Text: Matthew 3:1-17
This Sunday is known in church tradition as the Baptism of our Lord Sunday. The church commemorates Jesus’ baptism by reading the text you just heard, and sometimes doing baptisms, if there are any. I suppose I could give a sermon about baptism, but I suspect many of you have heard a “Jesus baptism sermon” more than once. And frankly, I think giving one of those this morning would be boring. In fact, Jesus in this story….is kinda boring. And weird. You have Jesus sort of entering stage right, saying reverently his one line “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” and laser beams of light shoot down from heaven on his head as the heavens open and a booming voice announces Jesus’ arrival.
I guess I’m not just that interested because this image of Jesus….. it seems out of touch and out-of-place in my world – and perhaps in yours too.
Now don’t get me wrong – there’s all sorts of wonderful, meaningful things about Jesus’ baptism story. But I think often Christians over-spiritualize things like baptism and faith in the way we talk about it and the way we think God works. Sayings like “God spoke the words, I just delivered them” or “My new BMW is such a blessing” as if we just sort of walk through life like God’s puppets or God gives treats for good behavior……..such notions, I think, cause Christian faith to lose touch with our reality – our lives.
I had a great discussion this past week with some of you in our weekly Wednesday Bible study. We actually didn’t talk much about Jesus either. We talked a lot about John the Baptist though. He’s a fascinating character…..in his camel hair suit and matching leather belt to accessorize. John, eating grasshoppers and honey; and pretty much saying what he wanted and not caring what people thought. And we came to the conclusion that this wilderness man probably seemed odd and out-of-place to people in Judea, kind of like a street corner preacher today. But, like a street corner preacher we imagined people found John to be fascinating….stopping to listen to what he had to say.
But with John, people stopped. And they wanted to be baptized….because perhaps, there was a lot of truth to this repentance thing John was preaching about.
I think for a lot of people in Judea, life was such that they knew the truth about sin – and it took this crazy looking, out of place man calling them to repent – to change their minds and orient it towards God. And they came to be baptized, because in that day it was a symbol – a ritual cleansing of the body showing one was spiritually clean through repentance. And in his response to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came around, John calls out a religious system that doesn’t require a change of mind. Baptism alone doesn’t cut it. And neither does saying you’re a 5th generation Lutheran or Christian either.Because if you simply come to cash in on baptism as your one-time divine insurance policy, if you think maintaining your good Lutheran church-goer status is what this is all about…..then you are going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. Not that you’ll be cast into the fiery depths of Hell for all eternity – because Jews didn’t so much believe in an afterlife of Heaven and Hell. John was saying, without repentance, without a change of mind, this life of faith thing is going to torment the hell out of you.
Trying to make it to church every week, sacrificing Starbucks once a week to put $5 in the offering plate is going to be a pain in the ass. Smiling and shaking the hand of that person you hate so much, and genuinely giving a damn about those dysfunctional, lazy, and distasteful people kindly referred to as the less fortunate is going to drive you out of your unchanged mind. John tells the truth: repentance is necessary in a life of faith. We change our minds. I think so often we soften the idea of repentance to mean we simply turn towards God and mindlessly leave it up to God to do the rest. I think that removes our responsibility and accountability as disciples. Because we do have to change our minds…..and we do that by being honest about who we are – sinners in need of God’s grace.
Yet John also preaches another truth – repentance only opens the door to our hearts and minds. Because just as a one-and-done turning towards God doesn’t cut it, neither does repentance as your own personal self-improvement plan either. It takes another baptism…..a process….in which God works in and changes us. John proclaims, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…..He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
In this season of Epiphany, I had one of my own: what if John isn’t talking about final judgment here? What if John isn’t talking about Heaven and Hell and who ends up where? What if John is talking about what also happens when we repent, open our minds to change?
Sanctification is the fancy church word which means, “to be made holy.” It means to be made righteous, which WAS a big deal to Jews in John’s time. To be made holy and righteous meant to be right with God. And to hear that God by the Holy Spirit would do that for them, growing what was holy and good, and purging what was worthless and destructive in them, and to hear that all that was required of them was repentance, rather than following a system of mindless rule following and ritual….to open their hearts and minds to God’s Holy Spirit and know that God would sanctify them completely…..that was not just truth. It was gospel.
And for people who find themselves out-of-place because of sin, John the Baptist and his message didn’t seem that out-of-place. Because John proclaims two truths – we are sinners in need of God’s grace, and no amount of self-improvement and no religious system will make things right. Yet, if we’re open and honest about that – a change of mind – we open ourselves to the second truth – that God, by grace, will sanctify us through the work of the Holy Spirit, make us holy, make us right….so that we might live in a right and loving relationship with God and with all of creation.
Now perhaps as fascinating as that message sounds, it also sounds it little wild, a little crazy, a little out-of-place…..but maybe, in all the ways YOU feel out of place in this world, that is exactly the truth you need to hear – one of honesty and one of grace. Because in Christ, the Kingdom of God has come near. And today, the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit is at work, wanting to change us, make us holy. All it takes is a little change of heart and mind. Amen.