Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Sermon: Baptism of the Lord (13 January 2008)

Baptism of the Lord: 13 January 2008
(Isaiah 42:1-9/Psalm 29/Acts 10:34-43/Matthew 3:13-17)
Blood On The Carpet

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How you spend your time tells a lot about what’s important to you. Of course there are certain constraints on each of us – school for children, and work, either inside or outside the home, for adults – constraints that make significant demands on our time. I’m not really thinking about these allocations of time, but about the time you have left after these responsibilities are discharged. So, if you routinely choose to work 80 or 90 hours each week when 40 would satisfy your family’s economic needs, then an outside observer might reasonably conclude you value money or professional advancement more than a relationship with your spouse and children. Or if you spend more time watching television or surfing the web than on your knees in prayer or immersed in Scripture or in service of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, that same outside observer might think spiritual growth is less important to you than entertainment. Jesus said it about treasure – thinking about monetary goods – but I think it’s equally true of the treasure of your seconds and minutes and hours and days: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Just suppose, for the sake of argument, that I’m right about this; I don’t know that I am, but give me the benefit of the doubt for a moment. If time is a measure of perceived importance, then what is important to the church? Think of how the church spends its time in preaching and teaching and feasting and fasting. What do these decisions, these priorities, tell us about what’s important to the church? In mainline churches with the lectionary, in liturgical churches with the Eucharist, and in evangelical churches with gospel preaching, the lion’s share of time is spent on the death and resurrection of Jesus: the seasons and themes of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter dominate even in those churches who would never explicitly speak of Lent and Holy Week. The cross overshadows everything and the empty tomb illuminates everything. Of course, I exaggerate – but not by too much. How many Christmas pageants have you seen link manger and cross, thus expounding the theology that Jesus was born to die? How many sermons have you heard remind us that Jesus died for our sins? If time is an indicator, then the death and resurrection of Jesus are of first importance to the church. And that’s exactly what Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians.

1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (1 Cor 15:1-5, ESV).

Who can disagree with Paul? The troika of death, burial, and resurrection is of first importance, is the climax of Jesus’s redemptive act. But even as I say this, something in me tugs in another direction. If it’s all about the three days – Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday – then why live for thirty-three years? Why the incarnation? Why the thirty years of silence? Why the three years of ministry? Why the baptism? Why the temptation? Why the transfiguration? Why the teaching? Why the healing? Why the conflicts? Surely, Jesus wasn’t born just to die. Surely, Jesus was born to live. So, yes, the death, burial, and resurrection are of first importance, but in the sense of being first among equals, much as our President is first among equals when hosting a formal White House banquet for leaders of other nations. The redemptive act of Jesus – death, burial, and resurrection – is first among the equals gathered at the table of atonement: equals like the incarnation, the baptism, the temptation, and the transfiguration. Though one heads the table, all are essential in the atoning plan of God in Jesus Christ.

All this is to say that the baptism of the Lord, the event we celebrate this day, is not just some random or arbitrary and thus relatively unimportant event in the inevitable march toward the cross; it, too, ranks among equals as an essential act in God’s plan for atonement. It’s importance becomes clear only as we begin to understand the enormity of that plan.

Painting with broad strokes we can picture the atonement as God’s plan to redeem, transform, and reconcile to himself all of creation by dealing with the twin problems of sin and death. This all-encompassing plan is often reduced to caricature by well-meaning Christians who summarize the gospel as the good news that “Jesus died for you so that God would forgive your sins.” With no disrespect intended, Jesus didn’t need to die for that; at his own initiative God could merely have forgiven us, all of us, all our sins. The truth is, forgiveness is just one step in the plan – an essential one, yes, but just one. As a young boy, 11 or 12 I think, I visited an acquaintance out of state. As we sat in his bedroom, newly carpeted with white shag, he pulled something from behind his back and shoved it toward my face. I reacted instinctively by lifting my arm in front of my eyes. That’s when the brand new and very sharp knife my friend was proudly trying to show me stabbed my arm severing a vein. Blood flowed freely, deeply – and probably permanently – staining the white carpet crimson. I felt deeply guilty for ruining that beautiful carpet. And yet, at that moment, if my friend’s mother had entered the room and said, “Oh, John, don’t worry about the carpet; I forgive you.” I would have said, “Great. Thanks for that. Now, can we do something about this bleeding before I pass out?” I needed and wanted forgiveness, yes, and it could be granted with a simple word. But I also needed direct, hands-on intervention, to restore me to health. Forgive me, please, but then fix the problem that caused me to need forgiveness.

And there we stand, all of us as God’s fallen creatures – our blood all over his white carpet, so to speak – needing forgiveness, but also needing a hands-on God to intervene to stanch the bleeding and to heal our woundedness. Forgiveness without cure: that’s not really good news; that’s not really gospel. And so God embarks upon his plan of atonement to forgive and to heal. At the very heart of that plan is the life of Jesus.

In the life of Jesus, God becomes hands-on and intervenes directly, personally in the human realm of space and time to heal us – not just to forgive our sins, but to cure the underlying disease of Sin, itself. He accomplishes this through the twin mysteries of identification and incorporation (Scott McKnight, A Community Called Atonement): Jesus identifies completely with our human nature so that he might incorporate us completely into his divine nature. What is true for us becomes true for him. What is true for him becomes true for us. For us, anyway, this is a magnificent trade.

Let’s see how all this plays out in the baptism of the Lord. John has emerged from the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’ 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mt 3:1-6, NRSV).

In addition to the ordinary folk, Pharisees have come for dipping – Sadducees, too – but John is having none of it. Amend your lives, you brood of vipers. Show by your actions that you have repented. Then, then come to the water: not a real seeker-sensitive kind of guy, this Baptist.

Then one day it happens. Jesus comes to the Jordan: the one John has been waiting for, the one whose sandals John is not worthy to carry, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And this one, this Jesus, wades into the water and presents himself to John, presents himself for the baptism of repentance. Once again John is having none of it, but this time for vastly different reasons: “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me” (Mt 3:14b, NRSV)? John recognizes in Jesus the Holy One, the sinless one who has no need of repentance and no need of baptism. Yet Jesus gently insists: “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15, NRSV). Jesus isn’t focused on sin as he comes to the baptismal water; he is focused on righteousness. John is all about the blood on the carpet; Jesus is all about healing the wound. Of course he has no sin, but we do. And in this moment he identifies with us, is baptized on our behalf, to incorporate us into the righteousness of God. This is the essence of atonement. Jesus identifies completely with our human nature so that he might incorporate us completely into his divine nature. What is true for us becomes true for him. What is true for him becomes true for us. We need baptism, so he makes that true for himself. He is righteous, so he makes that true for us. Identification for incorporation. And what does our incorporation look like? It’s there in the rest of the gospel account.

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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:16-17, NRSV).

If you have been baptized into Christ, incorporated in him, then what was true for him in his baptism is true for you through yours. The Spirit of God has descended from heaven to light on you and remain with you. And a voice from heaven – no matter that you didn’t hear it with your ears of flesh – a voice from heaven, God’s own voice, said over you, “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Don’t take my word for this. Here’s Paul.

[For] in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26-27, NRSV).

In his baptism Christ identified with us. In our baptism we are incorporated into him so that what is true of him is true of us: we are God’s beloved children in whom he is well pleased.

John, too, speaks about our incorporation into Christ Jesus and our status as God’s children. He calls it “abiding” in Jesus.

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 2:28-3:3, NRSV).

This is atonement. This is identification for incorporation. This is more than just the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus; this is healing and transformation and reconciliation and participation in the divine nature through the life of Jesus.

But the identification and incorporation – the atonement – cannot stop here. As Jesus identified with us to incorporate us, we must identify with our world to incorporate it in Jesus. We must be there in the midst of the world, sharing its life, shouldering its burden, bearing its pain, through our own lives proclaiming not just the forgiveness of its sins but the healing of its woundedness. We who have been reconciled with God through Christ must become ambassadors of reconciliation. We have been incorporated into Christ, in part, so that we might incorporate the world into Christ.

Go forth into the world empowered by your baptism, hearing the voice – sometimes as thunder and sometimes as whisper – “You are my child, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Go forth into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit who descended upon you at your baptism and who remains with you now, transforming you into the image of Christ. Go forth into the world abiding in Christ, doing what is right, purified as he is pure. That is life. That is atonement.


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