Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17 for January 12, 2013, Baptism of Jesus Sunday
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Down here in the South, most people are passionate about college football. Here in Alabama, the civil war going on in these days is between fans of Auburn and fans of Alabama. People are not just emotionally connected with the game and the players, but also about coaches. There may be some of you from the North who wonder why people would put a decal on their cars with a black and white houndstooth checked hat, but down here, everyone knows what that means: that was coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s trademark. They are Alabama fans!
Coach Bryant was head coach of the University of Alabama football team for 25 years. He led the teams to six national championships and thirteen conference championships. By retirement he had won 323 games.
So, people have good reasons to venerate the “bear” – he accomplished great things. And I’m sure his players held him in the highest respect.
What did Bear Bryan want from his players? That each of them would have pictures of him hanging in their dorm rooms? That they would send him cards on his birthday? Would he want them to buy and wear checked hats like him? Or would he want them to pay attention to how he taught them to play football?
Of course a coach wants you to learn to play the game, not to be simply venerated. But what does God want from us? One of the great tragic ironies of all time, I believe, is what the church, throughout her history, has done with Jesus. He has been put on a pedestal, glorified in paintings, stained glass, music and libraries full of literature, and simultaneously his teachings have been quite often completely ignored.
Think about the great Christian creeds: we define Jesus’ relationship to God the Father and the Spirit, define his human and divine nature, even indicate his mother’s maidenhood and who the governor was when Jesus was crucified, but not a word about what he taught. It is like knowing all about Bear Bryant’s pedigree and history without knowing the bit about how he taught people to play football.
The whole point of telling the story of Jesus’ baptism is to say: here is the one whom we should listen to and follow. He is not just nice and kind Jesus, not just smart and clever Jesus, not just Jesus the healer of the sick, not just a great story-teller. Jesus has been anointed by the Spirit of God. Jesus is God’s Son so pay attention!
Unlearned Lesson 1
And so, what is lesson number one? I have heard that the Packer’s famous coach, Vince Lombardi would begin each year, on the first day of practice (and remember, the players he is coaching are professionals – they are in the NFL) he would stand up in front of them and, holding the ball he would says, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” He started with the basics.
How does Jesus start? By dealing with the human question. Who is important? The story goes this way: Jesus comes to John for baptism. John and Jesus have a conversation. John acknowledges that Jesus has a special role to play in this drama of the Kingdom of God, and he wants to defer.
“John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Lesson one: getting down into the baptismal rinse waters into which all the unwashed masses have been confessing their sins is exactly what Jesus came to do. Nobody is too good for anybody else in the kingdom. You cannot fulfill God’s definition of righteousness by smug superiority to anyone.
Jesus is going to keep teaching this lesson throughout his life. Three times in Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus teaching a version of “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matt. 19:30; 20:8; 20:16.
The voice from heaven – God’s voice – identified Jesus has God’s beloved son, but Jesus’ favorite name for himself was the “Son of Man” – meaning, the quintessential human one. What did he come to accomplish: to be pictured in a painting hung on the wall in a gilded frame? Let him speak for himself. He said,
“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matt. 20:28
In the Beatitudes, Jesus said that the poor in spirit were the blessed ones, and that the meek would inherit the earth.
He said: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matt. 7:12
The Point of the Story
The whole point of this event of Jesus’ baptism: the voice from heaven, the cracking open of the sky, the descending Spirit and God’s announcement that Jesus is God’s son, with whom God is well pleased, is to authorize Jesus as the one to listen to. Even Moses himself did not get that kind of direct authorization. He got smoke, fire and noise on Mt. Sinai, but not this kind of declaration directly from God.
So, maybe Jesus should be studied as hard as the Pharisees studied Moses’ teaching – or even more. Maybe Jesus’ teaching should be as important as Kosher laws – or perhaps even more. Maybe what Jesus says and thinks and does should rank right up their with Moses’ Sabbath laws.
Hanging a picture of Moses on the wall or singing Moses praise songs would not have been an adequate substitute for obedience to any Jewish person who ever lived. But that is what has happened to Jesus.
Consider how many of us can recite one or more of the creeds such as the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed – and by contrast, how few could recite the Beatitudes by heart.
A New Way – not a new law
Of course the beautiful fact is that Jesus, who is now authorized by God to be the one to follow, did not just bring us a new set of “thou shalt’s” and “thou shalt not’s” like Moses. Jesus did not bring us a new law to doggedly obey.
Rather Jesus taught us a whole new vision of what it meant to live as a human being. A whole new perspective on spiritual authenticity, not based on fear and punishment or guilt and shame, but on knowing ourselves as beloved sons and daughters of God.
Jesus taught us to understand God, not as harsh, vindictive law-giver, but as loving Heavenly Father. He taught us to look at each other as family – bound together by a new covenant. He taught us to love, to serve, to forgive, forgive forgive, to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and to give the shirt off our backs to people in need. A capacity for absorbing and transforming instead of transmitting pain.
There is no such thing, in Jesus world as “OK, I’m more important than you, so I will baptize you.” That’s the de-humanized way of the world.
And what is true for individuals is true for groups also. There is no such thing, in the kingdom of God, as “Our group is better, more worthy, more justified than your group.” Judgmentalism has no place. Discrimination has no place.
So then, if this is Jesus’ first and frequent lesson that God’s own voice from heaven has just authorized, if this is what the Spirit-anointed Son of God is teaching us, there are a lot of questions that need to be asked. Like: why haven’t we learned it?
Christianity has been the dominant faith in the West for two thousands years – so why is it that there are so many homeless people? Why is there so little help for people with mental illness? Why are our urban schools in the state they are in? Why do we keep approving high stakes risks to our environment, like oil pipelines within accident-range of a whole city’s (Mobile, AL) water supply? Why do we still hear things like I have heard from what my own family members have observed, about the way hiring decisions are still racially motivated? We could go on an on with these questions.
Veneration vs. Discipleship
I believe a big part of the reason is that we have been, so to speak, buying Bear Bryant hat decals instead of studying the game of football. We have been reciting creeds that define Jesus that leave out the entire life and teachings of Jesus. We have special days to honor Jesus, like today, Jesus’ baptism, but we cannot quote his teachings by heart. We have substituted veneration for discipleship. This is crazy. (Maybe not: veneration is easier, quicker and cheaper than discipleship).
And the result is a world we live in, that our dominant faith helped to form, is one that does not reflect Jesus’ perspectives on people nor on the God who made all of these people, nor on spiritual authenticity.
I don’t know about you, but once the lights have been turned on and you see truth of this craziness, you cannot continue as before. It is time the church decided to be who we are. We are Christians. We are followers of Jesus. Our story is that Jesus has been divinely authorized by God and anointed by God’s Spirit. He is the one who sets our agenda; he is the one whose ethic we endorse; he is the one we imitate.
It starts in baptism for all of us. All of us have been plunged into the same waters. It is time we lived as people who have been soaked in a completely new vision of life. 2014 is still young: let this be, for us, the year of following Jesus.