Monday, January 09, 2023

Getting Into the River with Us

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas Church, Bath, NY on the First Sunday after the Epiphany (the Baptism of Jesus). January 8, 2023: Matthew 3:13-17

You can listen to the sermon here.

          Imagine with me that scene at the Jordan River.  The Jordan isn’t much bigger than the Cohocton, so you can imagine it. There’s this guy named John who has set up camp there. We’d probably call him a religious fanatic. I suppose many people of his day also thought of him that way.

           John spends his time telling people how awful they are—that they’re not right with God. They are destined for God’s wrath, he says, and he calls them things like “you brood of vipers.”

           Despite this message, people are attracted to John. Who knows why?  Is it just curiosity? He is certainly eccentric, even, perhaps, exotic.  Or is it because he’s telling people the truth?  Maybe.

           But maybe not just that. He’s telling people the harsh truth about their lives, but he’s also offering them a second chance.  You can turn your lives around, he says.  That’s what he means by the Greek word metanoia, which gets translated into English, “repent.”  And he’s giving them a way to act this out, by baptism.

           John didn’t invent baptism, as some Christians erroneously think. He was following a Jewish tradition of immersion in water as a ritual purification. It was called Tvilah and it had to take place in naturally moving water, called a mikveh, and it was repeatable.

           We’re told that crowds went out to John. They didn’t just wander by.  It is about twenty miles from Jerusalem to the Jordan.  No, they meant to be there.  So imagine a mass of people on the banks of the river, they quite possibly come from all sorts and conditions of people.

           Some of them probably thought they were basically good people. Others knew their life needed changing. Some of them carried the label unclean or sinner.  But John called them all sinners.  He neither cared about labels or about the degrees of sin that religious people tend to devise. They were all equally guilty before God as far as he was concerned.

           Now one day into this mass of people walks Jesus.  It is tempting to imagine a hush falling over the crowd, and their parting the way for this obviously holy person.  Don’t go there.  Imagine instead, that Jesus just gets in line.  Nobody knows who he is yet and he is perfectly content joining the crowd in its need, to be identified as one of them.

           We make a big deal about Jesus being without sin, and we don’t have any reason to doubt that was the truth about him.  But in a sense that doesn’t much matter, because Jesus chose to identify with all those John called sinners.

           And his identification with sinners did not stop at his baptism.  It was his lifestyle.  It was what he did, and it was controversial, especially among the religious leaders of his day. They ask his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt 9:10-11). And they say about him, “Look! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (11:19).

           If he never sinned, he was certainly more comfortable among sinners than the religious of his day.  And it gave him a bad reputation, and eventually it was among the reasons they had him done away with.

           We have just gone through our annual celebration of Emmanuel, “God with us.”  And today, sort of at the tail end of that celebration, we get clear about just how radical an act that was and is—God with us.

           God with us in the needy, messy mass of us; God with us in the river; God with us struggling and often failing to be better people; God with us when we are feeling better than others; God with us when we are labeled sinner by others.

           A teenager in my first congregation, not long after my ordination—which will be 33 years ago on Tuesday—took me aside one Sunday morning, looking troubled.  A friend of hers, she said, had told her that her pastor was a sinner. She was embarrassed that she had not know what to say.

            I suggested she engage her friend on the topic again and when her friend delivered the judgment that her pastor was a sinner she reply, “Of course he is. Isn’t yours?”

           She did that.  “Not as bad as yours,” was the reply she got.

           I smiled when she told me that, and we had a talk about who Jesus kept company with.

           There are two different ways of understanding how and why we are saved.  Actually, there are many, but they basically fall into one of two categories.

           One is that our relationship with Jesus saves us from sin, and we are no longer sinners. Oh, we sin from time to time, and then we have to repent, but that moment when we first asked for forgiveness separates us from the mass of unrepentant sinners.  We are “the saved.”

           The second is that Jesus’ relationship with us saves us because he identifies with us in our sinfulness, in the brokenness and messiness of our lives, he loves us as we are, first, and then calls us to be more, and out of gratitude and a renewed sense of purpose that is what we do.

           But he does not call us to be better than other people.  That’s not a category with which he has any concern.  And he does not call us to separate ourselves from other people.  He himself steadfastly refused to do so even when it caused scandal.

          Jesus calls us to be more, calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to find God in the neighbor, and not just our neighbors who have their acts together.  And he calls us to be committed to his cause—the God-given dignity of human beings, which means making peace and doing justice in our daily lives.

           You may recognize those callings to be part of our Baptismal Covenant, which we will re-affirm in a few moments.  They are not ways to be better than others.  They are ways to follow God into the messiness of human life and once there, be loved and love and love again.

           At Jesus’ baptism, we are told a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We might assume that God said those words because Jesus had lived an exemplary life, and came to the Jordan, at around thirty years of age unlike the rest of us, without sin.

           I do not think so.  What if God’s pleasure in his beloved Son was because he did what he did at that river—he chose to be identified with sinners, to be one of them, whether he deserved to be or not?

           John wanted Jesus to baptize him, as he recognized him as the sinless one.  Jesus’ reply amounts to this:  “No, John, this is the right thing to do.  The only way for me to help people to be righteous is to get into the river with them.”

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