CONNECTION AND DELIGHT
Matthew 3: 13-17
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 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. 16 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. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
It is important to see this story in the context of Matthew’s narrative intent. Matthew emphasized the continuity of the prophetic promises and Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus belonged to a tradition and he fulfilled the promises of that tradition. Because Matthew’s gospel was written well after Jesus’ death, he knew, as do we, that Jesus inverted expectations and radically reinterpreted what it meant to love, to serve and to lead. In part, because Jesus’ messiahship was so unexpected, many of the religious establishment rejected him and later, the very people he came to save did likewise. Why should anyone listen to a man who ate with sinners and who claimed victory on a cross? By describing Jesus as both faithful to the scriptures as well as fulfilling those scriptures, Matthew establishes Jesus’ credentials. Matthew is arguing that Jesus is what God meant all along. In so doing, he is calling us to the same spiritual journey.
That journey continues this Sunday as we commission and ordain elders. A new group of leaders are publicly declaring their willingness to serve. Whatever process of prayer and discernment each of them practiced, each of them made a decision and that decision has culminated in this public ritual. It is important that every Christian have their sense of call validated and supported.
I believe the same can be said of Jesus. Jesus makes a decision to publicly align himself with God. Jesus is chosen and Jesus is blessed. In truth, Jesus, nor the elders, nor us really know what we are signing up for. But that is true of almost any important endeavor. Who really knows on the front end what it means to be married, to be a parent, to begin a job, to face loss. Those lessons come in living Please note that in the very next verse, the same Spirit that recognizes Jesus drives him into the wilderness. No matter how faithful, passionate and determined any of us might be about serving God, there will be challenges and hardships that will take us well out of our comfort zone.
So, returning to the scripture: “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.’ This was not a random circumstance, Jesus chose to seek out John. At first it seems a bit odd. John’s baptism was one of repentance. He was calling individuals and the nation to return to God. But, why would Jesus need such a baptism? Usually we think of repentance as the expression of remorse for wrongdoing and a consequent turning toward God. The Greek is ‘metanoia’ literally means a changing of the mind and implies a turning toward a new direction. But that understanding does not really fit for Jesus—the sinless one. Jesus was always turned toward God—even when he was complaining and feeling abandoned.
I believe Jesus sought John’s baptism because there is a significant difference between our private convictions and our willingness to declare them publicly. It is one thing to think privately, ‘You know I should take better care of my body—’ and quite another to announce we are joining a fitness group. Likewise, it is one thing to self identify as a Christian and another to say aloud, ‘I am taking this stand because I am a Christian’. There is an entirely different level of accountability and vulnerability that goes with declaring ourselves publicly. That increased accountability and vulnerability is an important part of every person’s spiritual journey. And it was part of Jesus’ journey.
In the text John is reluctant to baptize Jesus. In his mind he is is not good enough—but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals (Matt 3:11). But Jesus insists, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus, nor God, worries about whether we are good enough. He says do your job as best you can. Show regard as best you can. You will sometimes be lost. Sometimes you will despair. You will sometimes fail. None of that matters. Trust that I am with you. Follow me and love as best you can. This was a foreign way for John (and us) to think. We all want to be enough. We all want to avoid disappointing. But we will never reach such a standard. It is not God’s standard. It is ours. It is only when we leave it to God to decide that we are free to be who we are.
John’s job was to do his part. He does not have to be the expert nor does he have to be sinless. Christian leaders are not called to solve problems so much as they are called to struggle with how does being a Christian change how we respond. Our leaders will have to struggle with declining attendance, financial uncertainty and the difficult balance between inclusion and safety. These and many more are thorny issues. It will be tempting to use secular solutions. How can any of us respond as Christians God when we feel personally threatened? But our job, as was John’s is to do our part.
So John consents. He does his part in the unfolding of God’s will. As Jesus is coming out of the water, “the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” The Spirit of God touches Jesus and the voice of God announces: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ choice was validated and Jesus’ choice was pleasing to God. His whole ministry is made possible by this gift. Unless each of us receives this same gift, our attempts to follow Jesus will fail. The challenges of the church and the needs of the people around us will overwhelm us.
A couple people in our Faith and Real Life group wished aloud that a dove would visit them. In real life, it is rarely a dove, but most Christians who stay the course do so because that course has been validated in some way. We move from seeking good because we ought to or because that is what our parents taught us— to seeking God because we want to. One man said that he had been in a terrible accident. He probably should have died. But many people he did not know worked together to help him. He said he awoke three days later a different man. A woman, exhausted from her hectic job had her physician ask, ‘What are you doing for your soul?’ She found a new centeredness and peace that did not seem possible. Another spoke of an extended period of familial conflict. He said if it were not for grace, he could not have made it. The dove comes in many forms but it results in a new relationship with God that sustains and supports. The hardships of life do not change but our ability to cope does. This week, the dove will appear in the laying on of hands.
The Spirit of God sustains us when we can not see a way. In real life, we may well lose contact with that Spirit—but we believe Jesus trusted in a way most of us cannot. His relationship with God never depended upon his physical well being. It did not depend upon human approval or betrayal. We are not Jesus. The best any of us can do is to do what we can. But we do so in the promise that we are all God’s beloved children, in the promise that the Spirit of God will sustain us and finally in the promise that our seeking God makes God very happy. It is the way Jesus lived in the world and it is the way that Christ lives in the world through us.
So as we ordain these new leaders, pray for them that God’s delight and love will sustain you in all human uncertainty and adversity. Do what you can to love as Jesus loved. Let it be so.