Kingdom Come - Week Two: "Take Me To The River"

This week at my church we’ll be celebrating “Baptism of Our Lord” Sunday, or as it is also known, “The First Sunday After Epiphany.”  Actually, it’s not ever really known as “The First Sunday After Epiphany,” but since next Sunday is the “Second Sunday After Epiphany,” I just assumed we could do that sort of thing.  I hope I don’t upset any official church people, and get an official letter of reprimand from the official magisterium of whatever..

I lied.  I really hope I do.  That would be cool to frame and put on my wall.

We are, in fact, studying a passage of Scripture from the Gospel of Matthew that tells one of the accounts (there are four) of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.  Baptism is one of the two sacraments that us Protestant-types celebrate in the Church, the other being the Lord’s Supper.  Catholics have seven or something like that, which is kind of cool, but definitely more complicated.

The reason why we have named this month-long sermon series, “The Kingdom” is quite simple:  Proclaiming the coming kingdom of God was the mission of Jesus.  At this point some people might ask, “But didn’t Jesus come to save people from their sins and set them right with God thus ensuring them eternal life?” To which I would reply, “What do you think God’s kingdom looks like? “ I’m thinking it looks like a bunch of people free from sin, death and living in the glow of God’s glory.  Can I get a witness?

So when Matthew’s Gospel begins we see that the coming kingdom of God was being preached by Jesus’ cousin, a man by the name of John the Baptist.  John’s calling in life was to get people ready for the advent of the kingdom of God, which required a whole lot of repentance, and a good bit of turning one’s life around.  Oh, and it also required being baptized as a sign that your inside matched your outside.

The kingdom was being announced and the stage was set.  All we need is to see Jesus enter and things can get started…  But Jesus had something to do first… He had to be baptized.

Did you know that Jesus’ baptism was a sign that he was known by God, and because of the way things went down—he was also known by a community of would-be believers?  It’s true.  In fact, the same thing is also true for you and for me when we are baptized.  We are known by God and by others.

I have taught before how being known is one of the most basic of all human needs.  Which is why not being known is so painful.  Let me explain…

One of my earliest memories is when I was three years old in preschool.  I remember a little girl falsely accused me of knocking down a stack of building blocks she’d been working with.  Even though she knew I hadn’t done it, she accused me anyway.  The teacher began to scold me, and I protested over and over again that I wasn’t the perpetrator.  I remember thinking, “She will know that I didn’t do it.  She will know…”  Only she didn’t know.  She punished me despite the fact that I never did such things and was guiltless of the crime in question.  As I sat in the corner with my back to the laughter of my classmates, I remember feeling incredibly miserable, misunderstood and sad.

I never forgot that, obviously.

Here's another... Since we just celebrated Christmas it’s easy to relate to this.  We all have relatives that seem to have no idea who we really are, and who also favor us with Christmas gifts that they think we would like, because they like them and think we should, too.  I say “we all” hoping that some of you know what I am talking about.  My aunt and uncle were famous for giving gifts that were absolutely not at all what you would want or need.  Many of them were handmade leather products that they created by pounding designs into them with mallets and little decorative punches.  I received decorative belts, wallets, comb cases and the like for many years.  Once, they even gifted me with a starter kit so I could begin creating gifts of my own, I presume.  And because these gifts were handmade you were always made to feel like the worse kind of crap if you didn’t make over them as if they were the Hope diamond.

I know that my aunt and uncle had the very best intentions, but If they had taken the time to really know me, they would have realized I never wore such items, nor ever wanted to.  They were weird even in the ’70’s, which is saying something.

When we realize that we are not known, especially by people that should—it hurts.

We’ve all experienced this kind of thing.  When we are children we are told that if our report cards don’t have certain symbols on them, we are not smart.  When we are teens we are told that if we don’t wear the “right” clothes, or hang with the “right” people that we are not cool.  We are told as adults that if we are not a success if we don’t have the right job, enough money, drive a nice car or live in a spacious home.

All around us we hear the voices of those who tell us about ourselves, even though they have no idea who we really are…

It’s easy to forget in those moments that we have been claimed by God and—for those of us who have become part of a family of faith and experienced baptism to seal that deal—-a congregation of Christians.  It’s easy to forget that we are beloved.

Maybe you’ve never been baptized.  Maybe you were baptized when you were a child and you can’t remember it.  And at this point in my sermon you might be wondering, “What’s the big deal about baptism, anyway?  Why is it so important?”

Baptism reminds us of some pretty important things.  It reminds us that we belong.  It reminds us that we are made new.  But it also reminds us of something even more important that I believe is illuminated in the story we are about to read:

Baptism reminds us: When we stop listening to the voices of this world, we will hear God speaking:  “Beloved.”

In Matthew 3:13-17 we have this amazing story:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Theologian N.T. Wright describes this moment beautifully.  He says that it’s like the moment before a great concert, and the conductor stands before the audience and describes in dramatic detail how incredible the concert is going to be, thrilling them with his descriptions and leaving them on the edge of their seat in anticipation.  And then a lone figure steps on to the stage, a small, frail-looking flautist who pulls up seat and begins to play softly, and plaintively.  It’s beautiful, but not what you expected…

John was probably surprised to see Jesus as well, as is evidenced by his refusal to baptism him.  Think about it, here the guy is preaching day after day in the desert about how God’s going to send the Messiah and the kingdom of God is going to happen—and then suddenly Jesus is standing before him and he knows… this is the One.  And he wants to be baptized.

John saw baptism as a sign of the coming kingdom of God, but Jesus embodied that coming kingdom.  And he did so by getting in line with everyone who was waiting to be baptized.

Why did he do this?  If John was preaching repentance and the sign of repentance and readiness for the kingdom was baptism, why did the One who embodied the kingdom and who was without the need for repentance get in line to be baptized?

His reason seems a little muddy on the surface, but when you dig a bit you get some mind-blowing stuff.  Jesus says that “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill righteousness.” The word righteousness is loaded with meaning.  The Greek word is dikaiosyne, which means “obedience to God and submission.”  I know, our understanding of the word is pretty different, I’m thinking.  We tend to interpret righteousness in more legal terms—keeping the rules and all that.

But here we see the Messiah, the one that John has been building up come to stand in the line of penitents, humbly obeying God.  He shows that even though he is God with us… he identifies with us.

And because of this, he hears the affirmation of God.

I love that moment when Father, Son and Spirit are all present when Jesus comes out of the water.  Yup.  In case you were wondering, that’s exactly why we baptize using those words.  How awesome is that?  Jesus baptism is a sign of new life, a new identity, and right standing.  When he is obedient and humbly submits to God’s will, he hears God’s voice.

Through baptism we have a shared identity with Christ.  His getting in line to be baptized illustrates this beautifully.  But we forget the heavenly voice, don’t we?  And we begin to listen to the other voices that confuse us.  And make us feel unknown.

What voices are you listening to right now?

The ones that are telling you that you are not good enough?  That you can’t shake that addiction?  The ones who are telling you that God couldn’t possibly love you?  That you aren’t successful?

Or maybe you are listening to voices who tell you things about others—that some people are less than, not worth your time, unloveable…  Because there are plenty of voices who urge you to ignore the image of God in all those people you encounter on a daily basis.
Guess what?  Jesus stood in line for them, too.

And because he did, they have the chance to be made new… just like you… and me.

I heard this story the other day that rocked me.  A church small group was celebrating the birthday of one it’s members named Mario.  He was formerly homeless—and had spent a tough life on the streets of New York.  One of his fellow church members asked Mario how old he was, and he replied, “Sixty.” No one believed him because he looked much younger, so Mario reached into his battered wallet and produced his birth certificate to prove it.  He also pulled out another sheet of paper in the process and someone asked him, “What’s that Mario?”  He unfolded it carefully and smoothed it out.  “It’s my baptism certificate,” he replied.  He showed the group the faded and crinkled document that had been filled out when Mario was a child.  He’d carried it with him his whole life almost—even all those days he lived on the street.

I love that story.

No matter what the world thought of Mario—he knew who he was in Jesus.
That certificate of baptism was a reminder that he had been claimed.  When all of the voices around him, and in him were telling him otherwise, Mario only had to pull out that crumpled sheet and remember that his name… was “Beloved.”

Baptism reminds us:  When we stop listening to the voices of this world, we will hear God speaking, “Beloved.”
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