Baptism of our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Preached on the day following the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
A few months ago,
when comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held a rally on the Mall,
a lot of people dismissed their efforts as little more than a publicity stunt
and thinly-veiled politicking just two weeks prior to the election.
Part satire, part political demonstration,
these comedians lampooned our nation’s broken politics,
and assailed its hateful, vitriolic political rhetoric.
Comedians did this, because few others had the guts to do so.
And perhaps as many as two hundred thousand people attended,
to take a stand – and have a laugh doing so –
calling for our nation to turn down the rhetoric of vitriol and animosity,
to stop labeling political opponents as enemies and
to stop characterizing politics as warfare,
as if our elections were a matter of life or death,
as if one party were the path to socialism and the other to fascism,
both roads to ruin and death.
Give me a break.
We’re all Americans, these comedians said,
and they bid everyone – particularly the news media – to just calm the freak down.
Though it is not clear what motivated Jared Lee Loughner
to target Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords yesterday at a Tuscon, AZ, event,
early indications are that politics were at least a contributing factor.
Our political discourse is sick, it is terribly sick,
and the environment in which Jared Loughner acted is terribly polluted with
violent imagery, false us/them dichotomies,
and extreme language that only hurts our country
tears its people apart.
The way we talk about those with whom we disagree has consequences.
They things that TV and radio star commentators say,
on the left and on the right, have consequences.
The bumper stickers we place on our cars
and the links we post on Facebook have consequences.
The fear that the media feeds on for ratings has consequences.
The polarization of our nation into red and blue
rips at the fabric of our flag and denies our unity as We the People,
seeking a more perfect union.
Words are powerful things.
We Christians should know this more than most,
for we follow a Word made flesh who speaks words of hope and of life,
Jesus, the living Word of God, died so that death would have no more power over us;
He is the Word of Life that silences words of death and hatred and violence.
God has spoken his Word into our world and into our lives …
but it has not yet been fulfilled, completely.
Just a look around will make that truth abundantly clear.
God’s living Word promises to come to us again and to make things new,
in the blessed future when Christ comes again to usher in his Kingdom.
For that we wait in hope and we live in hope,
speaking words of life and of hope now,
witnessing now to the gifts of life and love that Christ gives to us,
knowing that our Lord is present in the suffering of this world,
and that suffering is not the end of the story for him or for us.
We are confident in what Christ has done and what Christ promises yet to do.
And so may we speak words of life and of hope into the world this day,
echoing the Living Word who took on flesh and dwelled among us,
who did not let death defeat him, but who rose again,
the first fruit of the new creation promised to us all.
And now, to the message I had prepared for this day,
a sermon that speaks in hope about the new thing that God is doing in Jesus,
written prior to yesterday’s shooting.
May God do a new thing in us, and in our nation, in this time.
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
Many of you have been watching college bowl games for the past few weeks,
and for those less-than-marquee games back around Christmas time,
you probably suffered through some interesting camera angles.
You see, I’ve noticed that for some of these games,
the camera operators go to great length not to show the stands …
because the stands are mostly empty.
Cameras show players on the field, coaches on the sidelines,
cheerleaders doing their routines,
but rarely pan out to show the whole field and seating area.
We see few of those slow-motion replays of the whole field of play
that show how a certain play developed,
for fear of revealing that the Big Corporation Bowl Game
couldn’t draw more fans than a concert of past American Idol runner-ups.
Today’s reading from Matthew suffers from that same camera angle affliction,
narrowly focusing on two people in the center of the action –
John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth –
but failing to pan out, to show us the full picture.
But unlike Big Corporation Bowl, this event draws a massive crowd.
If we pedal back the reading for a few verses,
we get to the passage that we read on the Second Sunday in Advent,
the story of John the Baptist, at the River Jordan,
announcing that the Kingdom of God has come near,
calling people to a baptism of repentance, inviting them to confess their sins
What we read there, among other things, is that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea”
were going out to John to be baptized,
as were the people from the region around the Jordan.
Matthew doesn’t merely say that “some” people went,
but by saying that “the people” of Jerusalem and all Judea went,
he seems to suggest that a massive crowd gathered there at the Jordan,
making a brief exodus out of Jerusalem to the river to repent,
and join in this prelude to the coming of God’s Kingdom that John announced.
Interestingly, even “many” Pharisees and Sadducees,
who would eventually become Jesus’ prime antagonists,
were there, to be baptized.
John’s pull was huge. The crowd was massive.
Folks from all walks of life,
even the religious elite,
were drawn to the shores of the Jordan river
to confess their sins and participate in this prelude to the Kingdom.
And so too was Jesus.
There, alongside religious elite and common folk,
in a diverse crowd that included
pious and less than observant Jews,
those who supported the Roman occupation,
and those who would rise up against it,
sinners and tax collectors and law abiders and Pharisees,
rich and poor ….
Alongside these, Jesus shows up,
and joins them in this ritual,
this event that anticipates the coming of God’s kingdom.
Well, John sure got a surprise, didn’t he?
There he is, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has dra
and next thing we know he’s baptizing Jesus
and the heavens are opening up, the Spirit of God descends from the sky,
and our God’s voice booms from the heavens,
announcing for all to hear,
for all Jerusalem and Judea to hear and to see,
that this one who John has baptized is the Son of God.
The Kingdom of God come near? John, change your script.
In these verses, we see that Kingdom of God is not near, but is here!
The Kingdom has arrived.
This is Emmanuel, God with us:
God dwelling with a teeming mass of sinners and saints,
who gather together at the river of repentance,
where the King is revealed to his people,
starting a new thing.
“New things I now declare,” says the Lord in our first reading from Isaiah.
New things indeed,
such as a servant, chosen by God and pleasing to God,
who will bring forth God’s justice in all the earth.
But these lines from today’s first reading from Isaiah are a bit ambiguous –
is this servant a single individual,
as verses 1-4 seem to suggest,
or a people, God’s chosen people Israel,
as verses 5-9 seem to suggest?
Christians have traditionally read these verses as prophesies about Jesus,
foretelling about our Servant Lord.
Jewish commentators, quite obviously, have interpreted this differently,
recognizing in these passages a call to God’s chosen people Israel in exile
to return to its mission as God’s covenant people to the world,
God’s shining light on earth before the nations.
So this servant, is it a single person, or a whole people? Who is Isaiah describing here?
The ambiguity is excellent and not one that needs to be resolved cleanly,
for the ambiguity draws us to see both/and …
to recognize in the single individual, Jesus,
the incarnation of the promises given to the whole people of Israel,
promises that persist in them but which are now too embodied in our Lord.
Isaiah speaks of Israel, yes, and her mission to be God’s covenant people,
revealed to us now in this new thing,
the newborn King about whom we sang during the twelve days of Christmas,
the embodiment of Israel and fulfillment of God’s promises.
Thus it is perfectly appropriate that there, along the Jordan River,
among a massive and representative portion of God’s chosen, covenant people,
God does a new thing,
ripping open the heavens,
sending his spirit upon Jesus, the Messianic Servant,
who is the Son of God,
dwelling among the people whose flesh and life he shares.
God with us.
Several years ago Joan Osborn famously sung a compelling question –
What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on a bus, trying to make his way home?
What we see and hear in today’s Gospel text is clear –
God is not one of us –
Holy Spirit visibly descending like a dove,
heavens ripping open,
booming voice from heaven –
but God is to be found among us,
walking with us to the river,
joining with us in our hopes for something new,
starting his work of recreating the world not over and against the world,
but in the midst of it.
Indeed, that dove-like Spirit falling upon our Lord Jesus,
after his soaking in the Jordan River,
echoes loudly with imagery of the flood,
where a dove brought to Noah a branch of a tree,
signifying the end of the flood’s destruction and the beginning of a new thing,
a new creation,
and a promise that such destruction will no longer come upon the earth.
What we see in today’s Gospel, then, is a renewal of that covenant God declared to Noah –
a recommitment by God not only to not allow his creation to be destroyed,
but a commitment too that it will be made new in Christ our Lord.
The camera pans out, and as Jesus and John get smaller and smaller in the picture,
we see the massive crowds,
witnesses to this new covenant.
Today, in this public proclamation of God’s Word, we are in that crowd,
we are witnesses to what our God is doing in Jesus,
we are part of the new thing that begins at the River Jordan,
and flows out into all the world.
We are there; Christ is here,
choosing to walk with us and to do a new thing among us.
“See, the former things have come to pass,” the prophet says,
“and new things I now declare.”
In this new year, let us walk with him and with all those with whom he chooses to dwell,
with the massive crowd of humanity that Jesus graces with his presence,
let us walk and let us see the new things he promises to do.