The Sunday Sermon: Baptism of the Lord Sunday – January 8, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-17
Following New Life
Pray with me … and Listen for the Word of God: Matthew 3:1 – 12
So … here you are, here we are again (I must include myself), far away from Christmas already. Following our lectionary cycle, and our biblical accounts of the life of Jesus after his birth in Bethlehem, we’re now standing, wading, or, if you have a bit more energy, playing in a river some thirty years away from only two weeks ago. We’re aware on some level that we came, along with so many others, old and young, for a greater, deeper purpose – just as we came to that manger so long ago. But what is the reason we’re gathered river now? We don’t see Jesus anywhere.
There is this “fired up baptizer” baptizing many others. We’re waiting for our turn. It seems the right thing to do for one reason or another “in these days.” But why is that, exactly?
Maybe it’s because we’ve been feeling unsettled already. Somewhere in our past, perhaps two weeks ago, but it feels more like thirty years, our world was shaken up a bit. We remember that. We remember we heard stories out of Jerusalem about travelers seeking a new king. We heard the loud rants of some crazy shepherds outside of Bethlehem. There’s an old couple waiting in the line stretched out in front of us who claim to have owned an Inn in Bethlehem that had a cattle stall out back where a baby was born that got people riled up. Some of those gathered here, just a few to be sure, say they saw for themselves what in the world went on that night so long ago. They’ve shared a bit. We remember a little ourselves, maybe. It was a bizarre night and day after. And it’s been a confusing couple of weeks – thirty years.
We remember well how Herod went crazy right about that time. He was said to have killed all the children in and around the small city of David who were two years old and under. There was also a strange presentation in the Temple some days after this odd night where a priest, Simeon – strange … you remember his name for some reason – uttered some prophetic oracle about a baby (lucky kid must have escaped Herod’s soldiers somehow), a baby and the future of all Israel, which included us, includes us, our future.
Was it two weeks? More like thirty years ago, surely. Long ago, in any case, and far away. There was something new we all felt back then, something we hadn’t felt in a long time, and something we haven’t felt much of since.
And as we stand in line to be baptized, as we gather together with others this morning so long after Christmas, wondering all these things, we remember what that something was: Hope …
We felt hopeful “so long ago” at Christmastime. The strong sense that we were not alone, that we never were alone. We were fearless for a while. A short while … so many years ago. But somehow it didn’t last. Things changed so quickly, the young couple and their baby disappeared for years, Egypt we heard. And even when it was said they’d come back, they supposedly went to Nazareth. Way up north. And nothing good has ever come out of Nazareth. Odd … thinking about all this now … here.
Hope? Odd …
Or maybe not so odd. We’ve come to be baptized, or to remember our baptism on this day, to be reminded that everything that separates us from our God, has been washed away and we may begin again – to die to an old self and be born … born like that baby so long ago … born again.
That’s the scene, brothers and sisters of Christ. The scene set for each one of us … gathered here this morning. In the verses we just read and on which we just “imagined,” Matthew has set the scene to bring the adult Jesus onto the narrative stage for the first time, to present him and his mission to the reader – to us. The overture is over, you see, the “parabolic overture,” and the story proper is about to begin. The stage is set for the big entrance.
We are already at the Jordan with John so many years later, when Jesus arrives from Galilee. It’s intriguing, actually. Matthew could have begun the story otherwise. He could have had us, the reader, the listeners, with Jesus in Galilee. We could have met John with Jesus instead of before him. But we didn’t. We don’t. We aren’t with Jesus as the story begins. Rather Matthew “incorporates” Jesus into the John’s story line, and simultaneously, into our own. We aren’t with Jesus as the story begins, even after such fanfare and merriment as we just celebrated. Jesus has to “come into our lives” yet again, even so soon after Christmas.
It’s more accurate than we care to admit, isn’t it? Jesus has quickly slipped out of our story. Even those of us who hang on until Epiphany, January sixth, this past Friday, with our decorations and lights, have packed things away by this day, the eighth. It’s been a long time ago, already. There’s been a week of gift returns and gift card purchases, New Year’s celebrations; a week of school; a week of work; it’s gotten colder and the furnace is burning the money we’ve tried to save to pay off our extravagant expenditures in the past month. The child and his family have fled our lives. And if they have returned in any measure at all, it’s not been to the manger with the star and the swaddling clothes; it’s not been to a mother mild or cattle lowing; it’s not been to Bethlehem. If they’ve returned at all, it’s been to Nazareth or Jerusalem, and we’re already planning how might live without them, or at least live with them on our own terms.
We’re already choosing to follow someone else. Perhaps this charismatic character whose been baptizing in the river outside the city. He’s here, at least. Not sure where he came from, out of the wilderness somewhere, but that must mean he’s committed to something. No one lives out there unless they’ve got a cause! We’re not too sure what that cause is, but he’s yelling at those who are interpreting things literally and rigorously, and condemning anyone who thinks differently. And he’s attacking the aristocratic priestly types who hold on so tight to their power and influence in matters religious or otherwise. Sounds like Truth: “If you don’t produce good fruit, you’ll burn! “ And he is supposed to be related to Jesus, so he’s close to the real thing you remember so little about. Let’s get on board.
And so the scene it set … for each one of us. We’re not really in God’s story of salvation any more, or only peripherally, through a cousin. We’re in John’s story as we sit together this morning, only two weeks after our own Christmas, gathered at the river to pray, and to be baptized into a ministry of fighting the powers that be by any means necessary. It even sounds like it could get violent. And we’re ready to fight. Peace through victory! And then … in walks a distant memory, almost forgotten, but instantly remembered.
Read Matthew 3:13 – 17
The little exchange of dialogue between Jesus and John is found in no other Gospel. Matthew answers any question we may have about Jesus “Way” being inferior to John’s because Jesus was baptized by his cousin: “I need to be baptized by you,” Jesus says, “to fulfill God’s will.” The will and way of God is this: Servanthood … Obedience … peace through justice … hope … and above all, Love – sacrificial love. And we realize, as we stand, wading or playing in the river Jordan, hours, days, weeks, or years after the glorious announcement of “Emmanuel!” , that we were just about ready to settle for less again. Less than the Way Jesus – Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace, Christ the Savior – that was born to us, born in us, and must be born through us.
Now, let’s not beat ourselves up too much. It’s our story, over and over again. It’s in the major narratives of our sacred scripture – the story of the Exodus, of the Exile, as well as the story of Emmanuel, in Jesus the Christ. It’s why we begin every worship service with a prayer of confession, of connection, of renewal. Because we constantly seek ways to live without God or at least to live with God on our terms. But God has revealed the Way to us again at this river, at this font. Our story is only now truly beginning.
So, this morning we pause to remember and to re-member ourselves. On this Sunday we ordain and install new Elders to guide and shepherd us in the years. As Regina, Richard, Sandy (and Annie, in absentia) faithfully respond to their call this morning in this way, let each one of us pause, like Jesus did at the Jordan, to “fulfill all righteousness,” to fulfill God’s will by recommitting ourselves to God’s way in Jesus.
It’s not an easy thing to do. To let go, to let God’s Way take over. The promises we take for ourselves or our children at baptism, the vows we require for ordained leadership in our particular Body of Christ not only renew our lives, they require a sacrifice – time, talents, and most of all Love. Maybe that’s why we left the baby in the manger so quickly and so completely. But this time may it be different.
What has been implicit in our celebrations of Jesus birth, that is, our special relationship to God in Emmanuel, is made explicit this morning. As the Spirit, like a dove, descends upon Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, we all receive our call: You are my Son … my Daughter … my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
As the one destined to be our Lord and Savior accepts the sacrament of renewal at the hands of John, through the waters of the Jordan, we recommit ourselves to follow our new life in Christ.
At this time, we call you forward – (Annie) Regina, Richard, and Sandy. Will you stand, and join me around the font. And as these four come forward, we remind ourselves …
(Elder Ordination/Installation litany) …
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 8, 2017