Sunday, January 13, 2008

God Claims You - Matthew 3:13-17 - Blackburn's Chapel

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And 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. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

I’d like for you to take a stroll down memory lane with me for a moment. Walk back with me through the doors of your elementary school and find yourself in gym class. Perhaps today we’re playing basketball, dodgeball, kickball, soccer, or floor hockey. Whatever game we’re playing doesn’t really matter. There we all are, before the game starts, lined up in a nice neat row as two people “randomly” selected by the gym teacher each have the task of filling a team. One-by-one, names are called and our classmates and friends are divided evenly into two growing clumps at opposite ends of the gym. One group dons red jerseys and the other puts on blue, and for the next half hour, our identity is simply a member of team red or team blue. To be a member of team red or team blue is to recognize that someone else has chosen us to be part of their team. At the same time, we can still choose to use our full ability or something less than our full ability as a member of the team.

According to the Church’s calendar, today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Today is a day when Christians everywhere, regardless of their denomination, are remembering Christ’s baptism by John and celebrating our one baptism. It is more than a beautiful and favorite Bible story – like baptism, it gave life to us when it happened, and it continues to give life each time we remember it.

As Matthew tells the tale, a lot of people were heading down to the Jordan to listen to sturdy preaching and to pray that God would forgive their sins. It is the original revival – a preacher stands by the bank of a river clamoring for repentance, then one by one contrite sinners step forward; and trusting themselves to calloused fingers which pinch their nostrils shut, they are plunged-every bit of them-beneath the moving waters. It is a straightforward, modest ceremony, nothing more than a bath in the river really; and, yet, something about this washing beckons to people, pulling folks from their busy lives to make a trip down to the Jordan.

Maybe in the end the thing that motivated people to attend John's revival was really very simple. John's actions took something that our bodies know so well-that just-bathed, tingling, freshly toweled-off sensation-and managed to replicate it for people's spirits. Dunk. Splash. Sputter. And from the muddy flow, drenched converts emerged with scoured souls. Certainly this is part of what baptism is about: cleansing the human spirit, wiping away sin, standing unsoiled before God.

The crowds have been coming for days and weeks – they have literally worn a path from the city center out here into the wilderness. The rabbis have noticed the attendance in the synagogue down over the last several Saturdays. The priests and the scribes and the Pharisees leave the hallowed halls of the temple mount and follow that path down the river, where they are shocked to find a tent revival already taking place. They don’t like it very much, but it’s already gotten too large and too popular for them to even think about stopping it. So, they decide to turn it into a political opportunity – shaking a few hands and kissing a few babies, hoping that such overtures might get them a few more votes in the upcoming election.

We have been told earlier that John the baptizer was offering a baptism of repentance. Imagine the scene, as the crowds pressed in along the riverbank. One member of the crowd seems to stand out. He is moving through the great throng of people like a hot knife through butter, making his way down toward the river. This scene is a favorite of artists everywhere from Bruegel to Rembrandt – Jesus making his way down the riverbank, seeking out his cousin, the wild-eyed preacher, and those waters of Jordan.

Here is the one character John tries to talk out of being baptized. Imagine of those Visa check card commercials, where everyone is perfectly choreographed, spinning around the store with their arms full of merchandise, happily using their Visa check card and the whole thing running like a finely-tuned machine. Yet, there’s always that one person who wants to pay with cash or write a check, and that person grinds the whole thing to a momentary halt. You have that picture? Now, take the same sort of image and bring it down the Jordan river in our text today. A great movement of people around the river, John down in the middle, dipping them under the water as repentant sinners, bringing them up as cleansed and new. Then Jesus steps up. Jesus – the Messiah. Jesus – the stainless one. Jesus – the pure, spotless Lamb. He speaks: “I have come to be baptized by you.” Everything grinds to a halt. John loses his balance in the soft riverbed and falls. He comes up sputtering, “Me! Baptize you? No, no! What will people think?” It’s a fair enough question. What would the sinless Jesus need to repent of? What hidden imperfection did he hope to have cleansed in those ordinary, yet extraordinary waters?

The first three chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel are obsessed with one question: “Who is Jesus?” By the time we get to this account of his baptism, you can almost drown in the number of answers provided to that question. We find that he is the Messiah, the son of Mary, the offspring of the Holy Spirit, the son of Father Abraham, the son of David, the King of the Jews. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, he will save his people from their sins. As Jesus goes under the water, he confronts all sorts of things on our behalf. He confronts the unknown and unseen dangers that threaten each of us. He confronts the murkiness of our own sin, and as he rises out of those dark and foreboding waters, we know that we have met the one who will be able to stand against the darkness of this world.

For Jesus, his baptism was not so much about being cleansed from unrighteousness; Matthew tells us it was to fulfill righteousness. It was the start of something new. As he came up from the water, the crowd that day saw the divine confirmation for which they had long been watching. God claims as his own the ministry to which Jesus is now commissioned. The Spirit descended like a dove, and the voice of God the Father boomed in. “This is my Son. This is my Beloved. With him I am well-pleased.”

You know, that’s how it happens for us in our baptisms as well. It is a moment in which God says to each of us, “This is my son. This is my daughter. This is my beloved. I claim this person as my beloved child with whom I am well-pleased.” In baptism, God claims you as a member of the family. And members of God’s family are called Christians. That becomes your identity. That becomes the primary, and determinative, and most important characteristic we will know you by.

Therefore, when a child is baptized in this congregation, we ask what name has been given to the child. The parents have already named the child, but in baptism, we celebrate a new name for that child. We celebrate a name given through the power of the Holy Spirit and sealed with water. In baptism, we lay on a more determinative, more revealing name – “Christian.” God promises to enable us to live a Christian life, and we promise to live one. In the case of a child, we predict that the child’s life will be a long story of growing into that name and claiming the benefits of their new family. In the case of adults, we celebrate a new identity rooted in Christ in which one’s previous labels no longer control and define. As Austin Miles’ old gospel hymn put it: “there’s a new name written down in glory, and it’s mine.”

For the baptized person, they will forever be known by the new name given to them. They will be known as Christian, as a member of God’s family. Other names may come and go, but in baptism, God cleanses us, claims us as God’s own, and seals the Holy Spirit upon our hearts. That is something they can’t take away from you, and for the rest of your life, proudly announces to the rest of the world that you belong to God.

On the day Jesus entered the Jordan, water changed, and it will never be the same for Christians again. For when a Christian is washed with the waters of baptism, Christ's mission of justice becomes our mission too. In baptism, we are called and commissioned to battle the evils of this world – those we can see above the surface of the water, but also those lurking down in the muddy riverbed. We find ourselves caught up in the ministry of Jesus – a ministry that brings hope to the hopeless, that makes itself a friend to the friendless, that brings healing to a weary and broken world. We find ourselves proclaiming sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed, and throwing the party for the year of our Lord’s favor.

God does not call us and claim us because we’re special. I often run into people who don’t feel they could possibly be used by God for any purpose. They cite all sorts of reasons – I’m too old, too young, too feeble, too strong, too stupid, or too smart. They’re not open to how the Holy Spirit may move upon them and stir up within them a passion for the ministry to which God may be calling them.

But remember this: God is still in the business of doing extraordinary things in and through ordinary people. God has called us and claimed us in baptism, and given us the gift of the Holy Spirit that we might be empowered in the work with which we are entrusted. God is not through with any of us! God is not through with any individual, and God is not through with any congregation. For those whom God has called, God continues to equip. In baptism, God has called each of us, and we continue to be equipped through the Holy Spirit.

Make no mistake about it: baptism is something God does within each of us – it is not something we do for God. Our response is to recognize the grace of God poured into our lives, open ourselves to how the Holy Spirit will continue to move among us, and find ourselves lost in wonder, love, and praise. By the grace of God, we find ourselves cleansed from sin, claimed by God, and commissioned for ministry.

Today, I am going to give each of you an opportunity to remember and renew your baptisms. We will have what is called a baptismal renewal service. If you have been baptized, I will invite you to come forward, and I will touch the water and mark the sign of the cross on your forehead, and say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” If you have not been baptized, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you further about what it means and set a date where we can celebrate your baptism as part of this worship service.

Today is sort of like renewing marriage vows. From time to time, a married couple may feel the need to renew their vows and recommit themselves to one another. A couple doesn’t get remarried when they do; but they often find a renewed sense of strength and purpose in that renewal. In renewing our baptisms together, we’re doing the same thing. No one is getting re-baptized today, but in remembering our baptism, we are all given the opportunity to be energized toward the work with which God has entrusted us, and empowered to do it.

As you do, I hope you hear the voice of God once again call you ‘Beloved,’ and I hope you sense a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as we are empowered once again to go forth in the name of a God who cleanses us from sin, claims us as His own, and commissions us to share in His ministry.

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