[Photo by Anders Jilden]
This sermon was preached at Belleville Presbyterian Church in Belleville, Michigan and was focused upon Matthew 3:13-17. The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
John never expected to see this sight or encounter this scenario, but there it was. There he was. Along the banks of the River Jordan, Jesus approached John and asked to be baptized by him. Very likely, John had never even imagined this scenario. Perhaps he stumbled in his words a bit, standing there, stunned.
“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John asked.
“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus answered.
With this intention, Jesus, like so many others, was baptized by John in the Jordan River.
And that might seem like a simple story. After all, this story is only four verses and six sentences long. But within this story, we find a larger story. We find an expansive intention. Jesus seeks to be one with the people – to identify with them, express solidarity with them, and free their lives for a new direction.
Today, this very day, Jesus seeks to be one with humanity – that is, one with us – to identify with us, express solidarity with us, and free our lives for a new direction.
This little story is expansive and life-giving.
So let’s enter it. Let’s consider the scene for this expansive and life-giving story: This baptism of Jesus didn’t happen in the halls of power or in a place of prominence. It didn’t happen in the center of the city or even in a central place of worship. This baptism of Jesus took place in the wilderness.
It happened out in the wilderness where John was growing a movement. John had wandered out into the wilderness purposefully and began to change lives in very dramatic ways. That being said, I doubt that many would have anticipated any of this. After all, John was rather eccentric, living outside of what some would expect from a religious leader. He certainly looked different than most, and he had some intriguing habits too. John dressed himself daily in camel’s hair and ate dinners of locusts and wild honey.
But even though John was unfamiliar with strange habits and living outside in the wilderness apart from the center of activity, he was inviting people into a great movement of life-change. And that is exactly what was taking place. Droves of people from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside traveled to John in the wilderness to be baptized by him. They heard his call and sought to recommit their lives in new ways toward God and one another.
John was a fiery, brazen preacher. With impassioned words, he cried out, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God has come near!” John called people to repentance, and they began to desire it. The word ‘repentance’ literally means to turn around. People stepped into this vision as they stepped into the Jordan River. They were baptized by John, and when they walked out of those waters, they were commissioned to live their entire lives in a new direction.
The people asked impassioned questions back to John. Convicted by this new vision, they began to ask, “What should we do?”
They were called to live their life toward God by sharing their lives with one another. John answered in his way: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food, must do likewise.”
People of great wealth, means, and power had come to John for baptism as well. They asked the same question. “What should we do?” John didn’t mince words. He said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
The people were called to repentance – to turn toward God and see one another more clearly, honoring the worth of their fellow human beings and taking care of their needs.
And the new vision didn’t stop there. People, filled with expectation, began to question in their hearts about John, wondering if he might be the Messiah. In response, John placed a continual vision in front of the people. He answered by them saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John placed this vision before the people, yet did he imagine that the One to Come would come and stand before him, asking to be baptized by him? Likely, John never expected to see this sight or encounter this scenario, but there it was. There he was.
Greatly humbled, John baptized Jesus. Jesus is called the author and giver of life, yet he chose to be baptized like the rest of the people. He chose to identify with them, express solidarity with them, and free their lives toward this new direction. This was his expansive intention as he stepped into those waters.
And when he came up from those waters, the heavens themselves seemed to expand. The story says that suddenly, the heavens were opened to Jesus, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven spoke words of affirmation, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus identified with the people,
Today, he identifies with us.
Jesus expressed solidarity with the people,
Today, he expresses solidarity with us.
Jesus freed their lives toward this new direction,
Today, Jesus frees our lives toward a new direction — even now, this very day.
This is all summed up in that beautiful word spoken from the heavens: Beloved. Jesus enters the waters of baptism with us, and from that place, he makes that word come alive. That word Beloved is spoken to each one of us today. It has been proclaimed upon humanity before the foundation of the world. We are created and nurtured through that reality – Beloved – and it is endlessly true, even when we doubt it.
Do we know that we are truly beloved in the heart of God? Do we know that we are loved with an endless love that cannot be lost? Do we know that this love walks with us every day of our lives – loving us endlessly and calling us to show love in the world? We rest in the truth of baptism today and are invited to live it out daily — proclaiming its reality among our neighbors. Our neighbors are truly beloved.
Baptism reminds us that we are found in Jesus, God’s Beloved, and we ourselves are beloved with a love that cannot be lost. Baptism also reminds us that we are called to ministry. It is nothing less than an act of ordination. Jesus has entered the waters of baptism and frees our lives for a new direction.
Like the people who came to John, perhaps we ask, “What should we do?”
Through the waters of baptism, we are called into the wilderness. If we have two coats, we are called to share with those who have none, and if we have food, we must do likewise. In a world where greed often rules the day and creates hierarchies of worth, we are called to speak the truth to power and unjust economic systems, proclaiming that all people are beloved with worth that can never be lost.
We are called to follow Jesus into this.
This means that we choose identify with others, express solidarity with others, and work alongside others so that everyone may be free to live in this new, life-giving direction.
That invitation comes to us again today. Perhaps we never expected to encounter it, but there it is. There he is. May all God’s beloved follow Jesus into this new way of life.