"BAPTISM" - Matthew 3:13-17 from January 8, 2017

Alex Evans on January 8, 2017

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17


            Flannery O’Connor is a familiar and favorite novelist for many of us. In one of her novels, Wise Blood, O’Connor tells the story of Hazel Motes, a preacher of the “Church Without Christ.” Here is how Motes puts it: “Well, I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”

            That is classic Flannery O’Connor, whose many writings won acclaim in the last century. It is both humorous and bizarre, as O’Connor intends, with a stinging critique of life, faith, and culture.

In many cases still today, the name Jesus Christ is used to bolster values and commitments that have nothing to do with the New Testament. Jesus’ name can be simply a cover for a church or a group’s warm hospitality or its advocacy for some social or political agenda – liberal or conservative. The name Jesus Christ has also been employed to promise wealth and prosperity – as in “prosperity gospel,” or something else. When these motives take center stage, Jesus becomes just the veneer, like the “church without Christ.” (See G. Stroup, Why Jesus Matters, p.1)

            Just who is this Jesus person?

It was only two weeks ago; Christians everywhere celebrated Christmas! We know the story so well – the angel appeared with a message to Mary: “do not be afraid, God has found favor with you. You will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” The story includes Joseph and the manger and the birth; then angels appear in the fields – “do not be afraid! A Savior is born in Bethlehem. Glory to God in the highest.” It is the in-breaking of God into REAL life, into history, into our dirty, dusty world. The Word made flesh. Emmanuel – God with us.

            We celebrate Jesus’ birth with story and songs, with holy days and holidays, with presents and pageants. But who is this Jesus really? And does Jesus affect our lives? Or are we the Church Without Christ – where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what is dead stays that way?

            These are real questions because we are real people with real challenges. As we begin this New Year, many of us carry deep pains and burdens. We experience again the loss of loved ones. . . . We have deep heartaches. . . . Some of us await surgery, or test results, or anticipate another round of chemo, . . . Some of us carry sincere questions about how to go on in life because the darkness is dark, . . .  the uncertainty is great, . . . and life gets quite discouraging.

            And then there is the city and poverty, our schools and transportation, and many other major and complicated problems.

            And we have a new President . . . . and new tensions with Russia . . . . and lingering and growing problems with gun violence and terror .  . . and on and on.

            Just who is this Jesus Christ, really?

            Here is our second Scripture lesson today – Matthew 3:13-17:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            The gospel of Matthew begins, like Luke, with an interesting birth story with lots of intrigue and detail, with angels appearing and lots of going and coming, with confusion and fear. But then the story, without warning, jumps about 30 years to today’s passage about John the Baptist preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. John represents the law, speaks as prophet of God, calls people to live faithfully. And then he says, “I baptize you with water, 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.”

            So we know the birth story. And it has been thirty years. And then we encounter John, who is like the opening act for the main attraction. He gets people’s attention and gets them excited.

            Then verse 13 says, seemingly very casually: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by Jesus.”

            WAIT! . . . What? . . . What was that?!

            Bible scholar and commentator, Dale Bruner, will not let us overlook all that is happening here in this seemingly casual transition. His translation of this verse – 13 -Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan – says this: “JESUS MAKES HIS APPEARANCE AT THE JORDAN RIVER.” It is present tense, reflecting the arresting significance of Jesus showing up, and pointing the significance to perpetuity! John may represent the law and speak as a prophet. Jesus comes on the scene to represent, not law, but gospel, . . .  grace, goodness, hope. He comes to fulfill the law, to change how we live – loving God and loving others. He comes not to condemn the world, but to save the world. He comes not to badger us and burden us – we are badgered and burdened enough. We know this. Jesus knows this. He comes to bring life, life in abundance.

            And his very first act, the first thing Jesus does as Savior in our midst, is to get into the river with us, telling John he has come to be baptized. Dale Bruner calls this Jesus’ first miracle – “the miracle of humility.” Jesus “goes down with us” – and his whole life will be like this. He began his public life in a river with sinners and ended his life on a cross between thieves. Jesus stays low with us, identifying with us at every level. The God of the universe is also ONE with the human race. This becomes plain right in Jesus’ first appearance on the scene, at his baptism. (see Bruner, Matthew, p. 83)

            Understandably, John is not sure what to do with this. He says, “No, I need to be baptized by you, you come to me?” (Only in Matthew do we have this little interchange with John trying to get out of baptizing Jesus.) But Jesus answers – and these are his first spoken words in this gospel – “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

            This phrase – “to fulfill all righteousness” – is very important. It means to be in alignment with the power and purposes of God. Whether we see it or not, whether we understand or feel it or not, God is always working to making things RIGHT. That is something very important to know about God. God is always working to make things right:

Out of chaos, order. That is how the Bible begins.

Out of slavery, freedom. This is a primary theme of God.

Out of the wilderness, a way.

Out of confusion, clarity.

Out of heartache, hope.

Out of lostness, life.

Out of fear, faith.

Out of death, life.

This is always God’s way and God’s work. Fulfill all righteousness. Making things RIGHT.

Jesus goes down in the river. Jesus is one with humanity. Jesus comes to bring life and light. Jesus is baptized by John.

And just as he came from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove, alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Actually, Matthew’s gospel has some startling punctuation and vitality that is not depicted in the version that we read, the NRSV. There is the open heaven – which is not to be missed. There is the Dove-Spirit descending – which is most memorable. And there is the Voice – God’s voice. But the flavor of the passage – in Greek - is more emphatic and better conveyed with another word: “LOOK!” This is mentioned two times in this short telling of what happened, for EMPHASIS. “Look!” the Dove Spirit descends on Jesus. And “Look!” the Father-voice announces that Jesus is the Beloved Son.

Just WHO is this Jesus?

He is the Servant and the Son of God. We heard about the Servant in our first lesson today – from Isaiah. God says, “I have put my Spirit upon him. He will bring forth justice. And then there is that phrase that I love so much – “a bruised reed he will not break; a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

We often find ourselves feeling like bruised reeds, beaten down by life burdens and complexities. “A bruised reed he will not break.” The One who comes – Jesus - comes with compassion and care for our hurting lives.

We often feel like dimly burning wicks – we carry aches and pains that no one knows about and our smiling faces cover up; we deal with heartaches sometimes too deep to share, guilt or shame that we carry around; we wonder if things will ever change or even if God cares about what we care about. “A dimly burning wick he will not quench.” The one who comes – Jesus – comes to encourage, to keep us going.

We are intended to see all of this at Jesus’ Baptism. Once again, God is making things right. Look! The heavens open. Look! The voice proclaims – “my Son, the Beloved.”

One of you asked me this week, in the midst of some sincere pain and desperate longing – “where is God? When is God going to show up?” We all know that feeling.

At Jesus’ Baptism, we are meant to know loud and clear that God shows up in Jesus. The heavens open. The voice confirms. God is real. God is present. God is at work. God is making things right. We hold to that promise and that hope always.

You know, there are only two places in all the gospels where we actually hear the voice of God. And in both places, it is the same message: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It happens at Jesus’ Baptism, and it happens at the Transfiguration – when Jesus is on the mountain with his disciples. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the person bearing God’s Word and Work in the world like never before. In Jesus God is giving us all God’s promises, presence, and peace. In Him is everything God wants to say and do.

So the story of Jesus’ really begins with his Baptism. Following this moment with John in the river Jordan, Jesus starts his ministry of teaching, helping, healing, loving. Following this moment of humility in the river, and his great identity as God’s Son, his life and work commence with the very important work of God: the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and all of life is seen in terms of God’s promises and purposes. Life is about loving God and loving others. Life is NOT about how much money we can make, or how much acclaim we can gain, or many of the other things that we give our energy to. Life intends to be about the in-breaking of God’s reign. And it comes as we seek to be light in the darkness, as we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the suffering, work for justice, and follow Jesus.

And the story of Jesus ends, especially for Matthew, with Jesus saying to his disciples, “go and baptize, and lo, I am with you to the close of the age.” Those are Jesus final words before departing. Keep on with God’s work always, and I am with you, till the close of the age. We are loved and claimed by God in our Baptisms. Our work intends to be about compassion and care, encouraging and help. We are God’s servants, God’s agents of light and help and care for one another, across the city, and always.

I learned this week about “the word of the year” for 2016. Every year, the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary pick a word that has gained some traction or found new and deeper meanings. The word of the year for 2016 is POST-TRUTH. As in: We live in a post-truth world – a world where emotional appeal has seemingly taken priority over factual accuracy. This word, this idea – post-truth - found real traction in 2016 especially with the Brexit vote and the US election. Truths seemed to matter less and less. What people feel, or assume, or presume, seems to have taken the lead. This is a challenging and interesting phenomenon particularly for people of faith, called to be disciples.

What truths shape us most? What truths will guide our lives?

We may live in a post-truth world but we also are people who know the truth – Jesus is real. Jesus comes to bring life and light. Jesus comes to show us The Way. Jesus intends to be our way. That means our lives strive to take on the character and devotion of Jesus – a bruised reed we will not break. A dimly burning wick we will not quench. We spread hope and kindness. We work for justice. We promote peace. And we do it till the close of the age. The identity and work of Jesus – God’s Beloved Son – shape our very lives. The identity and work of Jesus frame our days. May it be so. Alleluia. Amen.

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O Lord; help our unbelief. And move us into deeper fellowship with You, deeper devotion to Jesus, working in the world as disciples. AMEN.

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon on a snowy, icy day: January 8, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.