Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Baptism of Our Lord [Year A] - January 8, 2017 (Matthew 3:13-17)

Well, it’s “Go Time.” For eight pro football teams that either faced or are facing play off games on this Wild Card weekend, it is what they call “Go Time.” Sadly for the Raiders and the Lions Go Time has become “Gone Time,” for they lost their games yesterday, but any other team that still finds itself in this do-or-die postseason, knows it is now “Go Time.” What “Go Time” usually means is that things have started for real. Anything that came before this point doesn’t really count for much. It was all important, on some level, but from here on out things really matter and there is no room for messing up, no chance for starting over. Each team, each player, each coach, will need to step up to the line and show everyone what they’re really made of. They’ll need to keep their eyes on what’s ahead, because the stakes are higher.

In addition to all that, when people typically say it’s “Go Time,” they mean that time for talking and deliberating is over. That is, it’s time for action. It’s time to go through with the plan and see how it turns out.

"Theophany" (St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church, Emmaus, PA)
The baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan is “Go Time,” in every sense of that term. Anything that happened before this point may be important, but none of it is as important and consequential as what happens from this point and beyond. It’s interesting: two of the four gospel writers, Mark and John, don’t even tell us anything about Jesus before his baptism. They don’t mention his birth or the prophecies leading up to it. For them, the baptism begins it all. And the two gospel writers that do mention Jesus’ earliest years—Matthew and Luke—don’t really include much about his infancy or youth. It’s as if all of that part of Jesus’ life was like the NFL regular season, or, better yet, pre-season. Those early years are, at best, just points on the road that lead up to this sky-shattering moment when Jesus steps into the particular river that formed the historic boundary between the wilderness and the Promised Land and is publicly identified as God’s Son, the Beloved. And now that he is baptized, now that he bears this awesome title, creation really must sit up and pay attention because things are going to start to matter like never before. The things he does after this point—the things he says, the things that happen to him and how he reacts—are going to bear a new kind of weight. We’re going to hear a lot more of what his life is like because it is “Go Time.”

There’s a line in a beloved Christmas carol which is actually sung to Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth, that goes:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Truth be told, the same words could be sung about the water in that Jordan River. The hopes and fears of all the years of human existence—the long wait for an anointed king and savior, the anxiety people have about their distance from God, the dangers of their own sins—are finally being dealt with—are finally being met—in this man in a muddy little string of water in Israel.

That’s what all of this dramatic heavenly fanfare is all about. In order to emphasize just how significant this moment is in Jesus’ life and ministry, the heavens tear apart the Spirit of God descends like dove upon Jesus and there is a booming voice from overhead. These mysterious, almost difficult-to-describe events converge upon each other as if to say, “This is The One.”

Several weeks ago the children of the congregation received the chrismon that had been made for them by our chrismon ministry team. This year’s chrismon was a descending dove delicately fashioned from pearl beads and gold wire. During the point of the children’s sermon when the adult leader was explaining how the descending dove appeared at Jesus’ baptism, one child interrupted and asked if he could hold the dove for a moment. The woman giving the children sermon was a little caught off guard by the request and graciously agreed to let him hold it. He immediately took it and, pretending it was a dive-bombing airplane, he shoved it into the carpet making the sound of a dive-bombing plane and crash explosion.

It was the kind of unscripted moment that children’s sermons can live (and die) on. I’m not sure how many people actually saw what happened, but it occurred to me at the time that we often want a huge, spectacular sign that God is present and active. The dove at the baptism might seem light and airy, but Jesus’ life is going to be an unmistakable crash of love and forgiveness, God’s love descending to us in spectacular but tragic form.

And that’s really the point of this short conversation we hear between John the Baptist and Jesus this morning. John has some clue as to who Jesus is, that Jesus is the superior one, but is surprised to see how Jesus is going to handle that superiority. At the time, John is baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins, giving people a chance to start over. Jesus doesn’t really need to have any sins forgiven, but he does want to demonstrate as clearly as possible, right at the beginning, that he has come to crash his life right into the mess of humankind. Rather than staying aloof from what humans experience in a broken creation, Jesus is going to jump right in.

Jesus has authority, as John notices, but Jesus’ authority over us is going to be grounded in uniting himself with the human experience, not remaining removed from it. He will submit to John’s baptism to fulfill all righteousness, and he will eventually submit to Pontius Pilate, and the chief priests and scribes, and the people who mock him and nail him to the cross. At the Jordan River it is “Go Time,” and in Jesus God is going to dare to go right where we’d never imagine a holy God to go in order to love us completely. Jesus is going to head right where we’d never imagine a God to go in order to accomplish his plan.

I imagine that is the understanding of Jesus’ authority that is inspiring the ministry of the Reverend Eric Manning, the new pastor of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, as he sits with members of his congregation through the trial of Dylan Roof this week. In the courtroom he clutches nothing but his Bible, calmly listening to every word that each of his parishioners’ families has to hear. Appointed to lead the grieving church back in June, Pastor Manning has begun his ministry by intentionally reminding them that he is with them through it all, because they follow a God who has submitted to every bit of pain and sorrow they’re going through. In an interview this week, he speaks about the steady stream of visitors that now come to the church, some to worship, some out of a “macabre sense of curiosity” regarding the shooting there in 2015 that took the lives of nine Bible study participants.[1] Whichever reason brings them there, those visitors find a loving community that is living face to face with some of the darkest ills of human existence and, by God’s grace, moving forward. They know that Jesus leads through this because he has submitted to what evil can do and come out a conqueror.

Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC (Google Street View)
This understanding of Jesus’ authority as coming from his desire to submit to human suffering in order that God may make things right with the universe is what should ground every congregation’s ministry, every Christians’ witness. Therefore our purpose has less to with sitting back and letting people to come to us, than it does with going out and engaging them where they are. Our witness is built less on expecting people to listen to us and our stories and more on being willing to listen to the stories and concerns of others. People will experience our love and our ministries as legitimate the more we model the spirit of Jesus’s baptism in our ministries—that is, the more we realize God helps us shed our pretentions to serve and care for the world God made in all its brokenness. This will be especially critical for those who feel like a bruised reed or a dimly-burning wick at this point, those who feel the world is about to snuff them out, for whatever reason.

We will be able to see ourselves in this type of ministry because we will have faith that our own baptisms have united us to this person who has conquered even death. Our own baptisms have washed away our complacent, egocentric selves and joined them to the man who knows that the hopes and fears of all the years have crashed upon him there in the waters of Jordan and again in the cross of Calvary. He has the authority because he comes to serve. We will be inspired together by the fact that in this very baptismal water (or a font like it) our lives have been joined forever and ever to the man who always knows what time it is. It’s Go Time for God.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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