January 9, 2017

A Time for Renewal


(No audio for this sermon is available.)

Text: Matthew 3:15: “...Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now...’”

His parents must be very proud of him. He’s come such a long way in such a short time. Just two weeks ago he was a helpless infant lying in an unused feeding trough. But today, he is a young man at the beginning of his public ministry. He is standing at the bank of the Jordan river, and as far as we know he is meeting his cousin John for the first time.

Each of these two young men have already made quite a name for themselves. John’s been the better-known and longer-known of the two. He’s such a dramatically different fellow—going from town to town, not really having a settled residence anywhere, always on the move, living off the land. Something about him isn’t quite tame, somehow. He is a prophet, but he’s not really a domesticated prophet. There’s something almost feral about him.

Jesus is different. As wild as John seems to be, Jesus is quiet and calm—even calming. Wherever he seems to be, things around him seem to get quiet and still. When John talks, things feel like they’re blowing up. When Jesus talks, things feel like they are coming together—intensely. Almost... overwhelmingly.

This morning we have the first conversation, at least the first recorded conversation, between these two very different, yet very connected, people. You would think that it would be the loud one, the brash one, who takes the dominant role. But almost immediately he, too, seems to be drawn into the intense calm around Jesus. His protest might sound like John usually sounds, but suddenly he’s not clamoring for the people around him to repent. Instead, he’s doing something totally uncharacteristic; he’s telling this other man that he’s not worthy of the moment.

Jesus says something uncharacteristic, too. Here is John, instinctively trying to sort out rank and hierarchy; Jesus is above him, and he should not be baptizing him. But Jesus collapses that idea of difference totally, and instead speaks of what they must do together; it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Here, even at the very first moment of Jesus’s public ministry, we get more than a symbol but a substanial expression of how the new community of God’s people will work; the hierarchies we instinctively create, our hard-wired reflex to want to know where we rank and where everyone else does, too—all of that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have to work together as partners if we’re going to get closer to the right path we’re supposed to be walking.

Before, there was high and low, greater and lesser. Now, there is us. If the Lord we are meant to follow insists on working together with us without concern for rank, we had better be ready to work with each other in that way.

Jesus comes to the Jordan River not merely to begin a new phase of his life, but to renew the very fundamentals of how the community of the people God calls as co-workers and fellow-ministers will work. And in that lies a truth that is simple, but not small.

That truth has to do with what baptism sets us up for. It’s not so much about what baptism does for us, but how being baptized sets a new expectation on us.

Baptism is not just about our individual standing with God. We are baptised into something larger than a bilateral relationship. We are baptized into a community—the Body of Christ.

John meets up with Jesus and his instinctive reaction is to get into his own way. John thinks in terms of hierarchies, and he rushes to put himself in a lower place. But Jesus is having none of it. Jesus insists that John take the place he is meant to take in the new community of faith. And John ends up being exactly who he is supposed to be—the person who baptizes the Lord.

We are baptized. And when we meet up with Jesus we are just like John. We instinctively get into our own way. Chances are we think we know, we have an inkling, of who we are supposed to be—of what we would be, who we would be, if it weren’t for all these things in our way, all of these burdens or challenges or disappointments or obligations.

So when we meet up with Jesus, just like John that’s our first move; I can’t do what you’re asking me to do. That’s not my place. I’m not worthy. I’m not ready. I can’t do that anymore. I wouldn’t dare. I might fail. I’m not allowed.

But because Jesus has been baptized, he knows something about us baptized folks. He knows that God’s intention for us is to have lives of fulfillment and purpose. What’s more—and, just maybe, what’s worse—he knows that we have been perfectly well equipped to realize that fulfillment.

So Jesus is not taking our no for an answer. But at the same time he’s not going to get us to act by command. If we will let him, he’s going to get us to where we are supposed to be by doing it with us, by insisting that we take on the role he has appointed for us, the full life he has set out for us, by being right in it with us.

That’s what renewal means, in practical terms. It means giving up  a lot of our received wisdom and a lot of our automatic responses, and instead imagining that God has called us to be full and fully realized partners in the community he calls to be his own.

In the very earliest years of Christianity, a long-ago bishop named Gregory taught his people this same basic lesson in a sermon that ended with these words: “Today let us do honor to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness... Nothing gives such pleasure to God as the conversion and renewal of human beings, for whom his every word and every revelation exist. He wants you to become a living force for all humanity, lights shining in the world. You are to be radiant lights as you stand beside Christ, the great light, bathed in the glory of him who is the light of the world.”

That is what is asked of us. But we cannot be those lights if we prefer the familiar comfort of our own darkness. When we are baptized with Christ, we are called not just to imagine, but to show forth, the glory of God. Only by accepting the renewal of our baptism, only by taking the risk of welcoming Christ alongside us in this life, can we truly rise, and truly shine. Amen.