A Sermon on the Baptism of Jesus

Here’s the sermon I gave today at the Pleasant Street United Methodist Church in Waterville, ME.

Well, it’s what I wrote for the sermon. I’m pretty sure I said most of this. 🙂

The slides for the sermon are here:
http://www.slideshare.net/marcapitman/slides-for-a-sermon-about-the-baptims-of-jesus

This morning we get to celebrate Jesus’ baptism. Up until his baptism, Jesus’ life has been pretty unremarkable. Hard to believe isn’t it? Especially since we celebrate Christmas and Epiphany so close together! Interestingly, only two of the four gospels even recorded Jesus’ birth. The visit by the wise men seems really notable…but only Matthew records that.

Jesus seems to have had a relatively normal childhood. His parents were clearly religious. They took him to Jerusalem to present him at the Temple. That was above and beyond the requirement of Torah. Then at the age of 12, Jesus is shown as a very promising Torah student, precocious enough to actively engage the leaders at the Temple. When confronted by his parents, he seems to have a clear purpose of his calling—being “about his Father’s business.”

It may be hard to believe, but during Jesus’ childhood, Israel was not an idyllic place to grow up. It was confusing, even bloody. During Jesus’ childhood, 3,000 people were crucified, left to hang on the road not far from Nazareth. During that time:
• lots of different nationalities were mingling together,
• lots of different languages were spoken—Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and, for religious Jewish education, Hebrew (Sorry. No King James English…Jesus never spoke a “thee” or “thou” ? )
• and multiple gods were worshipped

And that was the major problem—pagans were ruling over God’s people.

In the common biblical conception of time, God created everything and it was paradise. No hurt, no tears, no sleepless nights, no debt, no sickness, no slaves. God gave the deed of creation to humans and, like the cosmic Ty Pennington, said, “Adam & Eve. Welcome home. Welcome home.” ?

But then something bad happened. We call it “The Fall.” Sin entered into the picture. Adam & Eve disobeyed God and chose to go their own way. (Yes, both Adam and Eve were there. Both sinned.) In so doing, we humans basically gave the deed to God’s enemy. Letting it rule and reign over the earth.

Now the enemy can only pervert what God creates, so existence now is something “less than” what God intended. Evil has sway now.
• Instead of health, sickness exists.
• Instead of peace, war.
• Instead of freedom, slavery.
• People take what isn’t theirs.
• People hurt others.
• People are taken advantage of.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. “This present age” was not what the beginning of creation had been.

As time went on, we began to realize that things were so bad, things were so un-just, that it was going to take an amazingly radical act of God to set them right. Only He could usher in the radical change needed, the “age to come” when order would be restored.
• Then God would be once again in charge.
• Then all would be well.
• Then the “age to come” would be a reality.

This is what John the Baptist was preaching. The end is near. The ax is at the root of the tree. The chaff is about to be separated from the wheat. Two stages exist: “this present age” vs. “the age to come.” And one of those stages is ending quickly.

But have you noticed that God doesn’t bind Himself to our pre-conceived notions of how He’s supposed to work? He doesn’t seem to be constrained by our systematic theology. He seems to do what He wants, when He wants, doesn’t He?

The end is indeed coming, but He chose to conduct a sneak invasion. With Jesus, He brought presence of the “age to come” into “this present age”! Not content to wait until the end, He turned the tables on His enemy.

Jesus’ baptism wasn’t the run-of-the-mill baptism. The Holy Spirit showed up in a way so extraordinary, people told Luke it was like a dove coming down and cooing over Jesus while a voice spoke over him. In fact, the whole episode sounds a lot like the Creation account in Genesis: the Spirit hovers over the waters, God speaks, and a new order is created out of apparent chaos.

The blessing over Jesus was remarkable in itself: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” This one simple line quotes both Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Two passages that held great Messianic promise during the time of Jesus.

To those of us sitting here in Waterville this morning, those biblical allusions seem nice, maybe even poetic. A convenient way to proof text the story of Jesus’ baptism.

But to an observant Jewish person might hear this a bit differently. The Hebrew Scripture is divided into three sections: Torah (the first five books of Moses), Nevi’im (the prophets), and Ketuvim (the writings). This is popularly referred to as “Tenach,” a short hand for “all of the entirety of Hebrew Scripture.”

So this is much more than mere proof texting. This God-encounter was so powerful, it encompassed all of the Hebrew Scriptures: Torah—Genesis/creation, Nevi’im—Isaiah, and Ketuvim (the writings/psalms). It was all present at Jesus’ baptism.

For Christians, we see that the entire Trinity was present here too: God the Father speaks, God the Son prays, and God the Holy Spirit hovers.

Luke says from this point on Jesus was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus was a changed person. Empowered to do the work of the Kingdom, and to do it in a way nobody saw coming.
He radically started doing Kingdom things, the things of the age to come, in “this present age.” He healed the sick. He cast out demons. He loosed the chains of people imprisoned to crippling disease. The end of times hadn’t come but the evidence of the future had invaded the present.

Now, I can completely identify with John. He didn’t see this coming and later sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Messiah. Jesus says, “Look. The deaf hear. The lame walk. The poor have the good news preached to them.” Basically, the age to come is being experienced now. A foretaste, an appetizer, but unmistakably the age to come.

So what? You may ask. “Come on Marc, we’ve heard this story. What’s the big deal?”

The big deal is we’re still on the same mission. We too live in this present age. Did you know more people are enslaved today than at any time in human history? And it’s ugly: there’s crushing poverty, overwhelming hunger, human trafficking, kids sold into slavery to be used for sexual exploitation. Groups like Love146 are motivated by Jesus’ example to end this evil. But evil is oppressingly present across the globe.

Chances are, something each of us is wearing was made, in part, by someone trapped in a sweat shop. To live as well as we do here in North America takes a lot of cheap labor. And it’s not just us. There have always been people that will lord over others and do even more atrocious, despicable things.

As followers of Jesus, we too are to be baptized into the Spirit-empowered reality of the Kingdom of God. We too are empowered to take a stand and face evil like Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad Dum facing the fiery Balrag and declaring “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

Does this mean that we have to change everything we’ve known and enter a new life upon baptism? After all, we don’t have any indication of Jesus going back to carpentry after he was baptized. Wouldn’t it be the same for us?

Jesus’ empowering led him on a totally different track then He’d previously lived. Or did it? His life after baptism looks a lot like what he did at 12, intelligently ferreting out the truth of God’s grace and mercy and proclaiming that to the people around him.

While that is really what is happening, we’d be mistaken to assume God only works that way. Moses’ calling stands in stark contrast. He laid down his shepherd’s rod only to be commanded by God to pick it up again. That which had been familiar to Moses now took on added meaning and was itself a symbol of God’s empowering presence. Perhaps that will be the story of your walk. You do what you’ve always done but God hovers over you, speaks amazing affirmation, and totally transforms your work so that it is clearly kingdom expanding.

Last fall, we all took at a spiritual gifts assessment. That is a wonderful start at trying to figure out God’s call on our lives. But it’s only a start. All too often we can read the label of the gift like “healing” or “faith” or “miracles” or “evangelism” and confine it to whatever picture we conjure up. Just like John thought God could only work one way, so we limit the expression of that gift.

Those of us that participated in the small group last fall, or the retreat yesterday, know that in Equipped for Every Good Work, we’re given other tools to further discern the variety of ways God’s gifts can be expressed. God is pretty creative, wouldn’t you agree? In Equipped, the authors give this analogy with evangelism in light of what they call the “spirituality web”—ways we express our faith. These ways are Head, Heart, Pilgrim, Mystic, Servant, and Crusader. Each of these people will express the same spiritual gift in vastly different ways:
Head Evangelism: Organize a study program and prepare handouts
Heart Evangelism: Share your faith story in one-on-one sharing or worship testimony
Pilgrim Evangelism: Share questions with other seekers
Mystic Evangelism: Listen one-on –one to stories of others
Servant Evangelism: Witness to Christ’s love by example
Crusader Evangelism: Speak to a stadium event.

Each is legitimate ways of expressing and living out the same Kingdom of God gift. Yet each could be easily written off by another as less than perfect. The Holy Spirit fills us, to help us. To transform us. Empowering us to take part in healing the world, freeing the slaves, restoring the justice of the “age to come” in lives today.

Are you ready? If you haven’t been baptized, will you dare to follow Jesus’ lead and do it? (Ask Pastor Arlene about what this involves.)

Will you dare to join us for the But Wait There’s More! Study as we work through Equipped for Every Good Work times on Sundays in February?

Will you dare to support organizations like Love146 and efforts like the United Methodist Church’s “10,000 doors” outreach, efforts designed to live out the reality of the “age to come” in “this present age”?

Most importantly, will you dare to seek God? To ask Him to reveal how He’s made you and how he wants that service to be. And to be open to Him changing your preconceived notions of how life should be?

That’s when the adventure truly begins.

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