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Sunday, January 12, 2020 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
It All Matters
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Why was Jesus baptized with us when he could have stayed on the banks of the Jordan and supervised? . . . Because he loves us, and because he has come to lead us through the waters of life and death into life eternal.
Barbara Brown Taylor
A preacher never knows for sure why any one of us, or why all of us, are here in worship on any given Sunday morning. Do you, yourself, know why you are here?
Are you here because of a hope or something like a hunch or a rumor that you might discover a clue to help you live more fully or come to peace with your past? Are you here because you feel our world is somewhat unmoored right now, floating on what feels like a tumultuous sea made up of wars and the constant threat of more wars; of fires turning the skies red and fault lines causing mountains and hills to crumble; of public figures—both elected and not—who use their tongues as weapons for wounding? Are you seeking a lifeboat or a place to drop anchor so you might catch your breath?
Maybe you don’t know why you are here. You just are; we just are.
Surely at least some who showed up on the riverfront that day to hear John the Baptist were also unsure as to the exact reasons why. It could have been that some of them showed up because they saw such a wide assortment of folks gathered together on that muddy shore—religious leaders, soldiers, the wealthy, the poor, young and old and in-between. It was a mixture of people who did not usually spend time together, so their gathering piqued some interest. If all of them thought John had something important to say, then others did not want to miss out.
I am sure that at least a few of those who came to the Jordan that day knew exactly why they were there. They knew that John the Baptist was preaching the necessity of repentance, of starting over, of turning from one way of living life—a way that felt rather vacuous and narcissistic—in order to turn to a different way of living life—a way that tried to imagine a different kind of world that could be, that would be in God’s time, a world not solely centered around them. And they were there to be baptized in order to recognize that shift, for as Barbara Brown Taylor has preached, baptism and narcissism tend to cancel each other out (Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith).
So yes, some of them, perhaps like some of you, knew why they were there. They had come because they had exhausted their ability to just keep scraping by on their own. They had come because they were bone-dry in their spirits. They had come because something radical needed to change in them and with them. They had come because they decided John the Baptist might just be one who could help.
Of course, who knows why the religious leaders were there. I’m sure a few of them came just to keep an eye on the crowd, to keep an eye on John—to monitor what he was saying and to do a threat assessment they could share with Rome. Meanwhile, other religious and political leaders showed up with wide smiles on their faces, kissing babies and working the crowd. They knew a good publicity shot with they saw one and never let an opportunity pass them by.
But then, in the middle of all that, there stood Jesus. Why was Jesus there, perched on the muddy banks, listening to John’s preaching, getting in the back of the line for the ritual of John’s baptism? Why had he come that day?
In Matthew’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ first recorded act as an adult. Up until this time, he and his family had seemingly been at home in Nazareth of Galilee, the place where he and his parents landed after living for a while as political refugees in Egypt after they escaped the violence of King Herod. Matthew skips from that childhood moment to today—to this scene of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, preaching and baptizing, warning and exhorting; the people curiously listening, lining up, responding. And Jesus. Right there in the middle of all of them. Just like everyone else. Why was he there?
Perhaps Jesus was there because he, too, had been given a holy hunch, a divinely inspired clue that there was to be a direct connection between the messiness of the manger and the muddiness of the river bank. There was to be a direct connection between the truth that he had been born into poverty, into nobodiness, into regular, everyday, fully human life—a connection between that truth with the truth that his incarnation as Word made flesh compelled him to get in line and wait his turn like everyone else, to encounter John and to go down into the waters like everyone else.
For even though our Christian tradition claims that Jesus, unlike everyone else, had nothing for which he needed to repent, that reality seemed not to matter to him. Repentance was not the point for Jesus. Rather, solidarity was the point for Jesus (Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 214). That is why when his cousin John protested against baptizing Jesus, saying it needed to be the other way around, Jesus stopped him and told John that this was what they must do in order to be who they had each been called to be: one the preparer, the other the Way.
Jesus must have sensed in his spirit that part of his work was to be explicitly linked with all of those other regular folks on the riverbank—the soldiers and the religious leaders, the wealthy and the poor, the young and old and in-between. Jesus must have known he had been born into this world so he might be all of who we are. Again, Barbara Brown Taylor: In his baptism, Jesus “took the plunge right along with the rest of us and never asks us to go anywhere he has not been first.”
My friend, New York preacher Scott Black Johnston, taught me that early Christian icons, which are devotional pictures of this scene, show Jesus submerged up to his neck in the water, with John standing nearby, gently touching the Messiah’s head. Above them, a lone dove glides down a ray of light, while on shore, angels wait with ready towels for God’s beloved Son to emerge. It is a beautiful depiction. But when you look even closer, you often notice something a bit out of place: a small elderly man carrying a jug.
Scott Black Johnston reports that curious figure is meant to be the river god, the spirit of the Jordan, the sometime enemy of humankind who occasionally unleashes destruction with its watery chaos. Yet keep looking, Scott told me, for though that little man’s presence is strange enough, that symbol is not the only adversary found in the depths of the Jordan River. The icons also often contain dragons and sea serpents lurking, symbols for the powers of evil, of violence, and oppression (Scott Black Johnston, “How’s the Water?” preached on day1.org, 2008).
Why? Apparently our early Christian ancestors wanted to make sure everyone who contemplated Jesus’ baptism understood that the reason Jesus went into the river and was immersed into the waters of John’s baptism was so that we would see and know we don’t fight against the dragons of evil and destruction alone. We don’t do battle against the serpents of oppression and suffering alone. We don’t have to figure out how to live on what can feel like an unmoored world riding on the tumultuous seas of chaos alone.
For just as God showed us when Jesus was born into the world as a baby, so Jesus reminds us as he waits at the back of the line, walks into the waters alongside his cousin, and insists on being baptized like everyone else: we will never go into any place, through any experience, he has not been, God has not been. Nowhere. It is why the icons show Jesus standing in the middle of all that threat and chaos—to proclaim to us that Jesus stands there with us. And that truth revealed in the baptismal waters contains a courage within, waiting for us to discover it.
Yet that truth revealed in the baptismal waters also contains a challenge within, waiting for us to discover it as well. If the Christmas and baptismal promise is true—that anywhere we go or anything we experience God has already received into God’s self and continues to be present—if we trust that is true, then our often-touted dichotomy we have neatly set up between the secular and the sacred rings hollow. And if that dichotomy between the secular and the sacred rings hollow, then we, as people who follow Jesus, are called to declare each day in our words and in our deeds that it matters to God what is happening in our world, in our nation, and in our lives. And it needs to matter to us.
It matters to God that fires are raging in Australia; that God’s creation is suffering harm from our actions and inaction; that earthquakes are toppling even more homes in Puerto Rico and people’s suffering in that place continues to increase. And it needs to matter to us. It matters to God that people died in Iraq and in Iran this week; that an airplane bound for Ukraine was shot down, even if it were by accident; that we as a nation and as nations are once again publicly and primarily turning to violence and threat as a way of coping with each other. And it needs to matter to us.
It matters to God that refugees and asylum seekers are finding fewer and fewer safe places to go, including our own country, including my home state of Texas. Remember, Jesus himself was a refugee for a while. Scripture is full of admonitions to care for the refugees, for those who live as exiles, for we were once strangers in a strange land. As people of faith, how we do or do not respond in our national communal life to very vulnerable people matters to God. And it needs to matter to us.
God takes it personally when we do not do everything we can to fight the dragons of oppression on behalf of those whose strength is spent. God takes it personally when we decide to step over or on others as we fight for our front place in the political or economic line. God takes it personally when we choose to turn a blind eye to the struggles of those who have nothing to eat, or nowhere to go, or no one to love, or no one who misses them. God takes it personally when we as a people and as people move to violence first and always as the only way of responding to threats.
God takes all of that personally, because remember, there is nowhere we go where God has not already been. There is nothing we can experience in which God is not present. That is what the manger and the moment at the river proclaim to us. That is what we mean when we say in the Apostles’ Creed that “he descended into hell.” That is not a spatial statement. That is a theological statement. The dichotomy we have tried to set up between what is secular and what is sacred has been shown to be false, empty. As a poet has written, “Tell me, Jesus—which part of your life was sacred; which part was concerned with the world? And in my life—speak to me of today and tell me, what part of it does not concern you?” (Marilee Zdenek and Marge Champion, in God Is a Verb, as quoted by Atwood).
The poet is highlighting the truth that the baptism of Jesus reveals to us that all our life concerns him—the decisions we make at work, the ways we parent our children, how we use our money, what happens at the ballot box, to whom we pay attention, the words and the tone we use when we speak to each other, etc. All of those aspects of who we are and what we do got wet in our baptism, just as all of who Jesus was, all of who God is, got wet at his baptism, as well.
Our Christian truth that God chose to come among us as flesh and blood, as a baby born into poverty and as an adult who would willingly walk to the back of the line—that truth offers us such comfort (there is nothing we can experience God has not experienced) and such challenge (what we do in and with our life matters to God, for all matter to God.) Our baptism immerses us into a Christian life that is to be about living the way Jesus lived and caring about what Jesus cared about (Mark Ramsey, “Five Baptisms,” preached at Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas, 2017), always remembering we do not do any of it alone, for God is with us. Jesus took the plunge right there alongside us and would never ask us to go anywhere he had not been first. What a deep comfort. What a tremendous challenge.
Perhaps a few of those gathered that long ago day on the muddy banks of the river had the eyes to see even just a glimpse of that comfort and challenge when Jesus stood alongside them on that day. If so, that glimpse could have reaffirmed why they had come there in the first place. And perhaps, through God’s grace, that comfort and challenge can be what we didn’t know we needed today, as well giving us the courage to keep at it, reaffirming in us who and whose we are and why that matters. Amen.