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Waiting in Line

A Homily from Matthew 3:13-17

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Oak Grove Congregational Christian Church

January 13, 2002 (First Sunday after the Epiphany

In our text today, Matthew invites us back to the river Jordan where a wild-eyed, fire-and-brimstone preacher named John is offering baptism for repentance when people come to confess their sins. It is an exciting moment, a time filled with tension and passion. Despite his unkempt experience, John is a master orator. He is particularly gifted at the literary device perfected in Southern evangelical churches and which is known by its technical name: “Scaring the Pants Off of People.”

Today John’s been doing a particularly good job, and he’s drawn quite a crowd to listen as he tells them of the coming Messiah. “Make way!” he cries. “The Messiah is coming and he is not happy. If you aren’t worth keeping, he is going to throw you into the fire.” What an image the crowd must have had as they heard John’s shouted sermon. This coming Messiah must be frightening indeed. Seven feet tall, perhaps, armed with a mighty pitchfork, with fire in his eyes and seeing the secrets of their hearts laid bare.

This approach worked as well then as it has since, and John had no shortage of candidates lined up for baptism. In fact, he was even turning people away. The good, church-going, religious people of the day – the Sadducees and Pharisees – had come as well; and John had told them that all of their claims to piety and faithfulness amounted to nothing more than worthless rocks.

So as the poor and unwelcome find hope and redemption, the pious and the proud are turned away…and then John refuses one more seeker who has joined the line. The newcomer doesn’t look any different than the crowd of laborers, beggars, and castaways who had come into the river Jordan seeking hope and a new life. He is quiet and unassuming, listening more than he talks, and waiting his turn.

But when he gets to the front of the line, John refuses to baptize him. Not because the stranger is unworthy, but because he is – in fact – the very Messiah that John has been talking about. He is, however, nothing like John’s description. There is no swinging fork, no fire, no wrath and damnation. Just someone like us.

Over the centuries, this moment would be repeated by millions of Christians. Alongside the sharing of the bread and cup, the ritual of baptism will become the common rite of passage for all those who wish to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Whether as infants or adults, all believers are invited to stand beside their Savior in the river Jordan and enter into a new life and a new relationship with God.

And, like John the Baptizer, we quickly learn that Jesus is not exactly who we expected. Certainly in our hymns and our Sunday School lessons we paint Him as the conquering Messiah, the Almighty King and rescuer. But who among us can say that becoming a Christian ended all of our problems, rescued us from all fear and pain, or saved us from grief?

It is one of the unique, somewhat odd truths of the Christian faith. We are not given extravagant promises of miracles and prosperity. Anyone who tries to offer such is, quite simply, lying. Instead, we learn that the Savior of the world has hands and feet just like ours, that He is standing among us, pushed and shoved, sunburnt and sweating, and holy. Holy not because of his separation from us, but because of his willingness, in all his divinity, to stand with us. Jesus, the Son of God.

Standing in a crowd of sinners awaiting baptism, wearing normal clothes and looking perfectly ordinary, this will not be the last time that Jesus will surprise (and perhaps even disappoint) the fiery John. Years later John will sit in his prison cell and send some of his followers to ask Jesus if it all had been a waste of time [Matthew 11]. John, facing execution, will wonder if he threw his life away for a man who wasn’t really the Messiah.

He will wonder, not because Jesus isn’t the Messiah but because Jesus is not the Messiah he expected, the Messiah he wanted, the Messiah he thought he needed. At the end of his ministry, John won’t get it just as he doesn’t get it that bright, sunny day on the banks of the Jordan.

Jesus comes to be baptized, and John refuses. There are so many symbols in baptism, its hard to wrap our minds around them all – but none of those meanings fit John’s image of a Messiah, a conquering hero from God.

The waters of baptism are the waters of death, of the river Styx. They are a passage into the Underworld, the land beyond. By entering into those waters we own up to our mortality, we remind ourselves of the journey that we all will take someday into the unknown. We remember that we have an end.

But what could the mighty Son of God have to do with death? How could Jesus save God’s children if he were to die? How could God die? It made no sense, so John said “no.” But we die, and so Jesus stepped into the Jordan to die with us.

The waters of baptism are also the warm, cleansing waters of a long soak in the tub. We enter them dirty, itchy with the grit of our weaknesses and sin, and we come from them clean and refreshed. What could the Messiah have to do with water made filthy by the dirt of our lives? So John said “no.” But it is water that we must enter into, so Jesus entered into it as well.

The waters of baptism are also the waters of birth. Emerging from them we are newborn, transformed. Nothing will ever be the same again. What was important before becomes insignificant, and the trivial can become our life’s work. To come from those waters is to be resurrected, to be born again. Why would the perfect, once-begotten Son of God need to experience something so strange? So John said “no.” But we are all promised that strange, beautiful experience, so Jesus stepped forward to join with those He had come to save.

I would love to have seen John’s face at the moment. He was someone accustomed to people doing what he said. To say that he was the confrontational type is perhaps a bit of an understatement. Yet here stood the one person John could not argue with. “It must be done to fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus says. As one author [Texts for Preaching] puts it, this is God’s requirement – not just for Jesus, but for all.

And so the great prophet was faced with a difficult decision. Did he reject Jesus because he was not the kind of Savior he expected or did he come to terms with who Jesus really was and obey. It’s not a decision unfamiliar to the experienced Christian. God asks a lot of us if we are to believe and act on our beliefs. Christianity is a strange religion with strange priorities, and somewhere along the way we all learn that acting on faith is neither as easy nor as tangibly rewarding as we might hope. We learn that, no matter what challenges we expected, the real challenges of Christianity are different. We are left with John’s choice: give up, or obey.

In the end, John obeyed and Jesus started on the same journey that every one of us enters into when we share in the waters of baptism. Standing in the Jordan river, the hope of all humanity, a single, fragile human being, Jesus, the Son of God, stood among sinners repenting of their sins and was pressed under the water into baptism.

I say pressed because of something that they really should teach in seminary, and perhaps some clergypeople figure it out on their own, but…people float. It is not natural to be shoved under water. Our bodies automatically resist it, instinctively they know that it’s about death. When you baptize someone, you have to push them under the water. Those of you familiar with church politics may understand why sometimes we pastors are tempted to hold certain people under a bit longer than we should.

Yet Jesus did as millions of Christians after him would do, and when he came out of the water no one could dispute that the world had become a different place, that things had changed irrevocably and for all time. Matthew tells us that the “heavens were opened” for Jesus, and He saw the Spirit of God “descending like a dove.” Just as the Spirit of God glided like a dove over the waters of creation in Genesis, so God appears at these waters of baptism – a sign that creation is being remade again in this moment.

And then God speaks, and – as in Genesis – everything is made different by the words of God. The voice of God echoes down from the sky and proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Mind you, God could have made this announcement anywhere. God could have gathered all the rulers of the world together and presented Jesus to them. God could have gathered all the religious leaders of Israel together and, with this one miraculous manifestation, let them know without question who Jesus was.

Yet God did none of these things. Instead, Jesus is presented to the world among the very people who will carry his name into history. Those desperate enough, or optimistic enough, or naïve enough to listen to the words of a wild prophet clothed in animal skins. The people who live on the margins and slip through the cracks. And their reward for their faith, their reward for their trusting and their naïveté, is to hear the loving, powerful voice of God.

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God’s words here are an echo of Isaiah 42, first Servant Song of Isaiah. Matthew will later quote much more of the chapter, the longest passage of Scripture quoted in the New Testament. This choice of language is another clue to all present that Jesus is not the kind of Messiah people were anticipating.

There are plenty of hymns of conquest, victory, and mighty kings in our Scriptures. Yet, in introducing Jesus to the world, God blesses Him with the words of Isaiah. A prophecy of a faithful servant, one who will bring forth justice, but will not do so with shouting or power, one who, in the words of Isaiah, will be so gentle that not even a single bruised blade of grass will be broken by his presence. A candle’s fire, sputtering and at the end of its life, will not be extinguished by his touch.

John preached of a different kind of fire, one into which Jesus would toss those whom He found to be unworthy. Perhaps, on some level, this is the kind of Jesus – the kind of God – we all really expect. A God who will find us unworthy and punish us accordingly. A savior who will rescue only the truly worthy. That kind of fear has a place. It keeps us from the smug self-righteousness of the Pharisees. Hopefully it subdues in us the urge toward self-serving and self-blind judgementalism.

But there is much more to the promise of the Messiah. When Jesus actually arrives, the holy voice of God uses the words of Isaiah to tell us that Jesus, the bringer of peace and justice, will gently guard the bruised reeds of our hearts and the low, flickering flames of our souls.

Indeed, there is much bruising and much exhaustion among the children of God. It was the case then and it still true now. God knew, and after John had spoken his words of caution and repentance, God spoke to those who chose to stay; and in the proclamation of the arrival of the Son of God there was a word of comfort as well as hope for those who were willing to hear.

God knew, and knows, because God stood there among us at the river Jordan, as God stands with us in baptism. God cares because we are God’s children.

That was the part that John perhaps never fully understood. He objected to Jesus’ baptism because Jesus was the Son of God; and baptism was beneath Jesus because it made Him like us. What John did not understand is that likewise, by entering into the same waters, the same death, transformation, and rebirth as Jesus the Christ, we become like Him. We become, likewise, Children of God.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything is now easy or safe for us. Even the most casual study of the life of Christ makes it abundantly clear that being a child of God does not mean a life of privilege and entitlement, luxury and prosperity. If means difficult and surprising challenges, sometimes even suffering and loss – all, however, in the company of our elder brother in the faith, the firstborn of God’s children who only leads into the places He has gone.

And through it all, if we listen carefully, perhaps, we can hear again the words of Isaiah, spoken with the voice of God and proclaimed over our own baptisms: “These are my children, the ones I love, and I am very pleased with them.”