The Water is Fine

A candidate sermon on the occasion of the congregational vote to call me as Pastor of United Presbyterian Church of Peoria, IL.

Based on Isaiah 42:1-7 and Matthew 3:1-17

One of our favorite movies is “O Brother Where Art Thou”  – love the music – and I could really nerd out over the juxtaposition of that script with the Iliad and the Odyssey. That’s for another day! One of the best scenes for me is when one of the three travelers decides to get baptized. Coming up out of the water Delmar exclaims: “It’s the straight and narrow for me now. The preacher said my sins been washed away. Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now! come on in boys, the water is fine!” 

As someone who has no memory of her own baptism, There’s something appealing about the joy and direction he gets from this experience (albeit very short-lived). Who among us isn’t looking for ways to solidify our faith, to feel a sense of rootedness in God’s will, to know deep inside that we are forgiven, that we are loved just as we are. We want to know in our hearts and in our bodies that the water is fine for us too!

For his part, John the baptizer tried to bring this to the people in his own particular (and raucous) way. He laid out his program quite clearly, telling people that to truly connect with God, they needed to repent – to turn away from their evil and unjust ways. His baptism, he declared, was for repentance. This ritual bathing in the river had a point – it is marked by a desire to shuv – (in the Hebrew) to turn away from sin and toward God.

When Jesus showed up, at first glance, it must have been confusing to John. He was offering  baptism for forgiveness, so why in the world does the son of God need to be baptized? He was preaching repentance. What did Jesus need to repent of? For John, baptism was just the first step of many that would lead toward substantial change in a person’s life, and Jesus didn’t need to change anything!  he was the Son of God! 

over the millennia, theologians and preachers have struggled with this question – why did Jesus do this? Why did he insist on being baptized? And they’ve pretty much worked out an explanation – When Jesus said he needed to fulfill all righteousness, he wasn’t saying he NEEDED baptism – he was simply taking up his role as the model for those who would choose to follow him.  – people who want to be like Jesus need to be baptized – shuv – to reorient their lives toward God – people like you and me.

Now – we could stop this sermon right here – Jesus wants us to be baptized – it’s the right/righteous thing to do and recognizing that many, dare I say, most, of us in this room have been baptized, we can check it off our list, say a hearty amen and get moving toward the treats the Doughboys have baked for us.

But when we do that, we we’re  missing a two fundamental things about Jesus – that he was fully human and that he was always turning things upside down.. creating new meaning from old rituals, not just taking the road less traveled, but walking a path that often shocked, even appalled those who watched him. From redefining the Sabbath to choosing to spend time with untouchables, bringing women into the center of his ministry, to centering children as the ultimate model of the kingdom of God. He called for peace in the midst of a foreign occupation. He reached out to provide healing to people nobody wanted to be near.

When Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness – he was really reminding John what he already knew: “This is how it should be,” God’s righteousness isn’t about sinless perfection, it’s about having  a right relationship with God and neighbor and the staying committed to God’s covenant that called God’s people to help bring forth the justice of God.

When John heard Jesus’ explanation, he didn’t waste any time. He and Jesus plunged into the fine baptismal waters of the Jordan. And here’s the important thing to notice – It’s only when both John and Jesus in the water, that we hear God’s voice making a public proclamation:  This is my son.  The beloved.  I am so pleased with him. It’s only when Jesus obediently submitted himself to God’s will – when Jesus answered God’s call in righteousness to faithfully bring forth justice that God’s Spirit speaks these words of blessing.

Now, we don’t know much about Jesus’ inner life. The gospels cover about three years of his life in broad strokes. his thoughts, his worries, his self-understanding remain largely unknown to us. But I have to wonder whether it’s that moment – that revelation, that blessing – that sustained Jesus as he proceeded to take up some really pretty difficult work. “You are my beloved – I am well pleased with you” 

As he comes out of the waters, he Jesus is not only assured of his identity, but he is provided with a touchstone – and that’s pretty important, because the next thing we see him do is go into the desert where he faces Satan whose only goal is to pull Jesus off message – to distract him – (btw, that’s what temptation really are – those things that distract us from doing God’s will). It’s clear that the baptism of Jesus wasn’t the end of the journey, it was the beginning. 

As he journeyed through the next 3 years. It must have provided a sense of confidence as he carried out his ministry and faced oppression both from the Roman Empire and from people in his own faith community. You are my beloved – I am well pleased with you.  It must have helped bolster his courage to endure as he had to continually defend himself to those who questioned not only his message but also his choices about whom to heal and when. You are my beloved – I am well pleased with you. These are the words that must have encouraged and comforted him as he was declared a liar and a criminal and crucified to get him out of the way. When others called him names, God’s voice must have been in his head – You are my beloved – I am well pleased with you.

This is the gift of baptism – it is the gift and blessing that Jesus brought to everyone he met. Think about it. With every act of healing, with every parable that called people to live better, to do better, with every encounter with people like the 10 lepers, the bleeding woman, the tax collectors, whenever he stood, sat, ate with those the society around them had rejected, Jesus was telling those around him:  You are God’s beloved.  God is pleased with you!

2000 years later, it’s our turn. As followers of Jesus, as people who wear his name – Christian – we need to align our baptism and our post-baptismal life with Jesus. As Presbyterians, we understand that, through God’s grace, we, too receive the blessing when God declares, “This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We too find our identity rooted in the reality that we are the beloved of God. This is an enormous gift – especially in a world that seems hell bent on tearing us down. But if we’re being honest – if we’re truly going to stand side by side with Jesus and receive the blessing, then we have to stand side by side with him with the people he chose to serve – the so-called untouchables, the ones pushed to the margins, even the ones we disagree with. When we take up the baptism of Jesus, we are also claiming the post-baptism ministry of Jesus. It is now OUR job to proclaim to everyone: You are God’s beloved child – God is pleased with you.

So what does this look like? Well, the Isaiah text that Lee read this morning gives us a good place to start, Isaiah called the people to reclaim their primary identity as God’s servant people – people who understand the covenant relationship with God requires them to work for the shalom – the well-being – of all of their neighbors.  Their identity as God’s people is shaped by the truth that when one person suffers, everyone else is suffering too.  

As Jesus speaks he makes it pretty plain too:

  • Let your light shine.
  • Turn the other cheek
  • Go the second mile
  • Love your enemies
  • Don’t worry about tomorrow
  • Don’t judge
  • Ask, seek, knock.
  • Follow me.
  • Go and share the good news.

We don’t have to look hard for ways to live and move as Jesus did. We don’t even have to try new things. All we have to do is look to his example, listen to his word and follow. It will be hard work. And it will bring blessing to us and the world around us.

Painting: Baptism of the Christ by Daniel Bonnell

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