Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17 for the Baptism of Jesus Sunday, Year A, January 8, 2017
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.”
I watched a short animated video that my cousin posted on Facebook which was amazing. First we see our earth from the vantage of space. We see that familiar blue and white, bowling ball-looking circle against the blackness. Then the view zooms back to show the size of our earth in relation to the other planets in our solar system. If Saturn were a basketball, earth would be the size of a pingpong ball. (video here, titled “O Man”)
Then we see the earth next to the sun. If the sun is the basketball, the earth is the size of a BB. Looking a the earth from Mars, we appear no larger than a little white speck, like a distant star. If earth the size of a BB compared to the basketball sun, our sun is the size of a BB compared to other stars.
The video animation keeps zooming out and out, further and further, until our whole galaxy is just a speck among galaxies. The Hubble space telescope took a picture of one little patch of sky in which there are thousands of galaxies, with billions of stars in them, each star with its own circling planets.
At first, when you watch this, you feel small. Then as it continues, you feel insignificant. Finally you feel minuscule at an unimaginable scale.
One way to tell the human story is to say we do not matter. We could blow up our entire world in nuclear war and the universe would take no more notice than we do of battling ant colonies beneath our lawns.
But another way to tell this story is with awe that in this amazing universe, we, and perhaps only we (although we do not know for sure) have been given the gift of consciousness. Unlike those billions of galaxies and stars and planets, we know that we are here.
Along with the gift of consciousness, we have been given other gifts of awareness as well. Since humans emerged, we have looked out across the stars in the sky and have had a sense that we are not alone. We have sensed that in spite of our smallness in the universe, we matter to God (or the gods, but we must be brief).
How we matter to God has been a question answered differently across human history. For much of the world and for much of that history, the idea of mattering to God has come with fear. The fear that whatever God wanted, we were not giving it, or enough of it, or in the right way. We feared what God could do in return. Everybody suffers, some much more than others, but we all experience pain and loss. Maybe we were being punished by God?
The Jesus Story
Into this rather bleak picture comes another story; the Jesus story. In an utterly amazing and revolutionary departure from the narratives of fear, Jesus presents us with a transforming alternative narrative of love. How do we matter to God? We matter like children matter to parents. We are loved. We are family.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, probably working alongside his father the builder. But at about age 30 he left home and family to join a growing movement of people. Their leader was a rough dressing, rough living man whom we know as John the baptizer. Jesus went down to the Jordan River and became apart of John’s movement. Three of the four gospels tell us about that one day, the day John baptized Jesus.
We read Matthew’s version. It leaves so many questions unanswered. John objects to baptizing Jesus – he says,
“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Why? What does he know about Jesus? John, as a spiritually alive and aware person, a prophet, senses something in Jesus’ spirituality that made him feel lesser by comparison.
Jesus Into the Water
But this is where the story becomes so radical. Jesus, with his alternative vision of God, knows that he must do. He must get down into the water with everyone else.
He cannot maintain some kind of spiritual superiority, because the God that Jesus believes in does not do that. Instead of staying on the mountain, as in the Moses story, with fearsome sights and sounds that make the people tremble, Jesus knows God like the father that runs to welcome his prodigal son back home.
So Jesus gets into the water with everyone else and is baptized in those waters that everyone else has shared, in complete and total identification with them, demonstrating that they matter to God.
It is in those waters that Jesus has the experience that propelled him into his own public ministry. Matthew tells it this way:
“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.”
In the waters, Jesus became profoundly aware at a deeper level that he was God’s Son, the beloved. In the waters he became aware of the Spirit of God, upon him and within him.
Our Baptismal Waters
Nearly everyone here has passed through the waters of baptism. In that moment we have been named and claimed as children of God. We have been given the identity of “beloved.” We have become members of the beloved community, the body of Christ.
We may be specks of dust in an enormous universe to a telescope, but we are children who matter to our God.
Our identity then, gives us our vocation, our calling. As the beloved community of the baptized, as children of God, we are called to get down into those waters with everyone else.
We know that we, ourselves, matter to God. We also know that every one of us matters to God. We know that our place is not to remain aloof on the banks, but it is down in the waters with the rest of humanity, because that is where God meets us.
On this small blue planet, we humans have had a difficult time, over the years, knowing each other as beloved children of God. We have characteristically seen our differences as reasons to divide, and having divided, we have treated others with suspicion, and even harm.
Our baptismal calling is to get in to the water with those who differ from us. Our identity as children of God calls us to get up and move to where sisters and brothers, children of the same God, have been harmed, and to stand with them.
So, many of us have been actively getting into the waters for a long time. You have given hours to the waters of the Christian Service Center. You have treated people who are different from you, whom you meet in the course of your life, with respect and dignity. You have supported equal rights and you have intentionally made sure that your language never disparages others.
A New Opportunity
There is now, in this area, a new movement of people hungry to take the next step in improving relationships between the races. In the wake of so many racially based shootings, especially in the aftermath of the attack at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, which the shooter said he carried out in hopes of inciting a race war, people have come together to do just the opposite: to do, as Jesus said, “The things that make for peace.”
Several groups came together last November, calling the gathering Path to Peace, to witness to our desire for racial reconciliation. Nearly 600 people marched to the Daphne Civic Center and joined together in common worship, affirming our baptismal identity as the beloved community; one family of the same God.
Now Path to Peace leaders are calling us to get into the waters again. We are invited to participate in the Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations next week. I want to encourage us all to get into those waters with them.
Next Sunday evening there will be a worship service at the South River Park Church on County Road 32 in Fairhope, just east of 181. The service begins at 6:30 p.m. Join us there if you can.
The next day is a national holiday honoring the work of Dr. Martin Luther King jr. We are invited to get into the waters by joining the march in Foley. It begins at 10:00 a.m. at the Buelah Heights Park next to the Morning Star Baptist Church and ends at the Foley Civic Center.
We will be there marching in solidarity. We have also agreed to have a tent back at the park, to provide refreshments after the march. Please help us if you can, by providing a plate of cookies or brownies or cupcakes. Bring them to church next Sunday.
What is a march, or a cookie against a race war? It is a sign that we stand on the side of peace. It is an assertion of our desire for reconciliation. It is our way of getting down into the waters with people different from ourselves, from where we will look at one another as beloved children of God, and experience the presence of the Spirit of God.