1 Epiphany—Year A
January 8, 2017
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17
We talked a lot about John the Baptizer in Advent but here he is again announcing that the one coming after him will be greater than he is. John expects Jesus will be the king who wields the power, the judge who condemns the sinners, the Messiah who crushes the enemy. The people are on the tiptoe of expectation to see a man who is greater than John. The crowd can’t imagine such a man. To paraphrase N. T. Wright: John is like the announcer at the Boston Pops announcing that there is a special guest conductor coming onto the stage and he will conduct the 1812 Overture with church bells peeling and army cannons roaring. It’s gonna be huge! The crowd can hardly wait! But then from behind the curtain comes this little guy with a flute who starts playing softly. And some folks storm out demanding a refund!
Jesus comes to John wanting to be baptized as if he were an ordinary person. John doesn’t want to do it. He doesn’t think Jesus has any business going down into the water like all the others. The ordinary people need to go in and confess their sins, so when they climb out onto the bank their sins stay in the water. But why in the world should a man like Jesus get involved in that messy process, sharing the dirty bathwater with all those sinners? Surely Jesus is above all that—just like John is. There is no record of John being baptized. The great men of God don’t need what the little people need.
Second Isaiah in the 6th century before Christ today sets us up in the same way:
Isaiah thunders: Thus says the Lord God: Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
Great—justice to the nations—God’s finally going to stick it to the Chinese and the Russians and to ISIS. Crush them all—bring on the justice and all that divine power.”
But after we’ve calmed down the prophet almost whispers, but God also says:
“My servant will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”
We have trouble separating our view of power from God’s view of power. John doesn’t want Jesus to go down into the dirty water of the common folk because that’s not what the strong and powerful do. If John had still been alive he would have also tried to talk Jesus out of going to the cross.
But Jesus disagrees with John.
Because here’s the thing: Jesus sees his role as Messiah, as King, as the Son of God, not as a status but as a calling. See Stanley Hauerwas in his Gospel of Matthew Brazos Commentary
His titles are not a status to be flaunted but a calling to enact!
Secular politicians since the beginning of time have forgotten the distinction between status and calling: I remember Alan Watts saying how office holders should just do their jobs and resist the temptation of turning their job into a status. He says, take the guy in the city government who is in charge of the sewage system. This guy just gets up every morning and gets in his ordinary car and drives himself to work. He doesn’t need a big car with flags on it and he doesn’t require a police escort with sirens blasting. No, he just takes care of his job—and then goes home the same way he came. But if he gets a job with some status watch out, watch out!
Jesus has a status, but according to Philippians 2 he doesn’t think equality with God is something to be grasped but empties himself, taking the form of a servant, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
God is well-pleased with Jesus—not just because he is God’s Son, but because he is doing what God has sent him to do.
So what does this story of Jesus’ baptism tell us about Jesus’ calling?
Jesus’ calling and this story points in two directions:
Jesus is called to represent God and to be the representation of God to us and for us—he is the only way human beings can get an accurate picture of God! Want to know who the Creator is—look at Jesus. That’s as close as we’ll come and that’s close enough because Jesus is the True Picture in human terms of the Living God.
But Jesus is also called to represent the people and to be the representation of the people to God. Jesus is the representative Human Being—he is the Second Adam. He “slips on skin” so he can take on our existence and so that through his faithfulness we may share his life with God.
In his double role as representation of God and representation of humanity, Jesus immerses himself in the dirty water that is full of the sins of the people. If he’d known that 1965 classic song by the Standells, maybe he’d start singing a verse or two of “Love that dirty water.…”
Jesus goes into the Charles River 50 years ago when it is full of the sins of the people who made themselves rich and in the process polluted it with toxic waste and heavy metals. He goes into that water, becomes one with it…because God so loved the world. God comes to us as Jesus.
And that should have been the end of the story, because that water is lethal. But that was part of his calling too—to die for the sins of the world, at the hands of the sins of the world—so he could free the world enslaved to the idea that it doesn’t have a creator.
Let’s face it: in too many centuries the title Christian has been used as a status: ”I’m a Christian which makes me something special—I’m entitled and you’re not because you’re not a Christian. You’re just a Jew or a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Hindu. I’m special, I’m holy, I’m right and you’re wrong, I deserve to live and you don’t—as if we did something to earn and deserve this title!
But the title Christian was always meant to be only a calling: a calling to rest in Jesus, to take on the easy Yoke of Jesus, to serve Jesus’ people, to take up our cross and follow him, apprentices of the Master. It is a calling—to go to the people still drowning in the dirty water—physical and spiritual—and let the people know the love and healing and forgiveness of God for them and for us.
Just as Jesus identifies with us, so his apprentices identify with the suffering around us. We stand with the other because that’s exactly where Jesus is standing. So every day we are on the lookout for the person Jesus is calling us to stand with.
Jesus identifies himself with your life and mine, with the life of the world. Not so we can stay the same, but so that we can be changed from status seekers to servants.
We remember Saint Damien in the leper colony in Hawaii: he brought to the lepers the good news of Jesus Christ: He said: “God loves you!” Father Damien lived this out among these people the world forgot. But then the day came when he became a leper himself, when he fully enters their experience. On that day he no longer said, “God loves you.”
No—now he says, “God loves us.”