person, but his life is taking a new direction. Johnny B said that his baptism was for repentance and in a strange way this is true for Jesus as well. His life is taking a turn and that is the basic way to understand repentance – to turn around and go a different direction, God’s direction. In a surprising way Jesus did repent. He entered those waters a peaceful obscure peasant and emerged from them a rabbi who would change the world.
The transformation that happens to Jesus is powerful. He enters the water his own person, a private man from Galilee and he comes out of the water God’s person and now a public person at the center of spiritual controversy that accompanies his whole life of teaching and building a new kind of community.
The transformation that happens to Jesus is not an isolated event. It is the same thing that happens to us in our baptism and in our common life of worship here each week. Just as Jesus’ baptism made him God’s person in the world so claiming our own baptism makes each of us God’s person in the world, God’s public person. Our spiritual life is personal but never private. We are baptized and renew our own baptismal vows in public, because we are intended to be God’s people in the world.
When we confess our sins here, we do not simply confess our own personal sins. Rather we kneel and talk to God about the sins of all humankind – all the damaging things that we, as a people have done or failed to do. We admit to all the ways that we run from the love of God because we are sometimes so afraid to be known, to be changed, to grow into the likeness of Christ. When we celebrate and give thanks for the gift of new life in our midst we do not do that only for ourselves either. We give thanks and rejoice will all of those who were lost and have been found. We delight in all those who have discovered hope in the midst of despair, light in the midst of darkness, healing in the midst of pain, life in the very midst of death. The truth is that our spiritual practice is not meant to be a private matter just between us and God. It is meant to be good news for all of God’s creation. Just like Jesus wading into the waters of the Jordan alongside all of humanity, so our worship is something we do in solidarity with all humankind as well.
If you listen to the baptismal promises, the heart of our faith, with you will notice how public these vows really are, how connected they are to all our human brothers and sisters. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?’
The truth is that just as Jesus became God’s person publicly, so we too are God’s public people. Together and in full view of the world we say, that we will be God’s people in the world by following the ways of God found in Jesus. We never say that it will be easy or that we will become wealthy or prosperous because of our choice to repent and follow God’s ways.
What we do know is that in doing so we are in good company because Christ has gone this way before us. Christ entered the muddy waters of the Jordan because he desired to come to us where we are at, not demand that we come to him. Why did he do it? Because Christ loves us, that is why and because he is so pleased with us and loves humanity enough to join us in the water and mud and mess of life, to join us in the flesh to show us God’s ways in person.
And what is more, we find that when we become God’s person in the world, when we embrace what we believe to be this truthful and living giving way of God no matter how difficult, there are moments when we too hear a voice clearly speaking to us those beautiful words, “You are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son and with you I am well pleased.
I wish to acknowledge my debt to the writings of Barbara Brown Taylor and William Willamon on the baptism of John in preparing this sermon. In becoming God’s person in the world may each of us hear those beautiful words, “You are my beloved and with you I am well pleased.”