The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Jesus and John have known one another since they were children. Today we remember their encounter at the Jordan River, both of them now about 30 years old. Their parents have talked to one another about their boys since before they were born. John is the miracle son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were old enough to be his great grandparents; and Jesus is the miracle son of Mary who “reportedly” conceived him through an angel, not with her husband, Joseph. John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, are Jesus’ aunt and uncle.
Jesus and John bear both the blessing and the burden of their destinies. Their lives were prophesied to be great: John was predicted to be the Messiah’s “advance man,” the Messiah’s “forerunner,” to set the stage. Jesus was predicted to be the Messiah. How can this be?[i]
The stories about angels and the miraculous conceptions of these two cousins are undoubtedly the makings for small town gossip and, I imagine, eye-rolling derisive humor, and people’s incredulity. If Jesus and John were supposed to be these bionic boys, why did they appear so normal and unspectacular, disappointing even? What would it have been like for these two cousins to grow up in each other’s shadows, most likely to live in close proximity, never finding their voices for almost 30 years, which is approaching old age in their own day?[ii] Their lives had been shrouded with such mystery, and speculation, and derision about their identities and their destinies. Neither of them married. Neither of them was all-that-special, really, at least for men who were supposed to become so great. What did they know about each other? What did they think about each other? How did they talk to one another? We don’t know.
Fiber, beads, pigment, wax, wood, copper, historic rosters and photos, digital image and database software. We Brothers played with these and more for a week of creativity. Diverse mediums for diverse persons, each in the image of our Divine Maker.
Matthew opens his telling of the good news with a genealogy notably including four courageous women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Their stories and that of sinful husbands Judah and David are scandalous. All four are foreigners. Jesus’ bloodline is not only Jewish but also Canaanite, Moabite, and Hittite. Jesus came for the world from the world.[i]
The prophet Malachi could not be using more extreme language. The messenger for the Messiah will come “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”
- A refiner’s fire is a metallurgy process dating back to antiquity. A refiner’s fire is a crucible that heats precious metal, like gold and silver, to a molten state from which the dross – the impurities – are skimmed off. It is a searing process that yields the pure, precious metal.[i]
- The fullers were the launderers. Fuller’s soap is a caustic cleansing agent, made from lye and other repugnant chemicals.[ii] Fuller’s soap was used to purify fabric and make it white. The fullers stamped on garments with their feet or used wooden bats in tubs of this blanching soap. The stench from this soap was so great that the fullers had to work outside the city walls of Jerusalem.
We find ourselves this Advent in a world that seems to be breaking down. A litany could encompass all ills and lands and peoples, and still feel incomplete. We find ourselves, this Advent, hurting, injured, crying out. Crying out for hope. Crying out for hope in God’s promise of healing.
The season of Advent layers time: past and future, memory and expectation, already and not yet. And God’s promise of healing is present in both layers. Part of Jesus’s ministry, as we hear in our Gospel today, was in curing every disease and every sickness. In the next chapter he will answer the messengers from John the Baptist by pointing to his own healing: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, [and] the dead are raised” (Mt 11:5).
This healing is also in the future—at the end of things: the time of the harvest, in Jesus’s words. The prophet Isaiah reports God’s promise that, after the day of judgment, the people of Zion will weep no more, and that the Lord will bind up the injuries of God’s people, and will heal their wounds.
I know that I have told this story before, but I’ll tell it again, partly for those who have not heard it, but mostly because tonight there is a significant point to it.
Years ago, as a young priest, and new to the practice of preaching on a regular basis, two members of my congregation approached me one Sunday after church. They were puzzled by something and wanted to ask me a question. Both Robin and Ann came from the Baptist tradition, and they had a concern about the lectionary. What would happen, they asked, if I felt it important to preach from a different passage of Scripture, than the one assigned by the lectionary. Would I be free, they wondered, to change the reading, or preach from a different text?
Nearly 40 years later, I can’t remember what I said in reply. I do remember the question. It has stuck with me all these years, and keeps cropping up every so often. Today, if one of you were to ask me the same question, I know exactly how I would answer.
The question, for me at least, is not what I would do if I felt it important to preach from a different passage, than the one assigned by the lectionary. The question for me is, what do I do when the lectionary points me in a direction I might not choose to go in, or would prefer to avoid? Because that’s the case tonight. If it were up to me, the gift and promise of hope is not something I’d gravitate to at this particular time. Yet tonight, of all nights we hear, in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Saint Paul writes about our “sanctification” as if we would know what he is talking about. In the original Greek, the generic meaning of “sanctification” is “the state of proper functioning.” To sanctify someone or something is to set that person or thing apart for the use intended by its designer. A well is “sanctified” when it is used as a source of water. A wineskin is “sanctified” when it is used to store wine. For us, eyeglasses are “sanctified” when used to improve sight. In the theological sense, things are “sanctified” when they are used for the purpose God intends. A human being is “sanctified” when they live according to God’s unique design and purpose for their life.[i]
When we wake up each morning, we can presume God’s presence, and power, and provision. We have been kept alive for as much as one more day to know God, and to love God, and to serve God as only we, uniquely, can do. [ii] We wake up each morning on a mission to bear the beams of God’s light, and life, and love as only we, uniquely, can do. It’s why we are still alive. Which turns life into such an amazing adventure. This is the core meaning of “sanctification”: living our lives according to God’s unique design and purpose for our life.
A visitor to a monastery went up to the abbot, and asked him, ‘What do you monks do all day? The abbot replied, ‘We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again.’ I think that is a pretty good description not just of the monastic life, but of the Christian life itself. It describes I think each one of us who try to follow Jesus Christ. As we try to live this life, we inevitably fall, mess up, we make mistakes, we sin, we fall short. But what is also true about this life of discipleship, is that when we do fall, Jesus is always there ready to pick us up. That is the paradigm of the Christian life: falling and getting up again, dying and being raised to new life.
Many years ago, I spent time living in a monastery in Belgium. It was very influenced by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the monks had adopted many Orthodox practices. The one I loved most happened during Lent. Whenever we entered the church during Lent, each of us, including the oldest monks, would not just bow to the altar, but we would fall down onto our hands and knees and touch the ground with our foreheads, acknowledging that we are but dust. But we didn’t stay there! Having acknowledging our fallenness, we immediately jumped up, because Christ has raised us up. I used to love doing that!
1 Peter 2:19-25
‘Are you saved? Have you been saved?’—the usual opening lines of the would-be Christian evangelist’s speech when accosting a supposed unbeliever. Sincerely held convictions and good intention usually lie behind these expressions of concern for our ‘spiritual’ well-being. But a ‘one-step’ profession of accepting Jesus as your Savior leading immediately to the state of ‘salvation’ is simplistic and can be dangerously ego-centered. Personally ‘achieving salvation’ is not a check-list item for being ‘admitted to heaven’ when we die.
Listen for a moment to words from an Anglican Communion evangelism document entitled ‘God’s Sovereignty and Our Salvation’: ‘Salvation is at the very heart of the Christian hope and the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the gift of reconciliation and transformation, given to humanity by God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ Salvation as transformation and reconciliation, proceeding from the Triune God who is love and relationship: this understanding and promise signals an ongoing, dynamic, shared process. In this understanding, salvation, ‘being saved’, is a never-ending and ever-deepening relationship of believers with Christ, and with one another.
As the evangelism document goes on to stay, ‘The gift of salvation is understood first and foremost by Christians as given by God through the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ This is the salvation, the being saved, which is boldly proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel calls us to examine what it actually means ‘to be saved’; to embrace the fulness of this salvation and to understand its meaning and urgency for our mortal lives and how we shall live, in these present days.
One of my friends sees as I don’t. He walks into a room and immediately senses things in others and in me to which I’m oblivious. Sometimes he says: “Don’t you see?” and I reply: “No, you’ve got to tell me. I can’t see.” That’s hard to say, to realize being in the dark while another can clearly see, to discover and experience limitation in the light of another’s ability.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus walks along and sees a person who is blind and who doesn’t ask for help. Jesus doesn’t ask what he wants. Jesus comes and opens his eyes. In response, a flurry of questions by the neighbors and the leaders: How did this happen? Was he really blind before? Who is Jesus? They struggle with question upon question, arguing, accusing, reprimanding, and rejecting. This community is stumbling, groping in the dark, trying to escape the truth that one born blind now sees because of Jesus.
As the community struggles and stumbles, this person grows to see even more. He is honest about limits: “I don’t know where Jesus is. I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” He also comes to know Jesus. First, he says “the man called Jesus” touched me. Then “he is a prophet.” A bit later “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Finally, again face to face “Lord, I believe.” First, he receives literal sight, and second, insight, awakened to Jesus.
If you’ve ever gone astray –
If by choice or by chance, you have found yourself separated – from God; from belonging; from the integrity, the dignity, or the honesty that once anchored you;
If you have found yourself in a place bereft of the guidance, the reassurance, or the forgiveness you so desperately needed;
Or from the touch or the glance or the words that would weave you once again into the fabric of connection, relationship, and love…
If yes, the question Jesus poses in tonight’s gospel is meant for you.
Does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?