Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
I want to start this morning with an excerpt from a poem called “Traditional Values Worldview” by the spoken word artist named Levi the Poet. In the first half of the poem, we enter the story of a young woman traveling with her father, a sea captain. She meets a young man on one of their island stops, and here we pick up as the young woman and this new friend head off looking for adventure:
[You can read and listen to the full poem HERE. The excerpt during the sermon began about halfway through the poem at the line: "The boy and I met a mystic...".]
The story of Jesus’ baptism is a bit confounding for those of us who may have grown up with a theology of baptism sunk so deeply into the notion of washing away sin that we have forgotten where the surface really is or what it means to fill our lungs to the brink of overflowing. Those of us who broke forth from the waters gasping toward a forgiveness that could finally make us good,
we echo that voice from the wilderness stuttering over the thought of the one we’ve been waiting for wading within those waters;
our sloughed-off sin still floating dangerously near the surface, we smile sheepishly at those stubborn stains we’re afraid might still yet need to be beaten out on the rocks.
When baptism becomes an exercise in “hate the sin but love the sinner” turned inward, conveniently creating sacramental losers and winners, Jesus’ approach toward those waters should give us pause:
Maybe it wasn’t ever about hating anything.
Maybe those mountain mystics who declare their feet evil for ever touching the ground have forgotten that the Divine dances to the music of flutes that must not be refused; she holds out her hand and stomps out the rhythm of heartbeats baptized by fire.
Maybe our notions of sin suddenly seem too simple when the one who saves insists on swimming alongside us.
Growing up I knew a number of people who had a shirt that said “My lifeguard walks on water.” And to be clear, those “number of people” was probably just me.
But this pithy platitude props up a picture of the Prince of Peace as one whose posture is perpetually apart from us poor peons, perched atop a pedestal, too pure to be polluted by Marco Polo playfulness.
I don’t know about you, but that theology of Jesus’ divinity leaves a bad taste in my humanity.
Ok, so maybe Jesus is certified in CPR, but if I’m honest, I’m more interested in whether he is certified in Where-We-R, whether he is able to breathe life back into this daily flesh and resuscitate the parts of me I’ve been convinced for too long would never make it to heaven. If he is going to beat on my chest, I hope he breaks every rib to create even more Life out of this Man of Mud.
When Jesus wades into those waters, does John change his charge? Does his preaching catch in his throat when Christ turns that corner? Or once he relents to that strange advent do his pleas to repent begin to make sense? If baptism’s intent is just about washing away sin, Jesus sure seem hell-bent on bending our notions of hell and sin and what it means to be human. We can’t be content to treat God’s descent as if all that it meant was just to prevent some eternal torment.
This truly, a God worthy of resent-ment.
Maybe the only reason we insist on a sinless Jesus is that deep down we know we intend to send him away, meticulously measuring the miles by all the ways we, ourselves, could never measure up.
“He’s not like us, but in the best possible ways.”
The pedestals we assign to our saviors obscure them just enough so we can no longer see ourselves in their likeness. The distance makes our hearts grow fonder of how little they can ask of the rest of us from all the way up there. Their muffled commandments filtered through stormclouds of impracticality, raining down just enough to make us feel like we’ve gotten our feet wet but never enough to leave us scrambling for gopher wood.
The prophet Isaiah sings songs of a suffering servant, yet he refuses to elucidate as to a specific person. This anointed one who brings justice by protecting the bruised reed and stoking the dimly burning wick back into blaze, who with righteousness makes a way for the blind and frees the captives, this servant of salvation resists a name.
Some insist Isaiah sings of Cyrus, the surprising sovereign who sets the Israelites free from exile.
Others contend that Jehoiachin, the king carried across countries to be cast out with his community is at the core of this oracle.
Still others are forthright to assert it might be rightly read as correlating to the Israelites in aggregate.
Many more might demand this messiah must be, MUST be Jesus, but...meh. (Come on, not everything has to be about Christians all the time.)
Rather than a name, Isaiah tells us of an anointing. God pouring out Spirit, dripping and running down to the places where Claim and Call kiss. Rather than a name, Isaiah tells us of an invitation to imagine that we just might be the ones we’ve been waiting for.
When Jesus approaches those waters, does he expect a voice from heaven? Or is he led to those waters because he, too, needs no warning of the wrath that has already come to his community?
Jesus finds himself on that road out to the Jordan not because he needs to make a publicity stunt but because that’s where his community is, where the unfolding of the kin-dom has already begun by those who are turning toward freedom and away from empire.
It’s a salvation that’s more solidarity than sacrament. But then again can’t salvation be both? Can salvation be anything other than both: holiness and wholly with us?
Jesus enters those great unknown waters telling himself that if he is going to die, he is going to be as holistically human as he could possibly be, believing he is that way for a reason.
And when the fully human one emerges from the water, the voice from heaven declares his belovedness, revealing to us once and for all that the reality of the relationship between God and humankind is one of utter belovedness. Through the incarnation and again through this story of Jesus’ baptism, and again and again in every moment we claim a God who is with us, wading through the waters of life, standing in solidarity whispering in our ears those same words: “My beloved.”
In baptism, we listen for the echoes of this voice from heaven declaring our own belovedness because it is the foundation on which we are able to say yes to our baptismal vows. It is our belovedness that empowers us to renounce the evil powers of this world, to say no to war and violence, to work toward freedom for all by becoming the Christ, the anointed, the blessed and beloved ones we’ve been waiting for.
Jesus goes straight from riverside baptism to the wilderness temptations, the word “beloved” still burning in his chest. In a poem by Jan Richardson called “Beloved is Where We Begin,” she reminds us that it is our belovedness that will carry us through whatever wilderness detours become our path.
[Text of Richardson's poem can be found HERE.]
So, my beloved friends, my wish for us is:
- That whether you have been baptized or not, that we would all constantly find ourselves in the splash zone of Divine encounter, the echoes of belovedness dripping down our foreheads.
- That this claim to you would become a call for you, empowering you to turn again and again from evil toward sacred solidarity with all God’s beloved.
- And finally, that we would be as holistically human as we possibly can be, knowing that we are that way for a reason, and that reason is truly divine.